One of those occasional spats has broken out in the pages of Third Sector; this time it's about whether the chief executive of Pell & Bales suggested, in a presentation in the Netherlands, that charities might consider contacting donors who have asked not to be contacted, in case they've changed their minds. Now I won't comment on what he said, because I wasn't there and I haven't yet seen the presentation. And, I certainly wouldn't wonder aloud whether we've a bit of a case here of journalists re-contextualising a remark so it has maximum impact. The point is, that there are a whole lot of people getting VERY ANGRY!
That makes me ask the question: do we have the right mechanisms in place for decent, nuanced, debate about these sorts of issues?
Last week I was phoned by a journalist from the Financial Times to talk about Face-to-Face fundraising. The piece was going to be, he said, a more balanced discussion of the issues. Well, we'll see, it's not been published yet. But the spirit of our conversation leaves with a little optimism. Part of the problem is that we talk about these issues in an increasingly combative way. I'm the first to admit that I've been guilty of this myself most recently in a piece that I wrote in The Observer. But if you nailed my feet to the floor and asked me what I really felt about F2F, I'd have to say that I would put myself just on the negative side of agnostic.
I think that there are real issues about donor attrition from F2F, and consequently the cost of it, and I've yet to be convinced that we are taking seriously what the public's dislike of F2F is doing to the reputation of the whole sector. Yet, at the heart of F2F, there seems to be an insight that the public like to be talked to, they like a conversation about what charities are doing, they like to be drawn into a dialogue.
I think that there's a real discussion to be had about this, ideally one that includes the public and goes beyond angry response posts on websites. But I don't think we've the mechanisms and fora in place to do it.
Sometimes when I look at febrile website comments and angry Twitters, I'm reminded of a former life where, when I arrived in the early 1990s the Chief Executive didn't have a computer and so, if he wanted to lambast you for some heinous failure, he had to dictate the note to his PA, who would type it up but conveniently file it in her desk before making it reappear before him saying, 'you didn't really want to send this, do you?' Then he was given a computer and a printer and he could type his own chastising notes which came to be known as 'Black-Edged Memos' and put them in the internal post. But even then, the trusty PA could, on occasions, intercept the doom-laden missive. And finally, there came email and the network. Now there was no escaping his wrath. At a single key-stroke a momentary flash of anger (often late at night) would head, inexorably to a staff-member's computer.
IT brings with great opportunities, but it can often act before we've had time to think.
All of which is to say that I see a need for much more thought and, yes, dialogue about things that are complicated but worth proper, and hopefully fruitful, discussion.