Another controversy regarding the fundraising practices of NGOs has recently made headlines. This time in the United Kingdom.

The organisations involved in this latest flare up would probably be quite happy to trade complete anonymity for the kind of exposure they have been receiving. But their names are actually not all that important. The fact is it was a different list of organizations the last time this controversy raged, and it will be different list the next time it arises.

This is less about who, and more about what.

The more important concern is the issues for which these organisations are scrutinized seem both alarmingly and unacceptably consistent.

That is something worth discussing. In fact, it is something that needs to be remedied once and for all.

The controversy has, once again, been borne from unsavory, and arguably even unethical telemarketing, direct mail and email marketing practices. Driven by a Machiavellian mindset in which aggravation, manipulation, harassment, in some cases even outright threats, are merely “tools of the trade.” The only thing that matters, after all, is making a quota. Hitting a revenue number

We’ve all developed a mental callus when “bottom-feeder” for-profit companies use tactics like these. But if there were one kind of organisation we would expect to be above these nefarious practices, surely it would be those in which we entrust the care of our elderly, or the battle against cancer, the protection of animals and the environment or any of the many issues that are so vital to a civil society.

Yet the problems persist, and the “perpetrators” whether conscious or not, actually do irreparable harm to the very causes they are trying to serve.

How is it that nonprofit organisations could ever find themselves the subject of this kind of controversy? How could they be invoking so much fury when they are ostensibly trying to do so much good?

It is time for us to own this issue.

It is time that all of us in the sector began to see that our missions are not well-served by the transactional mindset that drives so much of today’s direct marketing—whether through the internet, TV, post or phone. Regardless of whether that marketing is truly reprehensible or just merely annoying. We must stop adapting our strategies to tactics that were never designed for nonprofits in the first place.

It is time to quit succumbing to the omnipresent gravitational pull to “behave more like a business,” because it becomes all too easy to put fundraising statistics above real measures of progress. Or bowing to the “program vs. overhead” ratios that provide too much incentive to outsource our voice to high volume low-cost direct marketing outlets so we can to get another star in the rankings.

It is time to remember that our communications mentors have names like Gandhi, King, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi Xie. And that we diminish their legacy and our own causes when we worship the demi-Gods of direct mail and “social” media. Each of who have built their careers targeting consumers, rather than building communities.

Any time a nonprofit organisation has the opportunity to speak on behalf of their cause—regardless of the purpose of that communication—they should do so with the highest standard of commitment and respect. Because they are not just speaking on behalf of their organisation, they are bringing a voice to the people and issues they serve. And they are not just speaking to a consumer, they are speaking to an investor who could provide sustained support for their work. They should be asking supporters to join them, rather than transact with them.

Honorable intentions are not enough.

To be sure, there are too many NGOs that are ineffective at much else than fundraising, and they should be dealt with in the most prejudicial way possible. It is appropriate to unleash market forces that can lead to a stripping of their nonprofit credentials, and removal from the ranks of those who are truly making a difference.

But there are plenty—many even driven by an abiding commitment to mission—who have unwittingly lost their way. Who subconsciously shifted their priorities, and subtly sacrificed their voice, as the pursuit of funding somehow began to trump the mission that is being funded.

These organisations do not need our scorn they need our help—now more than ever—as they find their way back. Back to using their voice in a way that brings dignity and commitment to their cause, rather than something far less savory and, perhaps, even unethical.

We are obliged to bring honor to our cause.

It is time that the community of nonprofits set a higher standard in how we communicate with our constituents. A standard that is sophisticated enough to utilise the tactics of consumer marketing, but in a way that is guided by the community and movement building strategies that our “communications mentors” pioneered—long before smart phones and social media made communications so ubiquitous and vapid.

Let us use this most recent controversy as a powerful reminder from the people who could and should be our staunchest allies, that we have a sacred obligation to them, and to the people and issues we serve, to do better.


If you want some help in how to make sure your intentions and our outcomes are better aligned, consider the following resources:

Resource Alliance Knowledge Hub
Association of Fundraising Professionals Resource Center

Please let me know what you think!

Bill Toliver
Executive Director
The Matale Line

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