Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the front line: how it feels to be a fundraiser

26 November 2015
Author: Lyndall Stein

So, the Date Aid video. It certainly gives fundraisers that bad "swiped left" feeling. No one sees fundraisers as heroes, just money-grubbers who don't really understand development issues. But guess what? We do know that you don't drag someone behind the bike shed and show them everything you’ve got on a first date. To get donors to engage, you need compelling stories and vivid images, not "right on" development discourse.

One of the proudest moments of my career happened when I was raising funds for the African National Congress (ANC) more than 30 years ago. The ANC was still an illegal organisation at that time and Nelson Mandela was serving his second decade in prison. Thomas Ngozi, the Treasurer General of the ANC, visited the secret basement where I was ploughing through an avalanche of letters and cheques from supporters. He was a man of dignity and gravity, travelling the world seeking desperately needed funds for the organisation. He said: "What your team are doing here raising money is as important as the efforts of our fighters for freedom."

I was a South African in London, serving our struggle against apartheid. Every image I used, every word I wrote had to be infused with devotion and respect for all those living and dying to win their freedom. But the messages were for a UK audience; their understanding and feelings were very different. They cared about children getting shot; they cared about the vicious denial of human rights; they cared that children were hungry. Our struggle was not their priority.

So, as well as honouring the heroes of the struggle, I had to respect the British people who were prepared to give us their own money, who trusted us to spend it wherever it was most needed.

I have never forgotten the importance of weighing your own organisation's interests and priorities against those of the public.

People who have little understanding of why fundraisers use the images and words they do need to remember that fundraisers are on the front line with the UK public. Every day we send them stories and pictures, through very different and complex channels. And we know what works; not because we have evidence from a few focus groups and surveys, but because we have real, hard evidence of actual response and donations.

What I have found time and time again is that people are moved by powerful stories, by a compelling emotional narrative, not by organisations' own internal language. People give to people; not concepts; they want to feel their contribution is going to make a concrete difference to someone's life. Telling them: "we are all part of a global society and we can solve development problems together" does not move them in the same way.

Why does any fundraiser work in international development? It is far, far easier to raise money for diseases like cancer that affect our own lives directly. Fundraisers who choose to work for development NGOs do so because they care about global issues. And guess what? They have given a lot of thought to the question of dignity and empowerment. But their priority has to be translating these big issues into effective fundraising messages. And I can guarantee that the line "we are all part of a global society and we can solve development problems together" will just get a fast left swipe.

So how about some respect for the difficult, relentless job that fundraisers do? And how about some respect for the generous people who donate their money? And perhaps people should reflect that it may be empathy not pity that encourages people to donate?

About the author

Lyndall Stein

Lyndall has worked for a wide range of organisations concerned with social justice, including Care International, Bond, Concern UK, ActionAid International, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Big Issue Foundation and the African National Congress.