Opinion: Let’s put members in the driving seat

“Caron’s test” for emails to Party members is good, but I think we can go further.

The underlying problem, as I’ve written before, is that too many of the emails  seem to be written by marketing professionals who are trying to achieve a specific result – often one that can be measured by funds raised.  The reason it’s a problem is that we aren’t just donors – most of us see ourselves as members of an extended family who need to be reassured, engaged and spoken with directly in ways that relate to our own experience as Party members.

It is interesting that fund-raising charities now spend a good deal of their time and money on chatting with supporters about what they do rather than just doing constant appeals based on need.

A recent piece of US experience seems to me to be useful:

Levitt and Dubner in their most recent book in their “Freakonomics” series quote the example of Brian Mullaney of Smile Train with his “once-and-done” strategy.  That involved asking potential donors to make only one donation with the option of ticking a box to say “do not ask for another donation”. That seems counter-productive: in charities, we have learned that first-time donors rarely give enough to cover the cost of making the contact. It’s only with continued donations that the charity makes a surplus on the relationship.

So, what happened in the Smile Train experience? Firstly, donors were twice as likely to make a donation if they had the option of saying “never again”.  Secondly, they gave slightly more money. Thirdly and crucially, two-thirds of them didn’t opt for the “never again” option; they said instead either “send me only two letters a year about what you are doing” or “keep me in regular touch with the good work you are doing”. As a strategy, it cost less money (because the opt-outs didn’t get further, unproductive appeals) and it raised more.

Crucially, the strategy “changed the frame” of the relationship between the supporter and the charity: It put the supporter in control and it recognised the sheer hassle of getting regular appeals.

Let’s go a stage further with this approach. We have a large number of new members, the majority of whom joined nationally for national reasons. A third of them have said that they are not looking for local involvement (that may well change, but only if we are careful in how we manage the relationship).  In addition, we don’t know how many of our existing members are alienated by the fund-raising focus of most of the communications they receive, particularly when any information about campaigns is focussed on paying for someone else to take action.

These issues aren’t met by an occasional magazine, even if it wasn’t edited in “Woman’s Weekly” style.  Similarly, it is unlikely that these new members (and a lot of existing ones) are going to be fully engaged by the top-down style of consultation on policy development we have developed.  It is very clear that we need to find new models and new media if we are going to use the strength of our members in contributing seriously to developing and deciding policy.

The challenge for us therefore is to answer the questions: what would happen if we put members in control of our communications with them?  How far and fast would our engagement with members develop if they were in the driving seat of the relationship? Would it actually improve both our fund-raising and the quality of our policy if members knew that they were in charge?

This isn’t a fully worked out proposal. It’s an idea and a principle. At the least, however, it seems to me that it’s worth thinking through and testing.

* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Great idea. And in addition we should take the same approach to policy by involving members directly rather than through committee/representative mediation.

  • Kevin Partner 22nd May '15 - 5:06pm

    Couldn’t agree more – I left the party last year because I was fed up with the only communications being requests for donations, often “cunningly” disguised behind an invitation to comment on something. I appreciate that the LibDems aren’t funded by either big business or the unions and need money but, firstly, I’ve paid for membership and, secondly, I’d like the proportion of emails containing donation requests to those offering genuine interaction with the party to change substantially. If I were involved, as a member, in the campaigns (by having been asked my opinion on them), I’d be much more likely to donate to those I support.
    Incidentally, I joined again on 8th May and am hoping for better things this time around, communication-wise.

  • This is a great post Gordon and something we should be doing, particularly in light of Olive Cook recently http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/05/15/poppy-seller-plagued-by-charities-found-dead_n_7289958.html

    It wonder if it would make a good training session at conference – I know Nationbuilder (which a lot of us are using now) has some options around this sort of thing, but looks fiendishly difficult to set up..

  • This article is just bursting with commonsense.
    Well done Gordon, for nailing something that has bothered me about this party for years, and for coming up with the solution.

  • Helen Quenet 22nd May '15 - 6:19pm

    During the election I did feel harassed for money, particularly towards the end of the campaign. I also felt that that the money I gave to my local party was disregarded by the national party. I don’t mind giving but I like to be able to budget for it. Also it feels irritating if you come in tired from canvassing or from delivering lots of leaflets to yet another request for money. I would definitely prefer the one donation tick box idea because it would take pressure off me, very good idea.

  • I once made a donation to an NGO about an issue I felt strongly about. It was intended as a 1 off. However I kept getting letters from them requesting more donations which I did not respond to and given the cost of them doing that I often wondered how much of my donation they actually benefited from.

  • Peter Hayes 22nd May '15 - 9:04pm

    I suspect the central begging letters and emails cost more than I donated. Which is why I donated to my local party and to the candidate against as Salmond. There seems to be a need of some database of donations to select the possible repeats.

  • George Potter 22nd May '15 - 10:10pm

    Can I suggest, with my tongue in my cheek, that instead of Ad Lib or a return to Lib Dem News we just encourage people to read the Liberator?

    It’s not perfect and analysis/opinion in it can be a bit rough on the leadership at times but at least it has articles on a wide range of policy and principle, provides an insight to what’s happening behind the scenes in the party and has a fairly good sense of humour throughout.

  • Catherine Smart 22nd May '15 - 11:27pm

    Years ago, I told the national party not to ring or write to me asking for donations as I would give what I could to my local party. That has been honoured.

    But I got increasingly irritated the last few months as it obviously does not apply to on-line requests. I quite agree with Helen Quenet that being bombarded with demands for donations was particularly irritating when tired from working on the local campaign. Surely, if we are as sophisticated and savvy on line as we are told, a little bit of cross-referencing would be possible?

  • peter tyzack 23rd May '15 - 9:29am

    we don’t need Ad-Lib or a return to LD News, but progress to a new monthly publication, free to every member that makes us feel included in the ‘family’ Gordon refers to(such a publication would make profit by being funded from advertising to a growing circulation).
    We need to re-orientate our organisation around local communities, not around constituency constructs, and we need to empower our regional organisations to help grow local groups. Perhaps our regions too should be re-orientated too, instead of being based on Govt Regions, be set-up on broadcasting regions, making it less cumbersome for our media officers to get traction with the broadcasters.

  • Local parties win elections, national parties lose them. I first realised this on the day of the general election before last, watching the local tory framework grind into action – an impressive local network. On our side of the fence there were people in the little clique, those on the outside and precious few of both, whilst for months prior there was talk of campaigners being bussed in from elsewhere.

    It never used to be like this – back in the eighties we used to hold coffee mornings, fetes, stalls at local events and just have whip-rounds to get the money to print the election posters & leaflets – it was a community party and it really felt like local people were coming together to fight for their beliefs. If I contrast that with what I’ve experienced in the last 7 years or so it makes me sad and I think Gordon is merely hinting at the tip of the solution (or maybe just that there’s a problem).

  • Elaine Woodard 23rd May '15 - 4:55pm

    Gordon, as always, you’re talking a lot of sense. I gave several times and got so irritated with being asked for more donations for the same matched funding campaigning.

  • SIMON BANKS 23rd May '15 - 8:51pm

    Interesting idea. And what would happen if we asked the new members, “Do you want to be sent huge lists of candidates and supporting information for party committees you’ve never heard of, so you can vote by single transferable vote, which means putting the candidates in order of preference?”?

  • I have to admit that I was particularly struck by the comment about new members’ preference not to get involved locally (at least for now).

    I am somebody who joined for national reasons and ended up with a local party then (luckily not now) so embroiled in internal strife that I wouldn’t have stayed if I hadn’t been able to have regular conversations with members from elsewhere online.

    Ever since I have been advocating that there should be a form of party membership which does not automatically link you to the place where you live: local parties should have to make some effort to deserve the members that fall into their lap purely coincidentally. And people should be able to be party members without having to deal with their local party if they can’t get on with the people there. How many members do we regularly lose because of this? I have certainly come across quite a few, and not just in my local party.

    Yes, localism is important for us as a party, but we should not trap members in such a situation with no choice in the matter. It doesn’t strike me as very liberal or up to date in a time where people increasingly have a choice not to define their identity by where they live.

    We need something like a ‘virtual local party’, and quite possibly also memberships through SAOs or AOs.

  • @Maria “I am somebody who joined for national reasons and ended up with a local party then (luckily not now) so embroiled in internal strife that I wouldn’t have stayed if I hadn’t been able to have regular conversations with members from elsewhere online. ”

    This echoes my own experience, and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Back in 2005 I found(ed) a group of like-minded party members via an online community and that preserved my membership of the party.

    Given the social media tools there are nowadays we should be much better at this.

    My biggest concern is that too many of our new members will get put off by the entrenched positions and personalities sometimes found in local parties.

  • Richard Underhill 24th May '15 - 4:25pm

    Emailing us for money three times in the same day is

    a waste of our time when we could have been campaigning.

    Extracting money from members and supporters,

    so as to decide centrally on how to spend the money,

    should be judged on results.

  • On a positive note, the Lib Dem membership counter now stands at 58778.

    Which is 10 more than the low point in 2009 reported here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Democrats!

    I also remind everyone of the 1989 Euro elections when we got 6.2% of the votes, and were fourth behind the Greens who got 15%! We have been here before!

  • Andrew Whyte 24th May '15 - 9:47pm

    In these straitened times, isnt it about time we rationalised branch structures to one per constituency, rather than the rag bag of historic and outdated ones now in place?

    This could then be over layed with communities of interest rather than forced agglomerations.

    It’s a sad fact that decimation at local and national level leads to fewer and fewer activists (particularly as we Grimond types die out), and dozens of committees and subcommittees actually put people off being involved – regardless of personalities

  • Andrew Whyte: ‘reduce to one per constituency’?

    As far as I am aware, most local parties already comprise more than one constituency. There are not many single constituencies left which would get to a sufficient number of members.

    I have seen a merger of thee constituency parties into one LP which now comprises the whole local authority, and the latter seems lot more practical. And a bigger LP offers *some* protection against personality clashes and problematic practices such as entryism….

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