Stephen Cotterill: Public perception of commission-based fundraising is damaging

08 Mar 2024 Voices

Public perception of commission-based fundraising is damaging. Should the sector eschew the practice?

By Paweł Michałowski / Adobe

From a consumer’s point of view, the word “commission” always triggers alarm bells. Double-glazing salesmen, used-car dealers, pyramid schemes. The connotation is usually that the underlying motives driving the pitch are at best not entirely transparent and at worst nefarious, and almost always self-interested. So, can the fundraising sector do without it?

Of course, we are all grown-ups, and this is a business model for selling that is embedded in capitalism. However, that becomes part of the problem when it comes to fundraising. The public doesn’t see charity through the same profit-and-cost prism as it does business (witness the annual outcry over CEO pay, for example).

The moral perspective is less nuanced; more black and white. When the discourse around charity fundraising is often blunt, particularly when it comes to door-to-door and street activities, the word “commission” is easily wielded to strike blows at charity practices, no matter how rare poor behaviour is.

The Fundraising Regulator in the Code of Fundraising Practice advises that commission-based payment, as opposed to hourly salaries, “should not be used unless all other sources of fundraising investment have been explored and exhausted”. That’s pretty all-encompassing and presumably worded in this way with the intention of deterring the practice due to the obvious problems that it can raise.

As the sector once again goes through the media tumble-dryer over the latest scandal involving fundraising agency IBA Global and GOSH Charity, there is a weariness to the commentary. We have been here many times before. Could an easy win be to remove the commission-based model from door-to-door fundraising to minimise reputational risk and give the media one less stick with which to beat charities? Would it shift the dial on how the public perceives street fundraising, perhaps if only a little? Would it create a work environment that is more genial and less prone to malpractice?

To what extent this is less profitable, and therefore less sustainable as a business model, I am not sure. But many agencies do pay a flat hourly rate and make it work. Perhaps agencies and the charities employing them could consider this as a priority in all subcontracted fundraising moving forward.

@stevejcotterill is editor of Fundraising Magazine

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