I wish I’d thought of SOFII

And why every fundrais­er should think about SOFII, from time to time.

Written by
Charlie Hulme
May 23, 2014
‘We read to know we’re not alone.’

I was so disappointed when I started fundraising. I had arrived full of energy and enthusiasm, but time and again I was told that, ‘We can’t do that here’. After just a few months I could count on one hand the number of innovative fundraisers who had inspired me and still have a finger left to point and a thumb to raise in praise.

What struck me was the shocking lack of vocation. I arrived thinking that curing cancer, fighting injustice, saving the world, etc was a mission, but for most it seemed to be just a day job and one that many wanted out of, pronto. I was staggered by the naivety of so many charities and the cynicism of so many of their agencies. I felt surrounded by simpletons and charlatans. Where were all the genuine fundraisers? I felt so alone and ready to quit.

Then I found SOFII.

If you haven’t read this book then you’re not asking properly.

I can’t remember which search terms got me there but I’d struck fundraising gold. The first exhibit I studied was by Ken Burnett entitled ‘Why should God have all the best ideas?’, which describes how a group of fundraisers had got together to share best practice for the benefit of fundraisers everywhere. As I read I felt my fundraising soul being saved. At last I had proof I wasn’t mad to challenge the stodgy status quo; proof that we fundraisers could and should do better.

SOFII kept me fundraising. It opened up a world of ideas that challenged and inspired me. I wasn’t alone anymore; instead I was one of many thousands of fundraisers around the world actively seeking out innovation and inspiration. SOFII was the door that opened all doors. Through it I heard of, and got to know, extraordinary fundraisers such as Giles Pegram, Lucy Gower, Kevin Schulman, Bethan Holloway, Jen Shang and Craig Linton, fundraising contemporaries and luminaries who later became friends.

Best of all, SOFII introduced me to my fundraising patron saint, George Smith. No fundraiser before or since has ever told the truth about the sorry state of our sector so bravely, so defiantly and with such humour. Whenever I’m confronted with mind-numbing stupidity, an occupational hazard, like the other day when a fundraising director of a very well-known charity told me, ‘We’re just not ready to be donor focused’, I just take a deep breath and say WWGD – ‘what would George do?’ One of the highlights of my career was being asked by George’s friends at SOFII to review his masterful book ‘Asking Properly’. If you haven’t read George’s book you’re not asking properly.

And if all that wasn’t enough, SOFII got me my job.

Are fundraising campaigns really based on nothing more than best guesswork?

One day back in 2012 SOFII announced a webinar on the ‘UK Donor Commitment Study’, to be held in conjunction with TheAgitator and Donor Voice Inc an international applied research company. It was described as ‘…priceless information that should underpin everything for you and your fundraising colleagues saying ‘…only a fool will ignore the findings’. It sounded good to me.

I sat in an empty boardroom (none of my then colleagues thought it worth their time to attend) and, along with thousands of fundraisers around the world, listened enthralled as Ken Burnett, Roger Craver and Kevin Schulman scientifically explained why no matter how much time, resource and money we spend on campaigns, nothing ever changes meaningfully.

I’d always known campaigns were based on nothing more than best guesswork (slicing data and searching for pointless patterns on the misguided assumption that correlation is causation). Now SOFII had taken a stand and announced there was a solution. Kevin became a friend and when UK operations became too big to handle from the States he asked me to join the Donor Voice team.

In the UK people spend as much on cheese as they give to charity.

So I wish I’d thought of SOFII. I owe my career and the purpose it gives my life to SOFII. I wish I could rescue anyone new to the sector from the bland brigade who’ll shoot down every new idea with ‘I wish you hadn’t thought of that’.

And I wish more fundraisers thought about SOFII.

Did you know that in the UK we donate around the same amount of money to charity as we spend on cheese? Either we believe the public likes cheese as much as it would like an end to world poverty, child sexual exploitation, disease, etc, or there’s something seriously wrong with the way we work. It’s ironic that the latest thing we’re being sold is ‘dare to fail’; the cheese statistic suggests we do little else.

​We badly need SOFII.

Copycat campaigns aren’t innovation: they’re imitation.

We need SOFII to champion the new idea. No sector praises mediocrity and defends the norm more vigorously than ours. It’s full of people who don’t want to hear about a solution because it underlines that they themselves are the problem. No sector strangles vision the way ours does. Where are the new ideas? On SOFII.

We need SOFII to show us what innovation really is. Doing the same old thing through a new channel isn’t innovation: that’s recycling. Failing, at any speed, isn’t innovation: that’s failing. Copycat campaigns aren’t innovation: they’re imitation. Where can we find the innovators? On SOFII.

We need SOFII to inspire us to aim higher. Why do we all dread the annual planning session? Because we know that no matter how much time, effort and money we spend our plan is going to look remarkably similar to the one we produced last year – and the year before that, and the year before that… We know that no matter which agency we use, how we slice the file, how big our data gets, or what story we tell results will at best stay level. Where’s the outstanding campaign: the one that defies convention and breaks fundraising records? On SOFII.

We need SOFII to challenge us.

We need SOFII to provide pragmatic answers. Aren’t you bored of attending conferences, workshops and away-days listening to expensive gurus tell you where you need to be without being able to tell you how to get there? What’s the point of paying to hear about a problem you’re all too aware of if you’re not being offered a practical solution? Where are the answers? On SOFII.

We need SOFII to lead the way. Our sector is full of directors who don’t live up to their title for fear of being accountable. Fundamental decisions on what, how and when we should be communicating with our donors are palmed off to ill-qualified executives. Why do you think staff turnover is so high? Would a fundraiser with the vision of a Giles Pegram be allowed to break the mould today? Results indicate no. Where are the leaders? On SOFII.

We need SOFII to challenge us to take risks. Playing it safe is dangerous. Yes we save our jobs, but we’re not saving enough lives. We reject the ‘risk’ of trying something new (no matter how proven) without ever asking what we risk by doing the same thing over and over again. Are our results really that good? Where are the risk takers? On SOFII.

But SOFII’s only as strong as we make it. I feel comfortable being this scathing about what I see as I know it doesn’t apply to you; if it did you wouldn’t be on the site. You wouldn’t take the time out of your day to come here if you were happy with things as they are, if you weren’t looking for something new.

SOFII is an archive of brilliance, a testament to innovation, a lighthouse of inspiration. But most of all it’s a community of fundraisers fighting, often on their own, for change within their organisations and the wider sector. So most of all we need SOFII to know we’re not alone. Where are our contemporaries, the ones with whom we’ll change the world? They’re on SOFII.

About the author: Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme is managing director of DonorVoice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, improves the strength of relationships  and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention.

Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.

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