The Starting Point for Change

In the UK we seem to have little curiosity about how fundraising colleagues in the rest of the English speaking world of fundraising go about meeting the challenges they face. This is all the more curious as the challenges are, by and large, the same as we face in the UK. They have the same need for core funding; they need to raise funds for specific projects and larger capital developments. And they need to raise funds in order to develop the long term organisational strength of their institutions. The challenges are the same, but the solutions they have developed are often very different to those developed here. And one of the most striking differences is the emphasis on major gifts.

For reasons which are difficult to understand, in the UK we seem to have developed a “bottom up” approach to fundraising from individuals, meaning that the concept is deeply embedded that we build general income on the foundation of thousands of tiny gifts given as cash – from raffle ticket sales, coffee mornings, coin collections in the street or at the supermarket. Move slightly further up the pecking order and we come to cheque donations of small amounts ranging from £1 to, say, £10, usually solicited by direct mail. A step further up takes us to direct debit and standing order donations ranging upwards of £2 a month, often these days solicited over the phone or face to face with a canvasser in the street or on the doorstep. Finally we start moving into the territory of what are called by some fundraisers “higher level” gifts – cheque donations of £100 or more as a single gift. Amongst the few charities which actively try to solicit even this level of gift, they most often do so from within an existing database of their own previous donors, rather than seek to recruit them directly at that level. Finally, sitting on top of this edifice are so-called “major donors”, often categorised as any anyone who gives more than £250 as a single gift, usually by cheque. Again, these are most often identified and cultivated from within an existing donor database rather than recruited externally. Indeed, there are businesses devoted to helping charities to “find” these donors from within such databases.

Perhaps it is fruitless to ponder why this model of fundraising from individuals took root so strongly in the UK when every other English speaking fundraising nation – the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand – developed a model that is totally the reverse, i.e. “top down”, beginning with the major donors on whose shoulders is placed the greatest responsibility for meeting the charity’s general revenue needs. And, of course, with whom the charity allocates priority when it comes to directing its fundraising resources. While it may be fruitless to ask how we developed the model we now have, while surrounded with so much experience of a more successful model, it is time to ask whether the UK model as described above serves us well. I believe that it does not and that it is time for change.

The starting point for change is, thankfully, easy to find. It lies in taking the decision to institute an annual appeal for major gifts towards the charity’s core costs. In the US and elsewhere this appeal is called “The Annual Fund Appeal”. It uses major gifts fundraising techniques, but seeks not gifts towards a specific project or capital development, but towards the charity’s general fund – the pot of money needed to keep the charity running. Our colleagues overseas would say “Why scratch around for pennies at huge cost in terms of effort, when a far fewer large gifts from major donors will meet the need? Isn’t that what wealthier donors are for?”

Written by Chris Stoddard; courtesy FR Strategy