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Compassion fatigue: The era of giving for goodwill is over – so what next for charity marketing?

By Sam Shaw, head of insight

March 3, 2016 | 6 min read

Charities have been warned to stop “hounding” donors by the Charity Commission chief in a public statement. Aggressive street collecting, cold-calling and intrusive junk mail are just some of the tactics facing scrutiny.

Sam Shaw

These approaches have always been unpopular, but they work. Face-to-face fundraising is, according to the Institute of Fundraising, one of the most “cost-effective” methods of fundraising and promises around £2.50 per £1 spent. So why should charities hold themselves to a higher standard than any other marketer?

Because failure to do so is short-sighted. The latest Charities Aid Foundation UK Giving report showed that over a 10-year period, people are giving considerably less when inflation is considered. Even if a few charities are benefiting economically from this tactic, the whole sector is losing out.

And it’s the damage to the sector’s overall reputation that’s really vital. Compounded with a year of scandal – from Kids Company’s collapse to media stories showing the tragic consequences of charities’ aggressive efforts to target the elderly – it’s unsurprising that polls show public trust in charities is at its lowest in nearly a decade.

Aggressive tactics have eroded goodwill in charities. And this situation is only made more challenging by the growing ‘empathy deficit’ amongst younger generations, which has been highlighted by a growing body of research. Apparently, they’re all too busy taking selfies and testing out virtual reality headsets to care.

So what can charities do?

If we look into the psychology of why people give, the driver is simple – having a personal connection with the cause. If you have a pet, you’re more likely to want to give to charities about animals.

With the new warning, charities can no longer ‘push’ that personal connection on the street, but they can leverage cultural and technological shifts to make connections for them.

Viral fundraising campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge or #nomakeupselfie highlight one (unpredictable) way of working within people’s social networks. Think about JustGiving – it’s raised £2.5 billion since launch, largely through people sponsoring people.

Research shows the single biggest barrier to giving is a sense of uncertainty that people’s money will translate into action. This isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity. We live in an age of 24/7 connectivity – why not better connect givers and beneficiaries? Innovations like micro-loan charity Kiva have pioneered new ways of storytelling, allowing donors to connect directly to a single beneficiary. Like crowdfunding, its strength lies in the power of individual storytelling to establish connection.

Another major barrier for giving is ‘cause overload’. Britain has over 180,000 charities, but little innovation in helping people find one they might care about. One idea in the US that tackles this is Dollar A Day, which lets people donate a small amount each day to a new cause, in return for an insight into what that charity does. The idea is that eventually, one cause will strike a connection. This is a paid-for service appealing to the masses who want to give, but can’t pick a cause.

Charities must also consider young people. Try connecting with something they care about – why people would donate to charity in order to watch others playing computer games might be a mystery to many, but the method (pioneered by Games Done Quick) is pulling in millions of dollars. Gaming, after all, is part of the new lexicon of “connections” that draw in younger audiences.

Looking forward, Mark Zuckerberg has called virtual reality “the most social medium” – and it’s a medium with unique capacity for creating empathy. It’s already been used to help politicians get a better sense of the Ebola outbreak, while the UN saw twice the normal rate of donations with a VR campaign to help people empathise with Syrian refugees.

But even in the short term; mobile should be high on the agenda. Around 93 per cent of adults in the UK own a mobile phone, but just 11 per cent donate through a text message. These are new and exciting approaches to fundraising, but the legacy of eroded trust is destroying the potential. Mobile donations suffer from issues of perceived issues of harassment: “what happens after I donate”?

This is a shame, and a symptom of a lacking sense of personal connection with today’s donor. More and more, we’re hearing of donors wanting to go back to the old-fashioned ‘non-committal’ methods of chucking £1 in the collection box, but in truth this is not because of empathy deficit, but because of compassion fatigue. And it threatens to loom over the exciting possibilities on the horizon.

One thing that’s clear is that charities focusing on the power of simple, human connections – and not the combined guilt and pressure of ‘chuggers’ (charity muggers) – are, more than any others, doing the right thing, not just by their own causes, but for society as a whole.

Sam Shaw is head of insight at Canvas8

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