Bad Fundraising

Fundraising mistakes and promoting giving: lessons from City Philanthropy

This is the second part of my interview with Cheryl Chapman of City Philanthropy. You can read part 1 here. The interview was to mark the launch of City Philanthropy - A Wealth of Giving.

Thanks to funding from the City of London Corporation’s charity City Bridge Trust the venture will run for three years and promote London as a centre for global philanthropy, part of the Lord Mayor of the City of London Roger Gifford’s aim too, it also aims to embed a culture of effective philanthropy in the City among young professionals.

What mistakes do you see fundraisers making?

Unfortunately I still hear horror stories from donors and their advisors about their experiences with fundraisers and charities.

Giving should be a joy, but sadly this isn’t always the case.

I recently spoke to an advisor whose client was interested in making a £500,000 donation to a particular charity. She wrote to the CEO of the charity to say this but didn’t hear back. Four weeks later she finally got a response by which time the donation was lost forever. This is not an isolated case.

The inability for fundraisers or charities to thank donors is also surprisingly common.  Some don’t even bother and only re-contact a donor when they make another appeal for funds. It’s quite astounding that such a basic thing as ‘thanks’ is executed so poorly.

Many philanthropists describe the “joy of giving” to projects. Yet, the inability of fundraisers to thank donors genuinely and authentically can mean the abrupt end of what could have been a beautiful relationship.

Fundraisers often don’t talk in the same language as philanthropists and that can be a missed opportunity. For example, people from the City live in a world of risk and return,  and are more likely to see giving as an investment than someone who is making a grant from a long standing, traditional, family trust perhaps. Fundraisers need to tailor their approach accordingly.

In my experience, many donors don’t give big first time round. They take baby steps. See how it goes with a charity and then if they like what they see they give more next time round. So fundraisers need to look beyond the size of a first gift to the potential of the long-term donor relationship. They should take more of an investment rather than a sales approach to fundraising.

What more do we need to do to promote giving?

A lot is being done and we are in fact already one of the most generous nations in the world. However we lag behind the US in giving and how we talk and celebrate our philanthropy. Of course culturally and historically we are very different from the US in terms of what the State is expected to provide, and what should be funded privately. However, I still think there are lessons to be learned.

Thomas Hughes-Hallet, who has just won a Beacon Award as a Philanthropy Advocate is one of the few UK philanthropists who will openly stand up and say how much he gives. We could do with more people talking about their giving so it becomes more mainstream.

Philanthropy really should come out of the closet and we should be proud of our tradition of philanthropy.

Campaigns such as Trevor Pears’ Give More  and our own City Philanthropy – A Wealth of Opportunity is helping that happen by giving people the chance to talk about their giving online. I am particularly optimistic that this will change as young philanthropists, who give together and at a lower level, are happy to be vocal about giving.

And initiatives like the Beacon Awards  are about celebrating philanthropy and recognising the people who are helping to change the world. Hopefully in the coming years we will see more and more people talking openly about their giving.

Five bad fundraising examples - can anyone please share some good ones?!

I've had nothing but bad experiences from the charities I support this year and it's really irritating me.

First of all I've been mailed at least six times (without response) after I sponsored two friends in an event. The latest appeal calls me a "long and generous" donor, which is just a downright lie.

Secondly, I tried to double my direct debit to a charity in August. Three months later it still hasn't been done.

I'd put it down to bad luck, but I've heard similar stories from other friends and colleagues. Here are threeexamples of bad fundraising that I've heard about in the last month alone:

  • A colleague set up a direct debit to a charity and received no confirmation or thank you letter. The first communication they received was a cash appeal. The direct debit was quickly cancelled.
  • A friend ran a half marathon and raised over £500 for a charity. Not one word of thanks or acknowledgement has been forthcoming.
  • On Twitter, someone mentioned the automatic e-mail reply they received from a charity donor support team saying they'd try and respond in five to seven days. Twelve days later - still no response.

It's not good enough.

I keep hearing people saying they want to improve donor relations, extolling the importance of the donor journey and the need to increase lifetime value, but I'm seeing little evidence of this happening in the real world.

I've got a lot of things I can improve on in my own work (so feel a bit pot calling the kettle black), but I'd like to think that none of the above would happen and I know I have a plan to raise our standards.

I'd love to hear some positive stories from you about how your charity (or one you support) is really looking after donors and bucking the trends I describe above.

I'll donate the £30 I would have given to the charity my direct debit is with to the best story. Please e-mail me or leave your story or experience in the comments. I'll look forward to reading them and having my faith in fundraisers restored.

P.S. I'm also a sucker for a horror story, so if you've got any more examples like the ones above, then include them as well. I'd love to hear yuor experiences.

Why Knowing the Difference Between HM and HRH Matters to Donors

I received an important reminder the other day that small details matter and wanted to share the experience.

We've recently sent a mailing looking back over our past 90 years and celebrating the achievements our donors have made possible.  Unfortunately, the leaflet we enclosed (after sending personalised cover letters) contained a mistake.

I called Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Her Royal Highness (based on her original title of HRH The Duchess of York) by mistake.  A small detail and something no donor would pick up on surely?


I received a strongly worded, two sided, handwritten letter from a donor pointing out the mistake, lamenting the standard of education and bemoaning the lack of respect for the Royal Family.

An over-reaction? 

Possibly, but to this particular donor getting the correct title was really important and they were disappointed to see a charity that they have supported for a long time getting a basic detail wrong.

As Alison points out in a recent post, it's so easy to spend time getting the big picture stuff right, but if you get the basics wrong then the donor is not going to appreciate the other efforts.

I've written a contrite apology to the donor, asking forgiveness and offering to visit and show them some of the photos and letters we have in our archive from the Royal Family over the years.  Hopefully they will be in a forgiving mood and I won't be sent to the Tower!


When donating to charity causes more harm than good (direct mail fundraisers look away now!)

I received this letter through the post today and wanted to share it with you.  It makes uncomfortable reading if you are a direct mail fundraiser:

Complaint Letter

Complaint Letter2

The basic gist is this:

This couple have received 491 mailings from charities in the last year.

Some charities have sent over 20 mailings (without a single gift) in that time.

They have received over 1400 address labels.

The couple haven't donated to any of the charities listed (my own included, although they had previously).

I was appalled at the letter and rang the donors to apologise and promise we would remove them from our list and to ask permission to post their letter here.

I thought they might put the phone straight down on me, but I actually had a really interesting chat with Mr Donor.

What I found was a kind, generous man with a sense of duty, who wanted to make a difference through giving, but who (along with his wife) had come so fed up with the amount of mail they received that he felt they had to make a stand. 

I was the first charity rep to get in touch and we had a long chat.  I advised him about the mailing preference service, reciprocal mailings and the Fundraising Standards Board.

Amazingly, he continues to support a number of charities and was actually quite apologetic (and felt guilty) for doing this!

Now I am sure every charity on the list will justify the mailings by saying that gifts increase response, the mailings overall make a return on investment etc, etc.

However, when you look at the whole (and I'd guess there are thousands of other donors receiving similar volumes of mail) it is simply unjustifiable and unsustainable in the long term.  By continuing to act in this way, good causes risk driving donors to extinction by completely turning them off donating and alienating the very people who are happy to give.

Don't be a fundraising magpie in 2011!

As is typical in January there are a slew of posts on New Year's resolutions, predictions for the year ahead and suggestions on new ideas and developments in fundraising.

This is all well and good, but I had two timely reminders yesterday that if you don't get your bread and butter right then you end up no better than a magpie chasing the next shiny thing it sees.

First up was dealing with a justified donor complaint, where, frankly, we let him down.  I won't go into the specifics (e-mail me if you want to know) but we caused upset and I've had to write a very humble and grovelling apology.

Secondly, was a printing cock-up which has resulted in me sending a survey out with no donor's details lasered in.  The result of which is we are getting lots of lovely replies, but don't know who they are from.

I can easily pass point the finger of blame for both of these errors, but ultimately the buck stops with me and it's my responsibility to get these things right. 

Looking at the bigger picture and trying to develop your next big idea is important, but if you don't get the basics right then your fundraising is built on foundations of sand.

So, learn from my mistakes and keep looking for the next new, exciting idea but don't forget the fundraising fundamentals in 2011...


The problem with form letters

Processing donations and sending thank you letters can be a time consuming business and so most charities resolve this by producing form letters to make processing quicker and easier.

This reduces the admin time required and is more cost effective, but it does have a couple of dangers, which were highlighted to me recently.

My friend got married in September and kindly asked for donations to a local hospice rather than presents and I duly made a donation.

Four weeks after making the gift (which is a rant for another day!) I received a thank you letter with a personalised first paragraph, but then with two standard paragraphs following.

No bad thing you may think, but the problem was the paragraphs paid no attention to me personally.

As I lived over 200 miles away from the hospice, so the comments about my donation helping "real people from communities on your very own doorstep" and "caring for local people close to your home" were completely inappropriate.

You might thing I'm being pedantic and that no-one would expect anything more, but I have higher standards than that and think charities should strive to do better and tailor letters appropriately.

Use form letters if you must, but be willing to edit and change them if a donor gives you some extra information or detail that means you can personalise your response further.

My Biggest Fundraising Mistakes: Leadership & Management

Taking the step from being a part of a fundraising team to leading one is a big one and something that I struggled with in the beginning and I'm still working hard to improve.

It's a very different role and no amount of training or preparation can prepare you for the change.  I've been very lucky to manage some great teams who've tolerated my mistakes and I thought I'd share some of my biggest ones so you can avoid them...

You can't be everyone's friend - it's not a popularity contest

I see many managers fall into this trap and I've certainly made this mistake in the past.

It's human nature to want to be liked and popular, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you're doing a good job and it can lead to problems in the future as the boundaries between friendship and leadership can become blurred.

Becoming overly friendly or close to your team can make it hard to flag problems, deal with under-performance and make it harder to be seen as impartial if you need to sort out an issue between people who consider you their friend.

This doesn't mean you have to be distant or cold, but you need to be aware of the impact of your actions and not be afraid to make tough decisions if it's the right thing to do for the team as a whole.

For example, one of my team had a new job and wanted to negotiate a shorter notice period.  As a friend I wanted to help them, but as their manager then I knew it wasn't in the best interests of the charity and so I had to say no.  This led to arguments and damaged the friendship as they assumed I'd let them go as we were friends.

You need to tailor your style to different people

In the first team I managed I was the youngest person and only man.  This led to a number of issues as I struggled to understand why not everyone instantly followed my lead or bought into my way of thinking.

It took me a while to realise that not everyone sees the world the same way I do and so I needed to frame my arguments and explain my decisions in ways that resonated with them.  This light-bulb moment really improved by leadership and by learning to understand what made someone tick, I was able to create a high performing, successful team.

I believe emotional intelligence is one of the most important qualities of a good manager.  Knowing those people who need an arm round the shoulder compared to those who work best under pressure, and acting accordingly, makes a massive difference in results.

Don't ignore poor performance

After a few years as hospice fundraising manager I was promoted to regional manager and became responsible for a much larger number of fundraisers.  Inevitably in a larger team there were some outstanding performers and a few people who weren't up to the job.

I knew this quite early on, but as I was new into the job I didn't want to be overly draconian too quickly. 

However, this meant when I did have to start tackling performance issues it came as a surprise to the people involved and they questioned why I hadn't brought it up sooner.

As i'd been slack to begin with it was much harder to start monitoring performance, providing coaching and support and trying to improve their work.  Eventually formal action had to be taken, which affected the morale of the wider team, caused a lot of extra work and stress and caused numerous problems.

If I'd acted sooner and intervened as soon as I had concerns then a lot of heartache and stress could have been avoided.


Recruiting is one of the most important things you will do as a manager, but it's amazing how little training or time goes into doing it properly. 

Bad recruitment decisions probably cost the economy millions of pounds every year in time and loss of productivity.

I've learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to take people on because you're desperate or if you've got any nagging doubts. 

I wish i'd been braver on a number of occasions and said 'No, we're going to re-advertise this position.' rather than take someone on who I knew wasn't the right person for the job.

It's a tough thing to do, but it wil save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

See more in others than they see in themselves

I wanted to end on a positive, so the final point isn't a mistake, but something that I believe all managers/leaders should do.

One of my previous bosses was a master at this and was always looking for ways to give people the opportunity to shine.  He vehemently believed that his main task as a leader was unlocking potential and encouraging people to grow and prosper.

He never missed a chance to give people more responsibility or to take on an extra challenge and the result was a well motivated, hard working team, many of whom went on to bigger and better things thanks to his encouragement.

My Biggest Fundraising Mistakes: Just Because It Works Once....

Doesn't mean it will necessarily work again!

That's a lesson I quickly learned when I moved from Darlington to Peterborough.

As Corporate/Community Fundraiser at St Teresa's Hospice I'd had a lot of success (working with my boss) in selling various small items of merchandise in companies.

It was a simple, but effective strategy.

We got to visit people regularly in their workplace, got our faces known, made a profit on the merchandise and built relationships with a wide range of people.

The major payback from this was that we were always at the front of people's minds when they were deciding on a charity of the year, were having a dress down day. doing a sponsored event etc.

It also got us introductions to senior managers/decision makers if we had a sponsorship proposal, were holding a corporate event or wanted to work with the company in another way.

So, what do I do when I move 160 miles down the A1 to Peterborough?

I never want to see a flashing Christmas badge again!

Buy 10,000 flashing Christmas badges and a few thousand teddies on the assumption that we'd shift them no problem given how many more firms there were in the area and it would be the beginning of a wonderful new relationship with them.

How I was wrong!

Despite the best efforts of all the team, we just couldn't get rid of them. As many of the offices were larger, there was a lot more bureaucratic hoops to jump through, people had never done it before or were simply not interested. The upshot was that we were left lot's of stock and I had egg on my face.

In fact, whenever I've been back to the office to visit I get ribbed about it and they've presented me with various items of unsold merchandise on occasions!

It was back to the drawing board for corporates in Peterborough and, after another failure with corporate events, I eventually found a strategy that worked - attending lots of networking events.  This was something I'd never even considered when in Darlington, but it worked (and continues to work) really well for the hospice.

Key Learnings:

Just because something works once, doesn't mean it will work again.

Do your market research before launching a new fundraising initiative.

Keep evaluating your successful fundraising and never stop looking for ways to improve it.

Don't be afraid to admit your mistakes, learn from them, and then try something different.

Get to know your audience and meet them where they are at, not where you want them to be.


This is the second in a series of posts, where I reflect on some of the biggest mistakes I've made in fundraising. Hopefully you can learn from some of the errors I've made over the years!

My Biggest Fundraising Mistakes: Not Saying Thank You

This is the first in a series of posts where I reflect on some of the biggest mistakes I've made in my decade of fundraising. Hopefully you can avoid some of the basic errors I've made over the years!

This might seem an obvious one, but it can happen (for a variety of reasons) and can lead to major problems if you don’t make amends. 

One of my responsibilities as Hospice Fundraising Manager in Peterborough was to oversee the running of our coffee shop, which was staffed entirely by volunteers.  

The volunteers were a committed bunch and worked hard to make a success of it.

Anyway, they needed a new dishwasher and we didn’t have the budget, so one of the volunteers very kindly went out and bought one.  Obviously, I needed to send her a thank you letter/phone call to acknowledge her kindness.

However, despite a reminder from the coffee shop manager I completely forgot and a few weeks later I heard through the grapevine that the volunteer was really upset about this and threatening to not come back.

What to do then?

Well, I dropped everything I was doing, bought a bunch of flowers (out my own pocket) and went straight round her house to apologise.

She really appreciated the gesture and I was able to turn round the situation, but if I’d thanked her promptly then the whole situation wouldn’t have arisen and I wouldn’t have had to go grovelling for forgiveness!  

A really simple, but important lesson.

Key Learnings:

Always say thank you promptly and sincerely.

Never miss an opportunity to show your thanks and gratitude to a donor/staff member/volunteer.

If you say you are going to do something, do it.

Don’t put off until tomorrow, something you can do today.

If you do forget to say thank you, apologise, don’t make excuses, and do your best to make amends.

Personalisation is great - just don't get it wrong (like I did)

Confession time.

I spent ages personalising letters for some of our top 100 higher value donors and sent them off with high hopes of a great response.

Those hopes turned to despair when the first response I got back pointed out that I'd got the date of their last gift wrong.  Unsurprisingly the air turned blue and I was livid with myself, as it was 100% my fault and I'd made a typo.

What's worse than not personalising a letter?

Getting the personalisation wrong and if I was the donor then I would be majorly peeved.

Unfortunately I couldn't find the donor's phone number, so instead I sent a genuine, heartfelt apology for my mistake, asking them to blame me and not the charity for the error.  I haven't heard anything back yet, but hope this quick response and acknowledgement will stop the donor from never giving to us again.

I've been through the rest of the letters and fortunately it was the only mistake (though one is too many) and I've learnt a valuable lesson in the meantime...