Cynical, Or Public Interest?

I rarely start my posts with a video, but this one is different, as you need to see the discussion point first! The things I see in the cancer sector have almost made me immune to the very tasteless advertising that comes from the charity giants within it. Boastful claims about what they do, deliberately using very emotive advertising to target vulnerable people. But as their income starts to dry up, I did feel it might be the start of a new way of working for them. To be fair, as families move from tragedy to tragedy there has been less of a focus, for two reasons. One, most of the world is focussed on covid. Secondly the money for multi million pound adverts is no longer there.

During the last year, most of which has been in lock down, we have heard very little from our friends at Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. Of course like all of us they are looking at what the future holds for them. More importantly where is their cash coming from, to keep those giant wheels turning?

I believe that like the rest of the world, the charity sector is changing dramatically. It was starting, before covid, with trust in several larger organisations being eroded due to mismanagement. But is accelerating now, with less cash being donated and people asking questions about what they receive for their money. The landscape is moving from national to community, with a larger emphasis on collaboration. Ensuring that resources are not wasted or duplicated. It’s no longer purely about income, but impact! What happens with the charity pound that is donated?

Of course there are issues that will be permanent in the world, like cancer, and we must find long term sustainable solutions. But also there are now temporary problems, mostly caused by covid. We now have small local organisations being created, not being bound by red tape who can wade straight in to help. Being both agile and innovative, without vast overheads. Hopefully, many of those won’t be required by next year, but they are necessary now, and are showing what can be achieved.

For those that aren’t aware I run my own charity SimPal, providing free digital communication to people affected by cancer. We have been going 4 years now and were aware of the increasing digital divide even then. This problem has got much worse highlighted by the virus. So many organisations are arguing about how to solve it sustainably, that very few are doing anything at all. Ours might only be like a ‘finger in the dam’ but we are doing what we can. I also have many friends in the sector doing incredible work, all of us with decreasing resource.

But as the flowers start to show their heads, and hopefully positivity coming through regarding covid injections, both our big charities can’t wait for the opportunity of returning to type! As usual, with national tv adverts asking for money. Of course if you don’t ask you don’t get. They have to look after their own organisations. But are almost the only two in the sector with the income to afford this! How has the sector managed, whilst they work out where their next penny is coming from? Simply because there are many more organisations doing great work that rarely gets mentioned!

Of course both do some incredible work, but I have to question whether they listen to the people they purport to support with their dubious fundraising challenges and advertising? I have always considered people affected by cancer as vulnerable, including myself. The importance of writing a will cannot be underestimated either, and some of us will need a nudge to do it. But I believe that the timing of these adverts is cynical. We are currently seeing more people dying daily than ever before, no coincidence in my opinion that these are now appearing!

I would also like to point out that there are also more than two charities in the sector, despite what we might be led to believe. They are doing incredible work, and some cannot even afford to advertise. Why don’t the big boys share that information, opening access to other resources for their supporters. Are they so frightened that they will take a slice of fundraising cake?

This post is written with my cancer patient hat on. The advertising I see from these giants does not sit comfortably with me at all. “Help us do whatever it takes.” Really!! “Let’s walk all over cancer” Sure!! Where have you been when we needed you most? Dreaming up the next campaign? Like all good causes we need money, and without fundraising there would be no help. Of course I get it, I’m in it! But why is the cancer world so fundraising heavy?

Most websites you visit you’re faced with big banners about raising money. In fact it is very hard to avoid. As a marketer I would be happy about that. But times are changing and people affected by cancer, deserve better than to be just a marketing statistic for the latest ask. Yes, many people genuinely enjoy the fundraising process and that’s great, a real win-win! But most are vulnerable, frightened people trying to stay alive and looking for help! Not the quickest route to their solicitor to make a will.

More people are dying than ever before, I believe these adverts are deliberately timed and in the longer term will do more harm than good to the sector. Of course, charity giving is a very personal thing, and you may totally disagree with my views. I would love to see what you all really think about this. Please feel free to join the discussion below.

A fundraising memory from 2019


  1. Excellent blog Chris. We both commented on how inappropriate this advert is especially after a family member sadly died last year. It just makes me more likely to support small cancer charities who don’t have huge advertising budgets paid for by donations from the general public!

    • Me too Sam! They just don’t listen, all they are interested is how much money they can raise. Of course we need money to help and I know #Legacy income is a big % of #Fundraising but it just doesn’t feel right at all, in my opinion.

      • I completely agree, it felt really uncomfortable to watch. I get fed up of seeing them advertised all over hospitals paid for by donations, this is why many HCPs don’t know about or recommend smaller charities who often offer better support

        • Agreed Sam! You would think that if they didn’t get #Collaboration in times like this, will they ever? I think we both know the answer to that. Not sharing other available resources is not helping the #CancerCommunity at all. “Whatever it takes!”

  2. Cynical without doubt,we’re doing everything in our powers to remain positive & fight on against this awful disease & do not need reminding about the ultimate consequences!
    Headline grabbing statements during a pandemic as well, you’d expect better, not this but #CancerAwareness

    • Couldn’t have put that better Peter, thank you! They ALWAYS tell me they listen to their supporters before running these campaigns. It certainly doesn’t seem that way?

      • I’m sick of it Chris .. I know it’s a tough time for all charities, but they can drop the headline grabbing statements to get ahead of the field, because it’s at our expense! Even tv adverts are now graphic & hard hitting to win over guilt to raise funds, again at our expense!

        • You know I am certainly in agreement there Peter. As a small charity @YoursimPal in the sector, I get many comments about the behaviour of the big boys. Creating a difficult #fundraising environment for us all!

  3. I recently did an independent fundraiser for 3 charities- 2 specific cancer charities, and Macmillan. This was to pay back the support they gave me when I was ill.
    The other two charities thanked and encouraged and amplified my campaign throughout my activities. They congratulated me at the end. One sent me a card and a tee-shirt, the other a handwritten certificate.
    Macmillan did nothing until a couple of weeks later.
    I got a phone call from a third party hired by macmillan. He wanted me to set up a direct debit to give more money. He was on commission.
    I lost a lot of respect for them over this. The macmillan nurses were great in hospital, but the corporate machine is horrid.

  4. Hi Jonah,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience, which shows the situation so well! Us smaller charities are directly linked with the people we support. The giants are too far away and have little idea what we now require. They have become lazy! Now the world has changed, they need also to change, which is challenging.

    Most people are unaware that most incredible ‘Macmillan Nurses,’ are employed by the individual #NHS trusts not Macmillan the charity. That is why you see a difference between their work and the charity.

    Stay safe, Chris

  5. But why is the cancer world so fundraising heavy?

    Easy answer, because charity is doing Govt/NHS’s job. It’s always been the way. Legacy funding is hugely important to the charity sector so, yes, the adverts may be cynically timed but without legacy funding their work suffers!

    • Certainly a big part of the answer Tony. Like everything currently, #Legacy will also be decreasing as generations change. Not arguing the need for fundraising of course, but there must be better ways than frightening people?

      • Absolutely agree which is why I believe the Govt’s Covid project fear is repulsive. Using behavioural science to try to control people. I came across it professionally as well and it had horrendous consequences for some people incl suicide

  6. I absolutely agree with all of the previous comments. I was actually thinking of closing Finding Me, because it seemed impossible to secure any future funding. We were also ill advised to become a CIC (we earn no money from this) instead of a charity. If anybody can help us change from a CIC to a charity please get in touch. Chris you and your community are amazing!

    • Hi Debbie,

      It’s lovely to hear from you. Unfortunately the world of charity is not all it might seem, as you are obviously discovering.

      However the ground is levelly now as the big boys income drops rapidly in these awful times. As I said in my piece is, and should always be about impact not income. Those boys should be leading us out of this crisis not taking us in a race to the bottom of fundraising standards.

      Let’s have a chat about your issues, I may be able to help. You can drop me a mail through the icon in the top right.

      Thanks so much for your kind words and stay safe, Chris

  7. Hi Chris, Action on Womb Cancer was approached last week with an offer to appear in a well known broadsheet’s campaign next month. For the privilege of writing 350 words ourselves, the charity would be featured at a cost of £5K. Were we to supply a suitable photo too, that would be printed free of charge alongside the paid for article – very generous of them. For 1/2 a page the cost would be £8K, with £10K for a whole page. AWC is a small charity with limited resources so my answer was no; but it was a huge insight into how other charities spend donations from the public. I don’t donate to the charities you’ve referred to in your article, nor will I leave either of them any form of bequest. We rarely watch TV but, when we do, we always mute ads from these charities. Keep well. Deb X

    • Hi Deb,

      I don’t think that story surprises either of us, but I wish I had got that call! I see and hear those stories most weeks, and as we all know it has been going on for years. When we see those tv adverts my wife always laughs and says, “your friends are at it again!”

      The cynical timing with these is just disgusting, as more people are dying than ever.

      I hope you guys are staying safe and let’s hope we can start to see some light. Big love, Chris XX

  8. As an adopted Macmillan professional I have contacted them several times in the past regarding their advertising. This is because it focuses on promoting their funding of Macmillan nurses. In reality the number of Macmillan nurses they are actually funding is minimal.

    Having said that they are doing some good work around the integration of pathways across the community and acute sectors, but a lot of this involves volunteers and in my opinion the NHS should be funding these services as they benefit cancer patients, ie exercise schemes etc to say well for longer.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing your personal views. I know only too well how Macmillan work and most donors would be shocked to know the true relationship between the nurses and the charity. I have spoken to many nurses over the years who are totally embarrassed by the whole thing. It gets us all a bad name to be honest. I’m shocked they can get away with it. Of course they do some good work but why not focus on that?

  10. I agree, they should focus on the work they are doing, their adverts raise expectations of patients that you will be there at all times for them to hold their hands.

    Personally I think of us as skilled professionals who empower people with cancer to live the best life they can, giving support and signposting as needed.
    Your blog is excellent, the patients viewpoint is very much not at the heart of current services and it so should be.

    • A lot of HCPs and patients don’t like talking publicly about this issue but all agree. They have spent so much on promoting themselves, from money given with trust.

    • Thanks Chloe. I just feel that this advertising to #Vulnerable people is not appropriate. Particularly in the times we are living in.

  11. Fascinating thread. I have had cancer as a young woman and I couldn’t watch tv for fear of the negative focused adverts. It didn’t help my recovery at all. I did fundraise for a big charity and received an email of thanks.
    I now run a nationwide perinatal mental health charity and we act as an early intervention service for the NHS we receive no grants or any funding and do have a small under paid fundraising team. However we are so focused on service our main fundraising goal has been to keep core costs running… it’s tricky!

  12. Thank you so much for joining this thread and sharing your own experience. I also run a very small charity, and of course it is challenging for us too! What I am seeing is that the old stale ways of raising money are no good for current times. My feeling is that we need our donors to also be engaged/connected with what we do. Which makes more work of course. Less people will be giving to charity now, and will be much more choosy where and why they donate. Challenging times, and good luck with your work, Chris

  13. The adverts just want to make me confirm I wont be leaving any money in my will to them or anyone else who asks already vulnerable people to leave them their dosh oh sorry provide a free will service !

  14. Thank you drawing my attention to the Macmillan will writing tweet. Very insensitive. I have seen charities advertising make a Will month too and while I’m always pleased to be able to help charities make money I am uncomfortable with them doing it especially now with Covid affecting nearly everyone in some way.

  15. Never pressured but emotionally blackmailed! Targetting these adverts at people who are already extremely vulnerable is not good. Same as your”brave the shave” fundraising idea. When you’ve lost your hair due to chemo as I did then there is nothing “fun” about it.

  16. Hi Chris, our Free Will Service is one of our well-established services, it’s popular with our supporters & those affected by cancer.
    Our legal partners are vetted, it’s an independent legal service. There’s no obligation to leave a gift to Macmillan in wills.

    We know when people are diagnosed with cancer, they have enough concerns without worrying about their will. Will writing is outsourced to professional partners, paid for by Macmillan. We this to be as easy as possible. Supporters are never pressured to leave a gift to us. Angela

  17. Exactly!! There are SO many things to worry about other than this!! It take AGES (years!!) to get back to some sort of normal x #bonetumoursurvivor

  18. Macmillan have offered this service for a few years now. I appreciate it is not to everyone’s taste but have signposted many patient who were concerned financial planning for the future. You are not obliged to donate. Am disappointed in such negativity.

  19. It is very inappropriate. It makes me feel very uncomfortable if I see a charity to whom I turn to for support doing this.

  20. I’m sorry but what kind of reply is that @macmillancancer solution is change your approach to the campaign, with the pandemic the last thing people are thinking about is wills, the adverts aren’t correct anyway my dad has had terminal cancer for 3 years and hasn’t had any support.

  21. Wanted to message to let you know I really appreciated your post & the questions it raises
    I personally find most if not all fundraising in general to be presented the wrong way round, We are shown the need and presented with the ask. I think it would be better to use the advertising to present how the organisation can help, how to access the help and then a small message – if you would like to support this work how to donate. Rather than disturbing images which can manipulate or distress the very people we want to help. putting the support offer first You are in effect achieving two aims of promotion reaching people who need your support and whilst driving fundraising to continue offering that support. but this might be why I am not an advertising manager.
    Regarding wills I agree can seem cynical but in practical terms the offer of free wills can really help people. I have seen people who are incredibly being panicked into paying thousands of pounds for wills and additional documents they don’t need. One of the reasons we like to see people as soon as possible following diagnosis breaks my heart when people tell me how much they have spent for something they could have had for free or didn’t need
    Being able to offer a supported route to making a will and getting free advice about other areas such as probate and power of attorney can give a massive amount of relief & can keep people from being exploited. We maintain a list of all the different will writing services so people can make an informed choice and always make it clear that no donation is needed (where there is a cost it is highlighted) We follow up with the person/family to check how the process has gone & get really good feedback people find it really useful. I do understand taking a step back how it can seem as an exploitative way to fundraise as it put the charities name and will in the persons mind which for those that can, may trigger leaving a donation in their will.
    I wouldn’t want the free wills and financial advice aspect to disappear as so many people rely on it at the most difficult of times and the feedback has shown it to be safe and not exploitive.

    regarding people being featured in promotional campaigns, & advertising.
    My personal opinion is I want people to feel their voices are heard, their opinions matter & they are valued but never exploited.

    Hope this makes sense was meant to be a quick thank you for the post but got carried away.

    really enjoy your posts thanks for doing what you do

  22. Quite frankly it’s a sinister marketing decision for a charity to make because I KNOW that THEY know that lots of people write wills when they feel vulnerable. What do we call organisations who target emotionally vulnerable people on purpose to persuade them to give them money?

  23. I find this service helpful. I have battled 4 different cancers causing me to have to take ill health early retirement (at just 52) so having something in place for my loved ones is a comfort. Regardless of diagnosis, everyone needs to, at some point, write a will.

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