About 10 years ago I was asked to contribute to a London radio discussion about whether or not people who play the National Lottery should get any say in which charities benefit from lottery money. It was an interesting debate to be part of, because my natural instincts in favour of ‘people power’ conflict with a fear that going down that path would unfavourably affect charities that work with ‘unpopular’ causes and beneficiaries. Who would vote for organisations that work with prisoners or asylum seekers or do research into medical issues that affect only a tiny percentage of people, but are in no less need of lottery funds than more popular causes like animal welfare, children and cancer research? We chewed over the pros and cons of this approach on air, but the wind was already blowing in the direction of public participation.
In the subsequent years, a portion of lottery money has indeed been influenced by public votes, including funds for heritage causes allocated via the TV programme ‘Restoration’ and funds allocated to regional organisations as a result of the ‘Peoples Millions’ scheme, which has so far distributed £18 million.
Another type of fundraising that sometimes uses popularity contests to pick recipients is corporate ‘Charity of the Year’ partnerships. There are 3 reasons this is a sensible approach:
(1) The staff and customers will be asked to get involved in fundraising so it is reasonable that they help to choose the cause that will benefit from their efforts, rather than it being selected by the chairman or a director.
(2) A good ‘fit’ is a pre-requisite for success in corporate partnerships; they rely on a natural empathy between the charity and company. Employees and customers are more likely to be enthusiastic and generous to a cause they have chosen.
(3) Voting has benefits for the employer as it can engage staff and enhance customer loyalty, and it has benefits for the short-listed charities who may pick up new supporters during the pitching process, even if they are not ultimately chosen.
But I still have doubts about using democratic procedures to decide which charities get support. What about those excellent organisations that are effectively excluded because their face doesn’t fit the corporate image, their beneficiaries don’t appeal to a majority of the electorate or they fail to evoke a ‘feel good’ factor amongst enough customers? I’ve written more about this in the current edition of Professional Fundraising magazine which you can access here
What do you think? Is it right to introduce democracy into fundraising or is ballot box benevolence fatally flawed?