After the Ice Bucket Challenge: how should a charity respond to a windfall?


Angela Kail

Angela Kail

Angela Kail

In pubs across the land, fundraisers are presumably trying to think up the next craze that could go viral. From No Make-Up Selfie in the spring to the recent Ice Bucket Challenge, charities have been overwhelmed by grassroot appeals taking off on social media. Two weeks ago, the public raised £1.8 million in barely 48 hours after the Manchester Dogs Home was torched in an arson attack. Ice Bucket Challenges are still going on.

So how should a charity respond to this unexpected generosity? It largely depends on the charity.

While the No Make-up Selfie campaign for Cancer Research UK was generously supported, the £8 million it raised doesn’t even add up to 2 per cent of that charity’s annual half billion pound income. Nonetheless, Cancer Research UK was able to respond quickly and with specifics: because of that £8 million, ten clinical trials would be funded that otherwise would not have taken place.

A quick response is generally easier when the extra money raised isn’t too substantial a part of the charity’s income. Beyond that, things get more complicated. At the Teenage Cancer Trust, the £5 million raised by Stephen Sutton’s inspiring story made up nearly 40 per cent of their income last year. It was some months after Stephen’s death that the Teenage Cancer Trust gave a detailed account of how the money will be spent. Over half will be spent on specialist cancer units; £1 million will go into research; and the rest will be split between information and conferences. The chief executive explained proudly that Stephen has allowed us to be more ambitious.

Under the circumstances, the charity was wise to wait a few months before deciding on the best way to spend this money, and smart to give such a detailed response.

Such detail about how new money will be spent is needed and – within reason – the sooner the better. There will be other funders who will be put off donating because they’ve seen how much money has been raised for the charity. Fundraisers who have spent months putting together a good ask for potential donors will find donors asking why, if this project is so important, isn’t it being funded out of the windfall? Trusts and foundations will often look at a charity’s level of reserves when assessing their application. If there is no explanation of why money has been put into reserves, it can hurt a charity’s chances of success. Fundraisers need to be able to explain quickly how the money will be spent even if, like with the Teenage Cancer Trust, it won’t be spent for a while.

But there is also an opportunity here. The largesse is not just in the funding. It is also in the connection that people have made with the charity. Fundraisers in these charities will be wondering how to take up that opportunity and build on it for a longer-lasting fundraising relationship. Letting people know the specifics of how their donation is being spent, as both Cancer Research UK and the Teenage Cancer Trust recognized, is crucial. In NPC’s Money for Good research into the motivations of donors, benefactors told us that they were most influenced by their peers. They were more likely to give more money if charities engage with them in a way that meets their needs. It will be interesting to see whether fundraisers are able to rise to that challenge, and get a whole new segment of people to give.

Either way, things end up in flux. The old fundraising strategy probably goes out the window for a while.

Angela Kail, Head of the Funders Team at the charity think tank NPC

Tagged in: donations

Comments (1)

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