It won’t work here!

Matthew Sher­ring­ton is depressed and los­ing patience with fundrais­ers who won’t try a dif­fer­ent idea.

Written by
Matthew Sherrington
October 08, 2014

If you think that, read on if you’re prepared to change your mind. Or leave now

There’s something quite depressing about reading comments after a conference presentation along the lines of ‘not relevant to me’, ‘didn’t learn anything, ‘nothing new’. Not because I was rubbish and didn’t come up to scratch (that’s obviously a possibility, but my sensitive ego takes comfort from the more positive feedback I generally get, even though those barbs hurt, they really do).

No, it’s depressing to come across that attitude or self-confident ignorance, which has no place in fundraising and says more about who’s making the comment than about me (I mean, imagine admitting you’ve learnt nothing).

What did you expect? To have it handed to you on a plate? Not to have to engage your brain and think a bit about it? Causes are different, organisations are different, markets are different and opportunities are different. So what? There is a ton to learn and be inspired about in the work of others, if you bother to apply yourself and think about it. 'How could you do something like that?' is what you should be asking yourself. I have worked in the USA as well as the UK, for charities big and small, international and local, brands famous and unknown, those that campaign and that just do child-friendly service delivery and I have no patience with that complaint ‘it won’t work here’ because:

  • we’re different;
  • it’s different there;
  • people here won’t like that;
  • we don’t do that
  • our brand isn’t as well known;
  • excuse of your choice.

I’ve seen an Oxfam TV ad I worked on in the UK work successfully in Spain and New Zealand. All that was needed was a new voice-over. You’ve all seen US charities try their hand at entering Europe with American-style direct mail packs. They might offend your aesthetic or cultural sensibilities and they don’t always pull it off. But often they do.

When I was in the States for Greenpeace USA I was so much the cocky Brit, determined to make monthly giving work in supporter recruitment, when everyone said it wouldn’t. I spent 18 months testing it in direct mail and got very close. But in the end I didn’t have deep enough pockets to keep going, so I didn’t win that one. I remain confident that someone with the budget to keep testing will. Let’s face it, there are plenty of causes and brands more appealing to the American public than Greenpeace!

But we launched an in-house face-to-face operation (an idea built on European experience, which of course wouldn’t work in the US either) and within two years were recruiting 1,000 monthly-giving supporters a week. We were envy of the nonprofit sector. "Well, that’s because you’re Greenpeace", I was told. The smartest cookies were ASPCA (the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals) who watched, learned, recruited staff with experience at Greenpeace and at our agency, and became the leader in monthly-giving DRTV. Gold star!

Just recently I worked with a Dutch nonprofit to improve a mailing appeal. I applied some tried-and-tested techniques common in the UK and USA, as well as more emotive messaging and a better structure and tested it to head with the original. Another gold star for trying it because there was a high degree of scepticism – the Dutch don’t like or respond to such blatant or emotive marketing techniques, I was told. Want to bet? We achieved a 20 per cent increase in response, 39 per cent increase in average gift and over 65 per cent increase in income. Nothing lost in translation there.

So, keep an open mind. Of course you have to adapt to a certain degree. Of course you have to test. But don’t think something won’t work if it originated outside where you are. It probably will if you bother to think how.

As you are here on SOFII reading this, you get it. Congratulations, you’re one of the clever ones. Your job now, whenever you hear someone say that ‘it won’t work here’, is to tell them to get on with the programme. Better still, encourage them to visit SOFII, steal an idea and try to make it work where they are.

Because that, after all, is the point and beauty of SOFII.

Greenpeace USA newsletter: the origami whale

And when you’ve taken ideas from elsewhere and made them work, give something back. Here are a couple of mine: a great supporter engagement idea, which I stole and adapted at Greenpeace, and have since applied to engagement ideas at other charities; and a UK-specific Gift-Aid mailing, which I think people could copy wholesale. 

I’d be delighted if you did. Just report back how you did.

About the author: Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington has over 20 years’ experience of charity marketing and leadership internationally, with organisations such as Oxfam and Greenpeace USA. He now runs his own consultancy, Inspiring Action. His guiding principle is engaging and inspiring people to action and has a particular interest in supporter engagement. Matthew bridges fundraising, communications, brand, campaigning, organisational development and offers strategic consultancy and coaching.

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