The wit and wis­dom of George Smith — Nev­er sneer at an Oscar 

Noth­ing suc­ceeds like suc­cess, and noth­ing makes the cheeks glow more, notes George Smith, as he offers wry com­men­tary on the arrival of Britain’s first fundrais­ing awards.

Written by
George Smith
April 22, 2021

I’ve always taken a typically profound view about awards competitions: they are deeply meretricious, utterly meaningless, trivialising and altogether foolish. And I enjoy them like mad. Put it another way; they are incredibly daft, and they make people happy. In an uncertain world, they are therefore a Good Thing. 

I gather from the Professional Fundraising Awards in early June that such an annual event has been previously discussed in high places and dismissed on the basis that it would somehow give offence. By which I presume that the ICFM (Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, or Chartered Institute of Fundraising as it is now) has looked at the idea and found it wanting. I find this rather depressing. A fast-developing profession should have the maturity to accept the predictable bad-mouthing and backbiting that come with awards in exchange for the exhilaration and pride that it offers the winners and the general sense of aspiration that it offers everyone else. 

Cerebrally it’s daft. A handful of our peers shuffle into a room, pore over an unrepresentative entry of work, declare some awards, refuse to declare others and pieces of paper are given out to the lucky winners a month later amid handshakes, photographs and modest razzmatazz. Godlike omniscience is therefore granted to the judges; how on earth can you possibly know which is the best campaign in the arts or educational field? How can you really distinguish between senior practitioners in declaring a Fundraiser of the Year? What about the campaign that is difficult to precis and which offers too few of the glitzy graphic virtues which often catch the judges’ eyes?  

All this is fair comment, but total allegiance to it becomes uselessly puritanical, as dismal as the spectacle of those schools who eschew competitive sport because slobby kids can’t play games and might need slob counselling for the rest of their natural. I think slobby kids can play games. I think everyone can win awards. Further, I think slobby kids should play games. And that everyone should win awards. Eventually. 

‘I think everyone should win awards, eventually.’

Having run an advertising agency for twenty years, I can testify to the value of professional awards. Inevitably, we have a wall-full of certificates and a mantlepiece-full of artefacts, though the louche days when they were used as doorstops is long over (the times are more serious and the risks of proprietorial eccentricity more pronounced). So I can vouch for the fact that they make people happy, that they add a little excitement to our dull lives and that they boost an organisation’s morale. A trinity of excellent values. 

And, without seeming patronising, I must report their particular value to young professionals. We gnarled old hands may be forgiven our sense of distance from such party games but watch a table of youngsters whoop and hug each other when they make the biggie. Only misanthropes would sneer at such displays of pride. The rest of us are allowed only a fond, knowing smile. 

Having said that, George Medley’s pretty acceptance speech on being made Fundraiser of the Year seemed genuine enough. And I can remember getting the Gold Award at the British Direct Marketing Awards a few years ago for a Greenpeace campaign. Old Know-it-all bounded to the stage and was sufficiently dislodged to give a clenched fist salute to the throng. If I hadn’t been physically removed, I’d probably have burst into tears, thanked the printers and artworkers who made it all possible and made a speech announcing that I wanted to travel the world and work with children. 

So, let this be an annual fixture. And let there be more entries and more categories. But, let there be just the one, authoritative competition, even if it takes/some hard-bitten diplomacy between the Institute and Professional Fundraisingmagazine to arrange it. The worst thing that can happen is for the apparent success of this first awards competition to spawn imitators. I have watched this happen in direct marketing where there now seems to be one a month. The currency gets devalued; the cynicism reappears.  

And, while it may surprise my old adversary, Paul Rowney (one-time editorial supremo at Professional Fundraising), to see this in print, I think we all owe him some sort of vote of thanks for getting that PFR Show up and running so successfully at the Horticultural Hall. There was a bustle around, a sense that this was an event which for once coincided audience demand with value for money. Again, I hope it becomes an annual fixture and Paul can wallow in such warmth in the knowledge that I am unlikely to be so benign to him for a decade or so. 

The fundraising caravanserai now moves on to Birmingham at the end of June (for the ICFM Convention) and to Holland for the IFC (International Fundraising Congress) in October. I submit that all these three events are relevant to British fundraisers and that all begin to have a definitive niche. When the ICFM launched the Birmingham Convention, some people expected it to bring the IFC event to its knees. What has happened has been instructive. Slightly fewer Brits now make their way to Holland and form a lesser fraction of a larger whole. The event has got larger and altogether more international; it has also got better, freed of its reliance on the British market. A healthy development. And better value for the Brits who do come. 

Birmingham will also mature in different ways. As will the new Rowney event. I can’t argue for a hundred flowers to bloom when it comes to fundraising conferences. But we seem to have three hardy annuals. Let’s keep them well-watered. 

*Editor’s note: The wit and wisdom of George Smith is a hilarious, mood-lifting series of musings by the late, great George Smith. It is brought to you thanks to the kindness and generosity of SOFII friend and superb fundraiser Steve Thomas of Stephen Thomas Ltd in Canada. Thank you!

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

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