Christmas fundraising series: How Bowel Cancer UK has difficult conversations


Unlike many charities, Bowel Cancer UK isn’t too worried that its main Christmas campaign will be scuppered by coronavirus restrictions. 

Decembeard – its annual campaign challenging people to grow beards (or, if they already have one, to give it a festive makeover with tinsel, baubles or glitter) – raises about £60,000 every year, and the charity is hopeful that this year will be no exception. 

In fact it might get a boost in interest this year, after many men decided to stop shaving during lockdown, Kerry Thomas, the charity’s head of public fundraising says.

This would be particularly welcome, given that many of its in-person fundraising events have been cancelled this year.

And the charity’s virtual Christmas tree, which allows people to make a donation in memory of a loved one and add a star to the virtual tree, will be accompanied by a virtual Christmas concert. 

But raising money is only really a by-product of the concert, Thomas says, and the focus is on interacting with current supporters, rather than trying to attract new ones.

“We don’t think it will raise millions – it’s £5 for a ticket or £15 with a tree decoration – but it’s a lovely way of people remembering their loved ones at Christmas, and raising some money for us as well,” she says.

In last week’s instalment of Third Sector’s Covid-19 Christmas fundraising series, fundraising consultant Leesa Harwood suggested that charities should consider whether or not they should actually ask for money this year, given the tough personal circumstances many supporters are likely to be in as a result of the pandemic and recession. 

But for those charities that do decide to make an ask, Bowel Cancer UK may be able to offer some advice.

As an organisation, it has a lot of experience of asking for support from people in difficult situations. 

Bowel Cancer kills more than 16,000 people every year – but compared to breast cancer, for example, it’s rarely discussed. So the vast majority of those who support the charity are likely to have been personally affected by the disease, and many of them may have been recently bereaved.

“For all charities there’s that really fine balancing line this year,” Thomas says. “There obviously is a need to be sensitive and not to go out all guns blazing, but I think that is the nature of our communications anyway, because we’re always weighing up somebody’s personal reaction with where we’re at.”

Like Harwood, she says tone is crucial to asking for support this Christmas. 

“Think about how you would want to be asked. If you were in a difficult position, whether that was personal or bereavement or financial problems, if you were going to be receiving that email or letter, what would you want it to say?” she says. 

“I would always want someone to acknowledge the situation I may be in, but then still be open about what they’re asking.”

Thomas acknowledges that not everyone will welcome the approach, and warns that this is something fundraisers need to accept. But, she says, it can also open up the opportunities for future conversations and a deeper, better relationship with them as a supporter. 

“So we will just put things out there for people to give, knowing that our supporters will give if they’re able to – and, if they’re not, will be honest with us about that,” she says.

Being honest with supporters has been key for the charity throughout the pandemic, according to Thomas. 

“Our supporters have been incredible. I have been absolutely blown away by how they want us to be open and honest with them about how coronavirus has affected our income. They want to know how things are going; they don’t want to hear that it’s all great when its not,” she says. 

“Like all charities, we are worried about what comes next year – and so grateful for the support we’ve had this year.” 

Over the next few weeks, Third Sector will bring you a series of case studies looking at how different charities are planning to fundraise in the run-up to Christmas, and offering advice for charities that are struggling to plan ahead.


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