Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bad info hurts charities

An article in an Australian newspaper has caused a bit of a media storm with the Fundraising Institute Australia CEO being interviewed on lots of radio and TV stations.

The article, by journalist Dan Flitton in The Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper has a terrible headline "Charities hand over up to 95% to street marketers" and not much better in sister paper, The Age - "Paying to collect the charity dollar".

The body of the article is not incorrect, but it really doesn't give enough information for potential donors to make a decision and the language is terrible: "... Cornucopia takes a cut - a big cut, up to 95 per cent of the total donation collected in the first year..."

Cornucopia are a fundraising firm that recruit and train staff who represent charities on the street. 'takes a cut' is pretty negative language for what is a paid for service. The 95% fees is not all profit - it goes to pay for transport, training, wages, admin, materials and more.

And of course, the donors stay with the charity for years, will upgrade, do other things and some may eventually leave money in their will. The charity gets a great return with total costs probably closer to 25% over the years.

I very much doubt Dan Flitton is a bad person. He would appear to be genuinely curious but hasn't got all the information. I imagine he would be gutted to know that his article has probably cost charities hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why?

Well, he mentions Amnesty International, Red Cross, Oxfam, MSF and Fred Hollows. Five fantastic charities doing amazing work, and raising millions of (net) dollars from F2F that otherwise wouldn't be there.

It is possible that a few donors will cancel - not many I hope, but some may. But more significantly, some staff within charities will call for their organisation to suspend (I can almost hear the 'until the media storm dies down') - or even stop - doing it.

The consequence, however you look at it, will be a huge loss of money. Ironically, some could still have to pay costs for fundraising activity already committed, but cancelled. So they will be paying money out for nothing - much worse than 25% over four years. Less money for crucial services including life-saving work and a direct consequence of this article and headline.

It won't stop there. Boards and CEOs of charities have not usually the time or inclination to really get to understand more about the intricacies of fundraising techniques and will react badly to this media. Professional fundraisers may have spent hourson research, modelling and contract negotiations only to have it vetoed by concerned boards. The consequence - much, much less money for their cause.

I am not an advocate of fundraise at all costs, but F2F is no worse in effectiveness than any other significant strategic technique - it just looks worse because the cost of staff is out-sourced. There are no other strategic methods that deliver such a huge return for charities over the long term at the same volume.

Transparency for charities is important, but the famous Otto von Bismark quote 'Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made' comes to mind. Not because we should hide fundraising costs, but more because it is so complex to explain. As Peter Singer in 'The Life You Can Save' explains, cost effectiveness of fundraising and admin is NOT a good indicator of the effectiveness of a charity's work.

The volunteer that comes on and says 'I have been doing this for free for 20 years' sounds so much nicer than the backpacker getting paid a little over minimum wage. But there are not enough volunteers to go around; volunteer fundraising simply can't add enough money to come anywhere near to meeting the need.

Comments welcome!

1 comment:

Jock Beveridge said...

Couldn't agree more Sean. It's a shame when journalists take these opportunities for a dramatic headline and (perhaps inadvertently) do the community such a great disservice in the process.

I've been in the fundraising game for while now, and F2F compares very favourably with every other type of donor acquisition I've been involved with. The costs of these others are, as you say, just harder to measure (or easier to hide?). How many charities include the direct marketing coordinator's salary in the ROI for their DM acquisitions, for example? What about the cost of follow-up mailings, to secure second and third gifts? From what I've observed, not many.

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