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There has been considerable coverage in the UK newspapers of charities harassing elderly people, including those with obvious signs of confusion. I’m sure all of us condemn such pressurised fundraising but the story really goes much wider than this.

As a co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), its executive director for ten years and board member for twenty, fundraising was always the biggest headache and most demoralising part of our work. Campaigning against environmental abuse and wildlife disasters involves people, travel, admin, space – everything a small business requires, including money. Fundraising is always a key part of a charity’s ability to change the world for the better.

Large fundraising campaigns to gain new members generally fund the company behind the campaign, not the charity. The "cause" gains supporters and greater future income. Orang Utans in Tanjung Puting National Park. Photo © Dave Currey

In the 1990s we were approached by an American based direct marketing company to send mail-outs to various relevant “bought lists”. The proposal was strong and through it we could reasonably have expected to increase our supporter base many times over. It could well have provided a fairly secure long-term income to help pay the daily running of the organisation. The cost was cashflowed against the virtually guaranteed income. We met with the company many times, discussed roll-outs to other countries and finally rejected the idea. Why?

Although there was nothing unusual in this approach it just didn’t feel right. We were fundamentally concerned by the ethics of asking people for money to save tigers and elephants when, in reality, it would all be paid to the direct marketing company. The income for our work would come from future “asks” to these supporters and increases in their donations. In a rather simplistic but heartfelt analysis of the offer I remember saying to my fellow board members “my mother wouldn’t like it.”

When you are approached on the street by a company working for a charity (chuggers), in my day it cost the charity between fifty and seventy pounds for every person they signed up on a direct debit. It’s the same rationale as the mail-outs; the charity income comes in the second year onwards.

I understand why the bigger charities use these techniques, but for us it crossed a line. I will say however, the larger more financially secure charities often use their money to swamp out some of the smaller more effective groups, sometimes using these smaller groups’ campaign successes in their fundraising literature. Financial security provides advertising budgets, higher staff salaries, more lawyer fees and larger fundraising campaigns. In my view it can’t buy commitment or courage and can often take away the edge required to win.

Nowadays we all have access to a remarkable amount of information. My advice to anyone wanting to support charitable work is to shop around for the most effective organisations and avoid those with the larger budgets.

Anthropologist Margaret Meade’s famous quote Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” rings true for me. EIA is smaller than it may have become, but I know my mother would be proud.


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