OPINION: Share and share alike – until we’re all doing exactly the same thing

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One of the good things about charities is that they don’t compete the way companies do and are much better at sharing and collaborating. All well and good up to a point, says Joe Jenkins, until you can’t distinguish one charity’s fundraising from another’s.

I’ve been imitated so well I’ve heard people copy my mistakes
Jimi Hendrix

Let’s start with a provocation:

Modern charities share too much, copy too much and are creatively moribund.

There’s a statement that’ll make me popular among my friends in the sector. It strikes at the heart of two articles of faith among charities: we are endlessly creative, and strengthened by our willingness to openly share our learning with each other.

These are beliefs to which I’ve also personally subscribed for many years. I’m a board member for the Institute of Fundraising National Convention and play my active part in promoting the successes (and failures) of our sector every year. I remember vividly the first time I attended the convention, back in the days when we all used to hide ourselves away for three days in a vast West Midlands conference centre. I was extremely impressed by both the range of ideas being shared by charities, and the openness with which they were presented. It is remarkable the level of detail we are ready to divulge at conference sessions – not just the premise of our ideas, but response rates, audience insights, returns on investment, media and channel strategies; everything you need to lift the concept wholesale and import into your own charity plan.

“Last year, we were all sending people direct mail that asked for cash; this year, we will all be sending people direct mail asking how satisfied they feel – and soon, supporters will be complaining about ‘another bloody charity letter asking me to fill in another bloody survey’.”

When asked by peers in other sectors if I could name the characteristics that differentiate the voluntary sector, I will often point to our fabulous generosity and collaborative spirit. It’s very inspiring, I will note; while we all strive for different causes, we belong to one community that is motivated to create a better world – we don’t compete, and are happy to help each other make progress. And even for those who might be more competitively minded, there is a logic in copying each other – surely that’s how many of the best ideas evolve and achieve success?

Yet I think we have a big problem – the entrenched homogeneity of charity communications. To the rest of the world we mostly look, act, and appear to be the same.

I’d hope at this point for another spluttering of protest. Surely not – we are an incredibly diverse and innovative sector, bubbling with fresh ideas and techniques for changing the world. And hey, we rebranded the other day – check out how differentiated we are!

Sure. Maybe. But my contention is that every time any charity creates a new approach, its concept is immediately imitated, replicated at scale, and oversaturated. Time and again, what initially feels fresh and remarkable quickly become stale, laughable and irritating. Like a rampant virus, every success quickly spreads across our sector – and suffocates its host.

Best practice? Or just the stuff everyone else does?

The classic case in point is face-to-face fundraising. Once heralded as the saviour of fundraising – a technique that enabled affordable recruitment in high volumes of new supporters – it is now commonly referred to as “chugging” (charity mugging) and regularly features high up in the polls of most unpopular fundraising technique. Remember, it was a concept that once was welcomed by the public. When charities first took this approach to the streets, people would queue to speak to the fundraiser. But as charities scaled up the exact same approach across high streets, shopping centres and doorsteps, the criticism has mounted (there are any number of articles illustrating this – see this in the Daily Mail and here in the Independent) while volumes have fallen in the last year according to the PFRA.

Or let’s take train panels. Initially a few charities really nailed the concept, taking advantage of the dwell time to present creative propositions that resonated with the public. These successes were shared and shortly thereafter, our nation’s trains were plastered with charity ads – that largely looked the same, applying the same techniques. Unsurprisingly, response rates fell, costs rose, margins shrank and everyone began to move on to the next ‘innovation’.

Five signs of breast cancer
Value exchange or Trojan Horse?

Train panels also helped spawn the mass scaling up of SMS ‘value exchange’ products – text here for this free thing, followed by a telephone call where we try to convert you to Direct Debit. Initially fresh and effective, swiftly the charity machine swung into overdrive and everyone was doing exactly the same thing. I now find I get more complaints about this technique than any other. Bluefrog’s Mark Phillips has referred to it as ‘Trojan Horse’ fundraising.

Worryingly, the cycle seems to be speeding up too; what once took us a couple of decades to really decimate (such as face-to-face) we now seem to achieve in years, if not months (fundraisers were still writing up their conference case studies about SMS train panels when the company that places them began introducing restrictions as the volume had grown too fast).

Daphne Clarke
Daphne Clarke, a commissioner with the Commission on the Donor Experience, with the reams of ‘identikit template’ direct mail she receives.

Then we have ‘best practice’ – the stuff everyone does because “it works”. One of the aspects that stood out for me last year, as the media spotlight swung our way, was how similar all our fundraising really looks. Photos of pensioner doormats weren’t just an indictment of our contact volumes, but our creativity; every mailpack looked the same. Which largely they are – a ‘letter, uplift piece, response envelope, honed down to an identikit template that we replicate ad infinitum.

Just like the telephone. One of the great tragedies of modern fundraising is the disservice we have paid to the telephone. A fabulous dialogue channel with an endless breadth of possibility – imagine all the amazing, personalised, engaging, inspiring, value-giving value-generating conversations that the phone affords us. Yet for over a decade, we’ve reduced this channel to one template selling one product, all working to the same telephone script (icebreaker, case for support, DD ask, repeat x 3).

The same could be said for email. And our websites. And social media campaigns. Inserts, DRTV, campaign asks. Add to the list the brief craze for ‘virtual gifts’, sponsorship, mass participation events, challenge events. And on and on.

But if it works, what’s the problem? And don’t other sectors replicate and scale commercial ideas anyway?

Challenge the status quo; don’t be indoctrinated into it

When giving this any thought in the past, this is typically the response I’ve arrived at:

As long as the response rates/RoI hold up, then it’s fine.

However, I think it is a compounding issue for the health of our sector. I’m not sure there’s a comparable marketplace in which there is such a high volume of direct competitors – we have more than 160,000 registered charities, which many estimate is the tip of the iceberg due to exemptions, small unregistered charities etc. So when we all begin to replicate an idea or technique, we very quickly saturate the market – and rub up against public tolerance levels far more quickly. I suspect that one of the main reasons that the media stories have resonated so profoundly with the public is not due to us contacting people too much, or asking too much per se, but because there is an overwhelming sense of familiarity with the charity offer, looking/feeling/sounding the same.

This is the classic ‘global commons’ issue – our problem is not the singular behaviour of any one charity, but the impact of our collective efforts.

Now my biggest fear about our response to the crisis in public and political trust is that we all swing collectively from one template style of communication to another – which then leaves us still fundamentally looking and feeling the same as each other. Last year, we were all sending people direct mail that asked for cash; this year, we will all be sending people direct mail asking how satisfied they feel – and soon, supporters will be complaining about “another bloody charity letter asking me to fill in another bloody survey”.

“One of the great tragedies of modern fundraising is the disservice we have paid to the telephone: for over a decade, we’ve reduced this channel to one template selling one product; all working to the same telephone script (icebreaker, case for support, DD ask, repeat x 3).”

Back then to my opening provocation – is the problem our lack of creativity and sharing too much?

In part, yes. By openly sharing our case studies and ideas we make it far easier to feed the endless cycle of mass replication. But I don’t therefore conclude we should stop sharing – more that we need to learn differently. The lesson from a case study at conference or in a magazine article should not be ‘how do I import that technique, channel, tactic, product into my plans/portfolio’; instead, we should reflect more on what insights we can draw upon to inform the creation of something that looks and feels fundamentally different when executed by our own charity. When sharing our results, it would help if we presented in this way too.

We should also challenge our sector agencies, who must carry some of the responsibility for the homogeneity of our current offering too. It is of course far more efficient for agencies to establish templates that can easily be replicated across clients, as well as being part of their ‘value-add’ – and charities accept the sameness of their offering on the basis that it is ‘best practice’ and has worked well for other charities. Yet the net result is agencies helping catalyse the mass replication effect.

“There’s an entrenched homogeneity in charity communications. To the rest of the world we mostly look, act, and appear to be the same.”

For many years, we’ve been championing ‘innovation’ at conferences and in our sector press. Well, we need it now more than ever. Not just by writing the word in our strategies, but by embracing innovation systematically – creating the structures, resources and cultures necessary to truly innovate. Which means trustees and directors need to stop asking “where’s our icebucket challenge?” and instead be asking “what are we doing differently?”. Leaders need to establish the conditions in which innovation is possible. But we also all have a responsibility at every level to challenge ourselves to continuously refresh our communications. We need the new faces in our sector to be challenging the status quo not being indoctrinated into it.

To be clear – I do not doubt that our sector is stuffed full of hugely creative innovative people. And I remain proud to be part of one overall transformational movement for change – I am not advocating that we cease to collaborate and inspire each other. But if we want to rebuild public trust, motivate new people to join with us and help us make the world a better place, then I believe we need to innovate away from each other, learn the right lessons when we do share, stop copying each other and welcome in an exciting new era of unbound creativity and supporter engagement.

  • Joe Jenkins is director of fundraising and supporter engagement at the Children’s Society and a member of Rogare’s Advisory Panel.

Further reading

The fundraising commons: not quite the tragedy we might think Critical Fundraising blog by Ian MacQuillin examining how fundraising regulation has tackled the commons problem.

Journey’s end: why supporter journey’s are a distraction from genuine supporter care – Liz Waldy of Mission Without Borders critiques the homogeneity of supporter journeys.

What is wrong with Trojan Horse fundraising? – Mark Philips’s Queer Ideas blog on fundraising by another name.

Innovation: delivering the next small thing in fundraising – Ian MacQuillin on the need for more systematic thinking in fundraising innovation.

Critical Fundraising – a new mode of thought for our sector – how and why Rogare likes to challenge the status quo.

Other Critical Fundraising blogs by Joe Jenkins

Time to reassess our production values Rather than obsessing about whether ‘relationship’ or ‘transactional’ fundraising is better, Joe Jenkins suggests we reframe the debate to look at product-led and supporter-led approaches.

What if the FPS could really workThere’s been a lot of criticism of the proposed Fundraising Preference Service, but little of that has been directed at how the FPS could work in practice. Joe Jenkins outlines 17 possibilities.

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3 thoughts on “OPINION: Share and share alike – until we’re all doing exactly the same thing”

  1. Very thought provoking! But I think there’s another dimension to factor in: data & targeting. Old-skool list culture means that everyone has been targeting the same individuals for too long, which drives the cross-comparisons & magnifies the similarities across charities. Let’s focus on more specific audience targeting AND ramp up our innovation to make sure we’re sending impactful communications to the right people


  2. Hi Joe,

    Really loved your piece and agree with your argument. It’s interesting to think that most great ideas come when there are lots of other ideas bouncing around, like Renaissance Italy or Industrial Britain. That made me think how do we get the sector moving from copying to the adjacent possible?

    Perhaps part of the answer is that charity boards don’t have the same incentives as private sector boards to take risk therefore I’ve seen too many conversations that concentrate on the risks of doing something rather than the risk of not doing something.

    I also got an interesting answer from my fundraising team ages ago that they felt guilty if they wasted donor funds on something that didn’t work because it meant less money for our work. It’s really difficult to change this culture and I don’t think I ever managed it as much as I would have liked!



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