Harold Sumption, Guy Stringer, CBE and Sir Leslie Kirkley, CBE
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A profile of Britain’s founding fathers of modern fundraising
A dangerous thing, nostalgia. It sweetens memory, it clouds vision. Was everything really better back then or were we just younger and more positive?
I’m trying to put it aside in writing about three titans of British fundraising. They formed an intriguing trio whose collective achievements created the business in which we all now work. And they were different from their successors. They were ‘good’ men, fuelled by a quiet zeal to make the world a slightly better place.
And fuelled, too, by a degree of spiritual conviction. Leslie and Harold were Quakers and Guy would always admit his need for religious belief. They were men of the world not saints but they acted differently from most of us. They offered calm where most of us need conflict. They applied common sense rather than dogma. And, over three decades, I don’t think I ever heard one of them swear.
Howard Leslie Kirkley
Howard Leslie Kirkley was born in 1911 and died in 1989. He seemed to be running the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (which later became Oxfam) from the time it first emerged in 1942. Leslie was a man of utter practicality. One of his earlier incarnations had been as an insurance salesmen in his native Yorkshire at a time when insurance was sold ‘on the knocker’. This might explain the characteristic bluntness of language. I was once by his side when his phone rang and the caller obviously asked a daft question. ‘Does it sound like Sylvia?’ was Leslie’s reply.
He was the first man I knew who was known by his initials. ‘HLK wants you in his office’ his secretary used to say and somehow you didn’t resent such cinematic verbals. You would find him smoking a pipe and wearing a cardigan when you got there. But this was a man who built a massive international organisation, whose opinion on aid and development was sought by government ministers, who served on innumerable committees and who earned a CBE and then a knighthood.
For he was not actually a fundraiser. But he had the wit and the worldliness to licence the first generation of fundraising from the professionals who were beginning to emerge in the 1950s. I remember him in 1963 standing in the middle of a group of celebrities in Trafalgar Square at a rally we’d organised to launch a million-pound appeal. He looked totally bemused but somehow dutiful as he subjected himself to the new rules of charity publicity.
Harold Sumption was the author of these new rules. Born in 1916, he was originally an advertising man dealing with hard-faced Northern mail order companies, an experience that served him well as he moved into the world of charities. He became a Quaker in 1936 and inevitably a conscientious objector during the Second World War. During the latter part of the War he suffered a severe return of the TB that had laid him low some years earlier. He was confined to various sanatoria for nearly five years, latterly in Switzerland. The return to work in post-war Britain was a gradual and careful one; by now he had two young children.
He needed to reconcile his zest for commercial advertising with his faith, applying his creative and entrepreneurial skills to the new art of communicating the needs of voluntary and humanitarian causes. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief gave him the perfect opportunity. It was a world away from the traditional Lady Bountiful charities. Its remit was aid for refugees, help for victims of war, natural disasters and famine and it was pursuing this mission in a post-war Britain that had plentiful reasons for feeling sorry for itself. Harold served the charity as adman, council member and board member from 1950 onwards for a full 35 years.
It was in the 1950s that Harold invented the ‘off-the-page’ fundraising ad – one that asks the reader for an immediate response. Deliberately artless and always written by Harold, the ads would shock and provoke with their simple, powerful depictions of need. In those early days the appeal was often for clothing and blankets as much as for money but response from the public was instant and massive. And the ads became what we would now call iconic – they were carried on banners on CND marches and appeared in leftist plays.
They were crude, deliberately so. And they applied the basic science of direct marketing. All the ads were ‘keyed’ so that response could be attributed to individual insertions and newspapers. They were also subject to ‘split runs’ so that one creative treatment could be tested against another in the same newspaper. The media schedules were equally imaginative – title corners in newspapers, spaces in books of stamps, free poster sites – anywhere where the message could be deployed at a predictive rate of response. In the mid 1960s, the target was three-to-one – we booked space on the basis that the direct cash return would be triple the cost of the ad, production included. That space was often booked at very short notice – the next day was not unusual.
This astonishing revolution in fundraising technique was totally driven by Harold. By now other charities were looking to him to develop their own programmes. Help the Aged appeared on the client list and he helped found ActionAid. Charities queued at his door for advice on how to apply these new techniques of press advertising, direct mail and trading catalogues. By 1963, Oxfam was big and bold enough to raise £1,000,000 in three months. There was a Trafalgar Square rally, a huge promotion with the Daily Mail, the involvement of the Beatles. The ‘Hunger Million’ campaign was a multi-media triumph and a true Harold Sumption vision.
Part of his skill was unleashing the energies of his new and younger colleagues. Like Leslie Kirkley, he would sanction any idea that was reasonable and positive. In the mid-sixties we had our own Oxfam show on Radio Luxembourg, we were producing cinema commercials and had volunteers deliver six million collection boxes – an exercise that added 400,000 new donors to Oxfam’s first computerised database. It was an age of fundraising enterprise and innovation, a world away from our contemporary culture of deference and focus groups.
And Harold remained always the man of the world rather than a cloistered fundraiser. He formed the first direct marketing division of a British agency at Alexander Butterfield and Ayer. He helped set up the Montreux Direct Marketing Symposium in the 1970s. And even when his agency career was drawing to a close he was taking on non-executive directorships with a Derbyshire clothing company and with those hard-boiled mail-order wallahs at Franklyn Mint.
But 1981 saw what was probably his greatest achievement. The first International Fundraising Workshop in Holland attracted just 31 delegates. The size and scope of what has become the Resource Alliance is proof of the vision of Harold and his colleagues. Twenty years later it had become a truly international force in fundraising education, operating in umpteen countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It is perhaps his best memorial.
Harold gave us the language of a new kind of fundraising. It still applies throughout the voluntary sector.
Guy Stringer took that tradition into a new century. Like Leslie Kirkley and Harold Sumption, his route into fundraising was a roundabout one. For Guy was a soldier, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War. In 1969 he joined Oxfam as commercial director, initiating the idea of buying handicrafts from producers in the developing world and selling them in Oxfam shops. Conventional wisdom now of course as the Fair Trade concept is so prevalent, but Guy was preaching that concept a full 40 years ago.
He became director of Oxfam in 1982 and stayed in the post till his retirement four years later. During his 16 years with Oxfam, the charity’s income grew from £2.5 million to £51 million – an astonishing performance. Yet Guy never swaggered, never offered bombast or pomposity. His style was a very English and very self-effacing humility – a rare thing these days.
Guy was a true frontline man. His stories of taking personal charge of getting aid into Cambodia when things were at their roughest were breathtaking, though he always thought them mere housekeeping. His military background undoubtedly helped but the passion and the decency of the man underpinned every single thing he did.
Famously, as Oxfam’s director, he would spend Friday afternoon telephoning any donor who had given more than £500 that week to say thank you. Imagine the delight of the donor to get such a call. Imagine the relationship that it would create between the two parties in years to come.
But Guy would have seen this as simple good manners just as he saw all his charitable doings as simple duty. ‘Can’t see what all the fuss is about’ he would say to me as his opening address to the International Fundraising Workshop caused the annual standing ovation. And he really couldn’t for, in his own terms, he had merely supplied three or four little anecdotes and a few homilies in 20 minutes. Guy always thought himself a perfectly ordinary chap (very much his own words); it simply never occurred to him that he was a great communicator and a very great inspiration to anyone who met him or worked with him.
Inevitably he became a board member of the International Fund Raising Workshop in the 1980s and remained close to its successor, the Resource Alliance, of which he became Chair Emeritus. In 2002 the Guy Stringer Bursary Fund was established to further the work he believed in.
Leslie, Harold and Guy – three quite remarkable men. We have to be fascinated by the fact that each of them strayed into fundraising from other worlds – insurance selling, mail order advertising, the Army. Do we pay a price these days for lacking these other experiences? Are we too insular because fundraising is all we have ever done?
For contemporary fundraising throughout the world seems to have stalled in its development. There are rules now for face-to-face work, for major donor campaigns, for envelope messages, for every miniscule part of our trade. Deference rules.
The three gentlemen I have described would not have understood these rules, let alone sympathised with them. They simply thought that everything was possible. Dare we say that they were wrong?
George Smith, March 2009.