Fundraising in the dock: the Charities Bill and what it means for the hospice sector

Categories: Community Engagement.

The art and science of fundraising has been under intense media scrutiny for the past few months. The Daily Mail’s rolling campaign to expose poor practice in telephone and direct mail fundraising on behalf of the top national charities may have winkled out a few unscrupulous agencies, but in doing so has managed to whip up a level of hysteria and public anger about the charity sector rarely seen before.

The comments from the Daily Mail readers under each article in the campaign are enough to make any charity worker weep, whether a hospice nurse, counsellor, social worker, fundraiser or CEO. Apparently, we’re only in it for the fat cat salaries.

It does rather feel that the whole charity sector has been tarred with the same brush.

At the moment, local charities, including hospices, have mostly escaped the public backlash, although the Daily Star attempted a minor swipe at a hospice in mid-July. It may not be long before smaller charities come under the microscope too.

As a result of the Daily Mail exposé and the anxiety over the death of charity supporter Olive Cooke, the Prime Minister reacted quickly with the announcement that the Charities Bill would be amended to improve standards and transparency around fundraising and that a review would be carried out on fundraising self-regulation. Additionally, questions were raised about how vulnerable people are treated and protected.

Ever the optimist, I believe it’s important to not get too gloomy about it all, but look at how we take robust action to improve fundraising standards and re-build public trust in fundraising (and the charity sector generally) through greater transparency.

After all, reputation is arguably the most precious (and yet fragile) asset of any charity. As American business guru Warren Buffett says, it takes 20 years to build a reputation, but just five minutes to ruin it.

So how can we raise fundraising standards specifically in the hospice sector and protect the sector’s reputation for generating and using funds from our supporters wisely? And how does the hospice sector ensure we identify vulnerable people so that they are not exploited for donations?

The Daily Mail crusade should have stopped any senior fundraiser worth their salt in their tracks to question their own fundraising methods, processes and systems.

It should also have stopped any CEO and Board in their tracks too to check with their fundraisers that the organisation’s fundraising approach is in line with their values and with best practice.

This might mean the Board needs to invest in a database that is fit for purpose, so that communications with donors are effectively managed or invest in hiring experienced fundraisers who really know what they’re doing, and for some hospices, ensuring that fundraising is represented at a senior level.

I still stumble across fundraising colleagues in other hospices whose hospice hierarchies happily palm off the heavy burden of raising the money the hospice needs but offer none of the power or the support to improve their fundraising capacity. 

The other way hospices can improve their fundraising standards is to improve communications between hospice departments.

Clear communication between fundraisers and clinical colleagues is more important than ever before. Communicating about vulnerable individuals and families will help your fundraisers to ensure they don’t accept donations from people who may not have capacity (in all its senses) to give.

It’s important to ensure safe sharing of data about patients and families that enable your fundraisers to write responsive letters that help build a relationship with people and ensures they won’t write to a patient who died a year ago – nothing looks more insensitive and uncaring than a hospice that does that. 

Hospices, many of whom are increasingly relying on fundraising from their communities to maintain and grow their services, should be able to trust and value their fundraising team (and if you don’t, you need to do something about it).

The fundraising team are one piece of the hospice ‘jigsaw’, where a missing or imperfect piece will spoil the hospice picture.  A large percentage of staff and hospice services would not exist without the fundraisers’ contribution.

I believe hospices could and should be at the forefront of good fundraising practice – there are so many support mechanisms around for us to benefit from, ranging from Hospice UK conferences with the Institute of Fundraising, peer support groups in the regions and other nearby colleagues to phone.  

I suppose my final reflection on recent months, amid the Daily Mail hysteria and the reaction from parliament, is that there is definitely a missing link. The bit no one seems to be talking about is the beneficiaries, the people who receive help and support through the work of charities.

The public hysteria is all based around protecting the public from fundraising – none of the reviewing or law-making is centred on protecting who I believe are the most vulnerable people of all; the world’s poor, dying, sick and unfairly treated. The very reason why charities like hospices were set up in the first place. 

I deeply worry about a world where we have forgotten to put the people who urgently need our help at the heart of our thinking, and where we are more anxious about who we’ve offended by asking for a few pounds to help them.

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