Essential Member Updates: Panellists urge fundraisers to do more to build public confidence

Fundraisers must do more to build trust and confidence in the sector, said panellists who participated in the recent FIA Essential Member Update for Brisbane members.

This year’s panellists were Richenda Vermeulen, founder of digital agency ntegrity; Mel Yates, director, reporting, red tape reduction and corporate services, Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC); and Dan Lalor, executive general manager-marketing and fundraising, MS Queensland. Ben Cox, chief executive of Gold Coast Hospital Foundation, was MC.

FIA chief executive Katherine Raskob opened the update with a presentation on FIA initiatives, fundraising trends and the latest research. She also talked about the challenges that had emerged for fundraisers around the drought, bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic.

The panellists were then invited to discuss the changing fundraising landscape and how fundraisers could meet the challenges.

Lalor said fundraisers needed to do more to boost public confidence in their work and to focus on donor relationships. He explained that while a recent McCrindle report found that community trust was still high around charities, other research, like the ACNC’s annual Trust and Confidence Report, suggested that public confidence was waning.

“Trust underpins support, and it’s important we explore the issue. There are still too many fundraising activities that are optimised for short-term gain and not long-term relationships,” he warned.

Lalor recommended fundraisers and their organisations be consistent, authentic in their approaches and put the donor’s interest above their own, cautioning that “trust takes a long time to build and a short time to erode.”

Vermeulen agreed several markers were pointing to declining public trust in charities.

Need for better impact reporting

She said this became obvious during the bushfires when people started criticising well-known charities for their seemingly slow response in getting donations flowing to the people who required help to get back on their feet.

“The biggest driver was the lack of impact reporting. Those two things go together,” said Vermeulen.

She urged fundraisers to consider more frequent and sustained impact reporting that “engages people in micro-moments rather than just one or two times a year in glossy magazines or the annual report.”

ACNC Register becoming more comprehensive all the time

Yates said the ACNC is focused on maintaining, building and enhancing confidence in the charitable sector as part of its mandate. The charities’ regulator was doing this through its online charity register.

“We’re helping to tell the story of what charities do. Every registered charity’s information is on that register, and charities should leverage the platform we provide. The register has a digital presence, social media platform and reporting information that loops the donor or interested stakeholder back to the charity in question,” said Yates.

The charities regulator was adding useful information like what programs a charity undertakes and who they help, which people wanted to see, he added. 

“More and more people are looking at the register and asking us about information to do with charities. So, we’re continually asking, what can we do to propel that trust within the community and increase it? “

Yates said the ACNC was also helping charities to do their best work. Staff were continually developing resources that were useful to charities and stakeholders, including recent podcasts around COVID-19, to help charities learn from their peers and to cope in the challenging fundraising environment.

Data will power everything

During the discussion, Lalor noted that people were increasingly concerned about their personal information and how charities were using their data.

“Trust is going to get eroded if someone donates and we keep asking them the same things over and over because of poor data practices. It’s annoying. Data is going to power everything. You must ask yourself how you’re collecting, storing and using data because people expect you to be in control of their data and for it to be safe.” 

He added the time was right for fundraisers to be reviewing their data collection policies as he was sure GDPR-style regulation, similar to European laws, would be implemented in Australia.

Get with the digital program

Vermeulen warned that fundraisers were relying too much on conventional fundraising channels like direct mail. 

“Many are not prepared for a digital-first environment. We recommend using this time as an investment period for long-term growth in digital,” she advised.

“The work of non-profits is more visible than it has been for a long time. Our political leaders and media are suddenly talking about mental health, domestic violence, foster care, poverty, debt relief, etc. The market is driving the awareness of the work they’re trying to do.”

She said some of her clients who went digital-first in the current fundraising environment were seeing significantly higher returns because the market was driving awareness of the work they were doing. 

“They didn’t necessarily have flashy digital touchpoints. In some cases, it was looking at leveraging what they did traditionally in marketing in a more digital way.”  

She observed that charities had rich databases but weren’t using their data effectively.

“When you organise your next appeal, leverage that email database to put in customised messages that match digital advertising, your mail pack and Facebook integration. 

Email is a trusted channel. More people are spending time online these days and are more likely to respond as fewer things are claiming their attention,” she suggested.

How to use Facebook Giving

Vermeulen also discussed issues that were brewing around the Facebook Giving platform. She noted the social media giant had made it impossible for charities to receive contact details about donors who gave on the platform, and she listed some ideas on how to maximise the channel when you can’t report back on your donors.

“Use Facebook for engagement, retention and impact reporting. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You can do a flood of consistent, strength-based stories about your recipients who’ve been impacted by the services and funds they’ve received. It’s less about what you do as an organisation.”

She said you could use Facebook Giving for limited activation only. 

“If you have donors who are engaged with your organisation, Facebook can be a great fundraising channel that allows them to activate their network and generate funds from a trusted group of people.”

Reducing red tape and … rotten apples

Yates said the ACNC was working to reduce red tape for fundraisers as one of its objects. He noted that a bill had been introduced recently to the Queensland Parliament (which has since passed Parliament) calling for the end of duplicated reporting to both the ACNC and the Queensland Office of Fair Trading, which would make reporting less onerous for fundraisers starting at a future date.

“We’re looking forward to that bill progressing,” he said.

Another way the ACNC was promoting public confidence in charities was through starting to check charity entitlement for organisations with DGR status to ensure they are pursuing their charitable purposes.

“We work to remove the rotten apple from the barrel. One charity behaving badly can tarnish the whole street. We see our role as taking action against those organisations not doing the right thing or not fulfilling their charitable purpose.”

On a bright note, he said there was some heartening news for fundraisers in the ACNC’s latest charities report. 

“There were some good improvements around fundraising efforts and some good growth for charities which I think the sector will be happy about,” he said. 

Tips for surviving and thriving in the pandemic

Each panellist had a takeaway from the update.

Check the evidence to support your decisions. Dan Lalor suggested researching what charities have done in the past to combat fundraising challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic (eg 2004 tsunami, bushfires 2009) and to ask peers who’ve been there for advice. 

Be transparent. Mel Yates counselled charities to be open in their activities and accountable as it will help build public trust in the charitable sector in the long term.

Make financial modelling and long-term donor value your best friends. Richenda Vermeulen says it’s vital to collaborate closely and get rid of the traditional silos among the fundraising, marketing and digital teams if you want your fundraising efforts to succeed. 

Participate in the FIA community. Katherine Raskob urged people to get in touch with FIA as it was the peak body for professional fundraisers and would support members during a crisis.