Rant of the week °3, the personality cause and the quick wins of fundrasing

Isabel White | 4 luglio 2013


I asked a fellow fundraiser recently what was his pet hate in the voluntary sector.

By coincidence it was something I was also thinking about. He said “my pet hate is people or organizations who think that just because they are “doing good” that they deserve loads of money from various sources… They whine on and on about why doesn’t this trust or that corporate or the government or those rich people fund them, but they have no idea if what they are doing is actually any good, makes a difference, or changes lives for the better”.

In my experience this also sums up quite well a particular kind of charity – I call them the personality cause – a charity which is set up by a friend or relative of someone very high profile (notorious even, and usually dead), whose story and its resolution needed to be made public.

Some examples of this might be…

• Someone who had died of a ‘new’ disease like AIDS, or as a result of not getting treatment (e.g. bone marrow transplants)

• Someone who, as a result of lack of personal safety or awareness of danger, was murdered or abducted, and this highlighted an injustice which often has something to do with their race or gender (domestic violence, sex or hate crimes).

• Someone who takes on a cause because it somehow resonates with them personally, often linked to children or animals. Let us call these wonderful, selfless people our Founders.

They set to with all consuming passion and by sheer force of will and personality create a household brand. Donors and supporters are swept along by their enthusiasm and the donations come flooding in.

They are often not fundraising professionals themselves, but may be natural fundraisers whose very personality is enough to make a difference between no gift and a large gift. The fact that their new charity gets a lot of media attention can in itself be of great overall benefit to the cause.

However, this does not help all the other charities who have been toiling away at that cause for, in some cases, many years. The new, high profile charity goes around hoovering up all the money. However, the people who are donating are usually giving to the personality rather than the cause.

This results in the Founder deriving an unrealistic expectation of what is actually possible in fundraising terms, and it becomes so much harder for fundraisers later on to convince donors of the importance of the cause alone. Our Founder rushes around telling his or her fundraisers to give them “solutions not problems”.

Furthermore, they think that the donor trees are overladen with “low hanging fruit” and the “quick wins” are there for the taking. Those who earn their living from fundraising know there is no such thing as a “quick win”.

Blinded by the media attention they are receiving and the public’s overly simplistic understanding of what the real and complex needs of society are, they do not always look deeply enough into the motivations of their donors and whether or not what they are offering is good value for money.

Two things tend to happen when this has been going on for a few years; either the Founder becomes too exhausted or too old to continue to manage the charity, or it simply becomes too big for them to cope with – after all most of them are driven by passion and are unaware of the complexities of running a charity when they start out. The cause is then taken up by its trustees or successors, but they lack the passion and charisma of the Founder and may have to be more realistic about the charity’s aims and outcomes if it is to survive.

It is quite common to see income levels tail off just after the Founder stands down, despite better qualified and more strategically focused people taking charge; and that is a crucial time to see if the charity will survive or not.

The alternative scenario is that the Founder does not know when enough is enough, and clings on to their role (power!) as spokesperson and crusader, highlighting and reigniting every reference to the issue in the media, long after it may have ceased to be relevant.

One then questions their motives – is it really the cause they are espousing or are they just intoxicated with the publicity that each new opportunity brings? So what lesson do we draw from this?

Beware of becoming too personally and publicly involved in your causes, it may be advantageous to begin with but you could be storing up trouble for the future. Know when to bring in outside help (sooner rather than later) and know when to hand over the reins of management to someone more capable. Let the cause sell itself – it will if it is worthwhile enough!

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