The professionalisation of charities

I just received a phone call from a very pleasant woman from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Except she wasn’t from the WWF, she was from GoGen: “a specialist charity fundraising team” who are “engaged by some of the UK’s best- loved charities to maintain and develop relationships with their current and potential supporters”. This nice woman, reading from an equally nice script, asked me about my monthly donation to support the WWF’s work preserving mountain gorillas. She asked what inspired me to make this donation, leading me to explain that I think they’re wonderful creatures. She agreed effusively. Sensing where this was going, I interjected that I love their work but I couldn’t increase my donation. She pointed out that only an extra £1 per month would make a difference if everyone she called made such a donation. I apologised again and she brought the conversation to a close. This was the point at which she told me that she was ‘required’ to inform me she was from GoGen and that they expected to raise £1.4 million* for the WWF.

Has anyone else received these calls? It hasn’t left me feeling hostile to the WWF as such. But it was jarring to receive a charity call, from a call centre, with someone reading from a script. Looking at it from an organisational point of view, it’s easy to see why GoGen might be appealing for a large NGO like the WWF:

GoGen is capable of carrying out many aspects of fundraising charities often find difficult performing themselves either due to the specialist skills required, or the cost of equipping and maintaining a modern call centre. As a specialist, GoGen enjoys significant economies of scale and can pass these savings on directly to the charities. In a world where everything has a cost, it is nice to know that those costs are someone else’s to worry about. All that the charities need to think about is their given cause. We help convey the message of charities in a way which is consistent with their brand, and take great care that the training we give our staff has been approved in every detail by our charity partners to ensure their vision is clearly delivered.

But it’s equally hard not to wonder about the longer term implications of this professionalisation of charities, with call centres and customer relationship management consultancies being a logical next step after the rise of charity muggers, both in town centres and those going door-to-door. The latter group really irritate me. In my local area (presumably because of the high student population) I’ve noticed a ‘swarm’ tactic: there will up to 10 people going door-to-door at the same time. Presumably this is an efficiency saving, much like outsourcing the process of tapping up existing supporters, but I find it rather sinister. It’s also annoying that they don’t coordinate properly and will often knock on my door two or three times in one afternoon (with a different person each time). I resent the facile scripts and I’ve been stunned on more than one occasion by outright rudeness from people at the door (e.g. “you mean you don’t care about starving children?”).

Are these tactics likely to become normalised? I started a direct debit to Society For The Protection Of Animals Abroad (SPANA) last year after seeing an advert in the New Statesman. They’ve never sent me anything. Reflectively, I quite like this – I’d much rather they spend money on their actual work than sending me glossy leaflets. But I wonder if the expectations of ‘modern CRM’ techniques, which an organisation like WWF does expertly, will eventually have knock on effects for smaller charities, as they serve to create expectations about what ‘proper’ charities do. I also wonder if the metrics will lead services like GoGen to be appealing obscure longer term damage for how these charities are seen. Clearly one of GoGen’s unique selling points is the capacity to craft a script congruent with the charity’s ethos. But it’s still a script that has been crafted for use in a call centre.

*I can’t remember exactly what she said. What struck me was that it was a precise figure.

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