Monday, July 8, 2013

Are Fundraising Complaints Worth It?

Someone asked me last week, "Is it OK to annoy 20 people to sign up 1 donor?"

Make no mistake about it - I don't want fundraisers to annoy people and I think better fundraisers, better regulation, better training, and better complaining can reduce annoyance.

But according to the UK's FRSB and Institute of Fundraising, their members received only 33,744 complaints while generating £4.16 billion in voluntary income. Is that OK?

True, the problem with looking at complaints is that people don't know how to complain - i.e. people are more likely to keep their complaints to themselves or complain to people who can't do anything about it (which is part of the problem). So let's take it further - rather than looking at complaints let's look at interactions.

The FRSB report showed that corporate fundraising received more complaints per interaction than street fundraising - but let's focus on street fundraising, as this is generally accepted to be the most controversial method of fundraising.

For every 1 donor signed up a street fundraiser gets in to about 10 conversations and has 'interacted' with about 100 people. So about 100 people have potentially been 'annoyed' for the sake of 1 donor (although a recent survey had it closer to 67 individuals feeling 'uncomfortable'). That's being pessimistic - I'm assuming here that everyone who doesn't sign up is annoyed, because they had to cross the road, say no, or ignore a human being - I'm disregarding the fact that a lot of people have a an enjoyable conversation before they say no and walk away.

So what's the donor worth?

Well the average donor will go on to donate €500+ by direct debit alone, plus tax relief, plus upgrades and appeals, plus all the other connections this new relationship brings. A new donor is probably worth about €1000 to the charity. But let's be really pessimistic and say this donor doesn't give as long as average, doesn't respond to further appeals and that some of the donation gets wasted in inefficiency. Let's be unrealistically pessimistic and say this donor is only worth €500.

And what does that €500 do?

Well Sightsavers say it will protect about 1,450 families from river blindness.
Concern say it'll provide 3 emergency tents, giving 3 families who have lost everything a temporary home.
UNICEF say it will provide safe drinking water to 25,000 children for a day.

So...worst case it worth making 100 people feel uncomfortable for a couple of seconds to save thousands of people's sight, give 3 families a home or keep 25,000 kids alive for another day?

And if it were your own child you were trying to keep alive for another day how many people would you be willing to feel uncomfortable for a couple of seconds? To keep my son alive I would be willing to see about 7 billion people feel uncomfortable for a couple of seconds.

But maybe I've misunderstood the word 'uncomfortable'?


  1. While I don't necessarily disagree with your overall sentiments, I do think the figures you used have their flaws.

    You present your €500 donations as net income- ignoring the cost of donor acquisition and retention. You probably know much better than me, but from what I can tell the difference between these costs and the donations is getting narrower.

    Similarly the "what your donation can do" figures are often elusive figures, and the overseas aid sector is one of the worst offenders in this. When calculating these "bang for your buck" sales pitches some of the organisations can be guilty of ignoring overheads. More often than not, they take the direct cost of specific component of a programme, such as the cost of purchasing anti-malaria nets or plumpy nut and say "this is how far your donation can go". In doing so they exclude other programme costs and support costs. They often ignore simple direct costs such as delivery or the cost of field staff working with these inputs, and very often they ignore the higher level support costs, such as security, logistics, finance and management.

    All this isn't to say that fundraising isn't important and worthwhile. Nor is it to say that we shouldn't annoy people through fundraising. But fundraising is becoming more difficult and more expensive. Programming is not the simple money for lives equation that many organisations present. And discussions about charitable giving should recognise these two realities.

  2. Thanks for the comments Michael.

    I think the €500 as a net income does take in to account the cost of donor acquisition/retention. The gross income from the donor is closer to €1000, so deducting about €200 for acquisition, costs to implement these programs, etc. - being pessimistic - I think €500 is fair.

    But you're right the costs are going up and we don't know for sure what a donor recruited today is worth. I suppose that's not the point of the post.

    You'd know better than me about "what your donation can do". It's safe to assume they're not entirely accurate, and they're definitely not comparable between two organisations.

    I suppose regardless of the actual income and cost figures the question is what is every inidividuals' threshold of tolerance in fundraising.

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