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Mistakes in fundraising are such rare birds

It’s not often I hear much about charities’ fundraising mistakes. Ask fundraising heads about their successes and they’ll talk to you for hours, but their responses are likely to slow down, falter or possibly stop altogether once the conversation turns to their mishaps. Complaints? No, not many. Money wasted? Not really. Regrets? Never!

Maybe they are much more open among themselves and are reluctant to tell me because I’m a journalist and might write about it. Either way, the Oops! event hosted by the Institute of Fundraising at Amnesty International in London on Tuesday promised to be an intriguing alternative to the good practice I’m so used to hearing about.

Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, took to the stage first to tell the audience that members of the public don’t mind hearing about charities’ past failures. He based this claim on a recent survey in which three quarters of respondents said they agreed charities should collect evidence to show the difference they made even if that meant telling people that some of their projects had failed.

Next came the charity executives to talk about such projects. Richard Taylor, who is leaving his role – arguably the biggest in the sector – as the head of fundraising at Cancer Research UK to work for the consumer charity Which? in August, confessed how, when the cancer charity needed a new customer relationship management system a few years ago, he spent too much on external consultants (“they impressed me with their suits”) and on creating a bespoke CRM system when a standard one would have done the job. “We bought a Rolls Royce when we could have got away with a Vauxhall Corsa,” he admitted.

Gill Raikes, chief executive at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals Charity, spoke next about one of her 28 years (yes, you read that correctly) as fundraising director at the National Trust. Her big mistake there, she said, was a miscalculation in the early 2000s when HMRC (then the Inland Revenue) introduced the Gift Aid on Entry scheme which allowed charitable visitor attractions to claim Gift Aid on admissions for the first time.

“I thought this was such a no-brainer, and I held four focus groups and visited 10 properties to tell them about it,” she said. “But front of house staff – some of whom are volunteers in their 60s and 70s – hadn’t quite grasped Gift Aid and often had large queues of people to deal with who didn’t understand how it worked either. I’d really like to live that year again because I would visit all our properties to explain how the system worked.

Paul Stein, a former head of fundraising at World Jewish Relief and now head of fundraising at the mental health charity MQ and , which he said would be launching soon, spoke next, explaining how one of his mistakes was his fear of major donors (“they’re really rich, really clever and quite terrifying”). Then he realised that the worst thing that could happen was that they would tell him to “bog off” and put the phone down on him – and that this wasn’t so scary after all.

Tobin Aldrich, chief executive of the newly-formed Misfit Foundation, which plans to use technology and storytelling to connect donors with projects, rounded off the event with a candid account of his time as the fundraising director of Concern Worldwide in Ireland from 2000 to 2004. Aldrich caused much mirth with his recollection of a complaint he received from a resident of the Irish town of Castleireland – famously described as “not so much a town as a street between two fields” – after sending 20 Mancunian fundraisers to the area. “It was an invasion,” the complainant had told him. “I thought it was the return of the Black and Tans.”

Whatever Corry says, I think we have a way to go before charities will start talking freely about their failures to the public – or the press. Nevertheless, hearing about mishaps at events such as this – even if they are ones that took place long ago – is surely a promising start. Hearing about mistakes, after all, is one of the best ways to learn.