Clear Thinking

The Challenge of Changing Fundraising Culture

The Commission on the Donor Experience’s Blueprint for Transforming Fundraising has an opening paragraph that boldly states:

So deeply ingrained is the short-term, target-driven culture across fundraising in the UK that significant numbers of practising fundraisers, their leaders and their agents still struggle to genuinely understand this. Our purpose therefore is nothing less than a culture change among fundraisers and within the organisations that employ them, particularly their leadership and senior management teams.

Nothing less than a culture change. Six simple words that most UK fundraisers would not disagree with. But before we can change the culture of fundraising in the UK, we need to be clear what it is we need to change.

Culture refers to a shared set of assumptions, values, beliefs and behaviours that show people what is right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable in a particular environment. At its simplest, culture can best be described as ‘the way we do things around here’.

The theory goes that organisations with a healthy organisational culture are better at aligning the organisation towards achieving its vision, mission, and goals. Staff are more motivated and loyal. Teams collaborate more effectively enabling the organisation to be more efficient.

In the course of several projects I have conducted with various UK fundraising teams, I am required to quickly get to grips with the inner workings of an organisation and understand the cultural milieu as swiftly as possible. One technique I use is to ask fundraising team members to describe their organisation’s fundraising culture in up to six words. I then generate word clouds to paint a picture of how the teams see themselves and their organisation’s fundraising culture. It acts as a handy snapshot – nothing statistically valid, but helpful none-the-less.

A team that perceived the organisation as possessing a strong fundraising culture used these words:

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A team that perceived the organisation to have a weak fundraising culture used these words:

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I have noticed that the way in which teams and organisations often describe themselves tends to be very inward looking. It is rare that a fundraising team will describe themselves from the perspective of supporter or donor. And that is what I think starts to get to the root of what needs to change with fundraising culture in the UK.

The Commission on Donor Experience has said that one of the seven fundamental principles that underpin the change to come is that while fundraisers should exemplify both passionate commitment to their cause and appropriate professional standards, passion is usually more valued by donors than technique or slick professionalism.

And yet we continue to describe ourselves in terms that emphasise technique and professionalism. We need to stop naval gazing and continuing to describe our fundraising culture in business-orientated terms. We need to move describing ourselves as…

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…and become much more…

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Changing a culture takes a long time. Minds need to be changed, behaviours modified, habits formed. At the moment, I fear that the fundraising sector is being intimidated into changing behaviours. Threats and fines from regulators abound. The media continues to bash the sector with fabrications and exaggerations. We’re floundering about wondering what to do with GDPR compliance (be sure to check out the IoF’s excellent GDPR guide) and running scared every time the Daily Mail casts its jaundiced eye in our general direction.

But if we are going to truly change the culture of fundraising in the UK what the sector really needs is:

  • Genuinely inspirational fundraising leadership – not just enforcers cracking the regulatory whip, but practitioners who have the gravitas to champion real change
  • Supporter-centric behaviours being role modelled every single day – we have to practice what we preach. For some this will be deeply uncomfortable, for others change will come more naturally.
  • Improved and streamlined systems and processes to enable organisations to listen and respond effectively to supporters needs
  • A comprehensive overhaul of how fundraising success is monitored and managed. We need to move beyond financial indicators like return on investment and life time value and develop new measures that combine financial and non-financial supporter engagement perspectives.

Only when this has happened will we be able to say UK fundraising culture has truly changed and supporters and donors are in the driving seat of their relationships with charities.

This blog was first published by the Institute of Fundraising.

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