News & Insight
5th May 2020
Is donor fatigue at an all time high?
Andrew Thomas, Associate Director, Philanthropy Company, looks at donor fatigue and fundraising in light of the current crisis.
Last week Philanthropy Company’s network of fundraisers considered whether we are seeing significant donor fatigue as Coronavirus stretches on into the distance. The future is uncertain, but our cohort of experts provided some insights from their many different perspectives. We began our discussion by looking backwards to look forward, and our specific inspiration came from the last time we were in a three-week ‘lockdown’ – the London 2012 Olympics.
Of course, the origins and nature of each event are poles apart, but we can see some parallels between them. If 2020’s symbol of hope in dark times is of Captain Tom in his garden, 2012’s stand-out memories include ‘Super Saturday’ featuring Jess, Mo and Greg. Our nation united in those three weeks and this extended further as we embraced the remarkable spirit of the Paralympics! Layer on the huge sense of volunteerism that was generated by the Gamesmakers, together with cloudless skies, and the similarities are apparent.
However, instead of the Games leaving a legacy of widespread ‘sportiness’ amongst the UK population, sadly participation largely fell back or failed to materialise in subsequent years; ironically, it has taken a pandemic and enforced confinement to really connect us with cycling, running and group exercise online! And so, will the same fatigue afflict our own ‘Fundraising Olympics’ – we had a glorious ‘summer of sport’, we are now in the midst of a ‘spring of support’ and so what can we expect next?
As fundraising campaigns have unfolded in response to the crisis, Captain Tom has without doubt emerged as our triple Gold medallist, emulating Usain Bolt in admittedly a slightly more pedestrian style. The BBC’s Big Night In has arguably taken Silver, whilst the 2.6 Challenge has earned Bronze on the podium, largely as a result of being relatively successful rather than seismic. I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate our CEO, Caroline Underwood, and Philanthropy Company colleagues for their tremendous work with the National Emergencies Trust appeal, instrumental in capturing some of the enormous generosity shown towards frontline workers in local communities by the public, philanthropists and foundations.
Is there a real danger that everything from here on will just be more noise, a series of critical campaigns that don’t succeed in getting through the qualifying rounds? Or will fundraising manage to reach unthought of heights, with philanthropy truly becoming an enduring movement rather than a moment?
Donor fatigue has two key elements – the inclination and the means to respond. People’s inclination is influenced by the strength of each individual case for support and the support for our frontline NHS heroes will be very hard to emulate for many. The volume of asks is also a factor, as is their previous experience of giving – was it enjoyable, rewarding, appreciated and delivered tangible impact, even allowing for the recent chaos? With many charities furloughing staff some are even more overstretched and under resourced than usual, making proper donor stewardship and gift processing difficult. Our group of fundraisers also expressed some concern at the lack of clarity surrounding exactly how some of the funds raised for the NHS will really be used, hoping that this would not rebound on the reputation of the fundraising sector in the long term.
If we take a pessimistic view, have we seen a gush of initial support that has been instinctively generous and at a point before economic reality has properly dawned for many who face unemployment, reduced incomes and the likely risk to investment assets, pension values and so on.
Are donors facing too many choices? Just like arriving at a funfair (not that there is any fun involved) clutching a £10 note and immediately seduced by the first couple of rides they see. Later they discover bigger and better rides, alas by then their money has been spent. Perhaps some campaigns, no matter how critical may just have arrived too late for donors.
Even in the early stages of this crisis, there are winners and losers and we have to hope that the winners, whether marginal or stratospheric, will carry us all through. Whilst some wealthy people maybe feeling markedly less wealthy and hunkering down, some in our group have experienced outstanding and unexpected acts of generosity across the donor spectrum – established philanthropic families investing much more than normal, new philanthropists, previously elusive corporates and leading trusts and foundations unlocking additional funds. Partly a response to Covid-19 in the UK and also as preventative measures to try to ensure the effects of a catastrophic outbreak in the Global South are avoided as far as possible.
Regardless of the eventual net effect of all this turmoil, will our ‘new normal’ continue to contain an element of people investing in humanity or will our limited funds once again be directed towards the unrelenting purchase of stuff – the equivalent of returning to the safety of the sofa after the euphoria of London 2012? We await with interest and hope.