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Givers Wary of Slick, Pushy Marketing - US Report

14 November 2005 at 12:11 pm
Staff Reporter
American donors view their nation's Charities as crucially important but they are wary of slick, pushy marketing according to new research.

Staff Reporter | 14 November 2005 at 12:11 pm


Givers Wary of Slick, Pushy Marketing - US Report
14 November 2005 at 12:11 pm

American donors view their nation’s Charities as crucially important but they are wary of slick, pushy marketing according to new research.

Donors are also passionate and positive about the charities they support. But at the same time, according to focus groups, they are concerned when these organisations market themselves in ways that mimic “big business”.

These are some of the findings in a new report, The Charitable Impulse, by the non partisan research organisation Public Agenda. The study was designed to provide an in-depth qualitative exploration of the gaps that exist between the views of typical donors (i.e. contributed at least $300; volunteered; were members of organisations) and those who lead the philanthropic sector.

Donor sentiment about charitable organisations, Public Agenda reports, is “enthusiastic and positive,” especially when it comes to smaller, local charities and human service organisations, and typical giving tends to be based on personal experience and emotional connections.

But givers also have a long memory for scandal and waste. Focus groups took past misdeeds “quite personally and the breach is nearly impossible to repair,” the report states.

Givers also had strong and spontaneous negative reactions when Not for Profits adopt big-business type marketing and sales techniques. Glossy brochures, unsolicited “gifts,” telephone solicitations, and high-pressure appeals all came in for criticism and generated a high level of annoyance.

The research was conducted in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation and with the Independent Sector, a national coalition of over 500 Not for Profits and foundations. The Charitable Impulse is the result of six focus groups conducted around the country with donors and volunteers and with separate interviews with NFP and charitable leaders. The focus groups and interviews were conducted before hurricane Katrina and well after the Asian tsunami of late 2004.

According to Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden expectations are high for ethical behaviour and these donors hold these groups in much higher esteem than they do the government, for example.

In nearly every focus group, the subject of misuse of funds by specific national charities spontaneously arose. Most, according to the report, said that “when an organisation was tainted in their minds, they never gave to it again.” However, there was little evidence from the research that this coloured their opinion of charities overall.

Like givers, the majority of philanthropic leaders Public Agenda interviewed believed that most Not for Profits are well-managed by ethical leaders. While they acknowledged that a few bad apples exist, only a handful of sector leaders expressed serious concern about the loss of credibility and public trust.

Leaders of smaller organisations, however, were more concerned, worrying that they might not be able to weather the fallout in credibility from the bad acts of others as well as larger organisations.

One theme emerged strongly among typical donors: the more charities indulge in big business-like marketing and sales practices, the more they are seen to be just selling to people. Many focus group participants were concerned about expensive marketing costs, while others complained about aggressive solicitations, especially telemarketing calls.

Participants did concede that charities need to reach out effectively. And most the comments about “over-marketing” were aimed at large national charitable organisations.

In terms of executive compensation, participants generally felt that if people choose to work in the Not for Profit sector, they should not expect the same level of reward as those in the for-profit sector. This was one of the areas of greatest contrast between typical donors and NFP leaders, many of whom think the public has limited understanding about how NFPs are staffed and funded. Nor does the public, the leaders said, appreciate the talent and skill needed for organisation leadership.

For the most part, donors associated the term “Not for Profit” almost entirely with the work of charitable, human services organisations. Many seemed surprised and even a little resentful that large NFPs such as hospitals and universities (organisations that charge significant fees for their services) actually fall into this category.

Donors were generally unaware of foundations and often gave foundations surprisingly wide latitude to how they used their money.

Lessons for the Not for Profit Sector

Sector leaders and the public spoke very differently about key issues. The report notes that leaders focused mostly on process, structure and on other “business-like” operations and concerns. They also felt that the public is not fully aware of how their organisations function.

But donors feel that while they may not know all of the facts, “they do believe they know what’s important and what seems right.” They also were sceptical about organisations becoming too “business-like” and, instead, emphasised passion, mission and charitable purpose.

Finally, the report highlights the key role of honest, credible communications in instilling and maintaining public confidence. For example, some donors spoke with admiration about an international aid group that had announced it had received enough donations for tsunami relief as a reminder that putting mission and effectiveness before rote solicitations is what givers value most.
Public Agenda conducted six focus groups with civically-engaged men and women.

Individual interviews were also conducted with 15 philanthropic leaders from a variety of NFP and charitable organisations during March/April 2005.

Public Agenda is a NFP organisation dedicated to non partisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials.

If you would like an electronic version of the full report in PDF just send us an email with the words The Charitable Impulse to

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