NEW IDEAS: Critical Fundraising – a new mode of thought for our profession

Rogare has ambitious plans to transform how we practise fundraising. But before we can do that, argues Ian MacQuillin, we need to change the way we think about it.

A few years ago, long before I worked at the PFRA, my Dad phoned to ask if I was “still interested in chuggers”. I said it was what I lived for and he told me there was an item on Radio 5 Live. I tuned in and turned off after 10 minutes of the usual anti-F2F shibboleths.

Of course, I didn’t really live for ‘chuggers’, but even before I joined the PFRA in 2009, it might have seemed that way – as editor of Professional Fundraising magazine (now Civil Society Fundraising), I had run more articles about street F2F than anything else. F2F was, and is, a controversial method of fundraising. But another driver to the volume of column inches PF devoted to face-to-face was because I felt the standard of debate and argument around it – especially objections to F2F from within the fundraising – sector was so poor.

Within my first few months starting as editor of Professional Fundraising in 2001, I began to form a view that the fundraising profession did not deploy a level of critical and analytical thinking that I had encountered in the previous industry sectors I’d worked in, and that this approach was not going to be successful in overcoming forthcoming challenges. The manner in which the fundraising sector failed, collectively, in one of the biggest challenges it faced in the early- to mid-noughties – defending street fundraising against media attacks  – sealed it for me.

First, the objections levelled against F2F from within the ranks of the charity sector don’t just apply to F2F: criticism about guilt-inducement, motivations of fundraisers, invasion of privacy, amount going to the cause, cost, attrition, etc can all be applied to many other types of fundraising ­­– as some have been recently in relation to telephone fundraising and the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Second, defenders of F2F did not engage with the objections made against F2F, attempting rebuttals of ethical objections (such it was a deliberate attempt at guilt-inducement) with practical arguments (such as F2F raised lots of money or brought in younger donors). This resulted in critics and advocates of F2F talking past each other and the debate stagnating for the best part of a decade.

What the situation regarding F2F illustrates is a failure of analytical thinking in discriminating between the validity and soundness of various criticisms in the first instance, and a failure to discriminate between the nature and type of criticisms and rebuttals in the second.

So it was around 2003/04 that the idea for something like Rogare first started to germinate, something that would provide the evidence and arguments that we need to take the debate forward. Rogare has identified six ambitious, inter-related themes that will form the basis of our research for the next year to 18 months, including public perception, behavioural science, relationship fundraising and innovation (we’ll be posting more information about these projects shortly) that we believe will hugely contribute to professional practice.

But we also think that to achieve these aims, the fundraising profession needs to change the way it thinks about the issues and challenges it faces.

What is Critical Fundraising?

Critical Fundraising is a concerted attempt to critically and constructively evaluate impending issues and challenges and provide practical solutions to them. It is very loosely based on the idea of critical marketing, which is based on the concept of critical management studies, which is informed by critical theory.

Critical theory is the school of thought that assesses and critiques society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and humanities. Critical theory, according to its founder, the German philosopher Max Horkheimer, has to “explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation”.

Critical marketing is espoused by marketers and marketing academics who challenge those orthodox views that are often seen as central to the core discipline of marketing.

So while at Rogare we don’t claim a direct genealogical link with critical theory, as this is not our academic tradition, our overarching goal is to challenge, where we feel this appropriate and beneficial to the sustainability of fundraising, some of the core assumptions at the heart of fundraising by applying, where appropriate, knowledge that has been acquired outside of fundraising/philanthropy research and practice. These subjects include professional ethics, behavioural science, marketing theory, evolutionary psychology, moral philosophy and many others. But we will always aim to underpin our critiques on evidence, not just on argument, however good that argument is.

The Critical Fundraising ethos will underpin all our research projects and other outputs, such as blogs and seminars, as we investigate areas of fundraising that are under-researched or ‘under-thought’.

By under-researched, we mean topics where there is simply not enough reliable data to inform current practice. Our aim would then be to find out what research does exists and suggest how this could be used by practising fundraisers.

By ‘under-thought’, we mean topics where the arguments, discussions and debates lack cohesion, substance and/or internal logic. These are likely to be characterised by the same rhetorical arguments being trotted out time and again (from within the sector as well as without) but little progress actually being made.

Our objective is to use the lens of Critical Fundraising to achieve nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way the fundraising sector interprets the concepts that lie at its heart and meets the challenges that confront it.

A paradigm shift in the way we think about challenges in fundraising

The phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is incredibly over-used. Anyone with a crackpot idea they can’t get taken seriously always calls for a ‘paradigm shift’. It’s become such a cliché that when I used the term at the first meeting of Rogare’s advisory panel last month, the panel member sitting right in front of me very obviously rolled his eyes.

But what we are striving for is a paradigm shift in the intended sense of the phrase. The term ‘paradigm shift’ for a prevailing set of intellectual ideas and theories was coined by the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s notion of a scientific paradigm was that ‘normal science’ operates within a paradigm and that the ideas and concepts of this normal science were all embracing and self-reinforcing. Examples of scientific paradigms are Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

“The term ‘paradigm shift’ has become such a cliché that when I used it at a Rogare advisory panel meeting, one panel member very obviously rolled his eyes”

Kuhn’s insight was that it is difficult for new ideas to gain acceptance if they do not conform to the current paradigm, however good they are. However, as scientific tastes change, as new scientists come through and replace the old guard, and more and more evidence stacks up against the normal science of the existing paradigm, so it falls out of favour and the once heterodox ideas gain enough acceptance to become the new orthodoxy and a new paradigm is installed. This is the ‘paradigm shift’: Newtonian mechanics was absorbed first by relativity theory and finally by quantum mechanics.

For now we’re leaving open whether the current paradigm of ‘normal fundraising’ does or does not contain the right mix of ideas and concepts. But the way we analyse and critique those ideas to determine whether they are the right ones must change. Analysis in the normal fundraising paradigm is often characterised by:

  • a superficial understanding of key ideas that are often presented as simple dichotomies but not explored in their full context
  • poorly-constructed arguments both in opposition to and defence of key fundraising practices
  • lack of confidence when trying to defend ‘normal fundraising’ in public domains.

This is exemplified by the lack of concerted public support for F2F during the noughties. But there have been other instances where a lack of critical thinking has resulted in fundraising chasing its tail.

In 2006, ‘stewardship’ suddenly became the ‘concept-du-jour‘, with fundraisers falling over themselves to get the word ‘stewardship’ into their job titles and implement stewardship plans.

What hardly any fundraisers seemed to notice was that ‘stewardship’ wasn’t much more than good old relationship fundraising tarted up with a bit of American glitter and re-imported into the UK. This came about by uncritically accepting this supposedly new idea at face value and not challenging how, where and why it should fit into the existing fundraising environment (we see this pattern currently being repeated in the rush to embrace ‘innovation’ in fundraising). For an overview of stewardship in the mid-2000s, I’d recommend reading Gordon Michie’s white paper Pretenders to the Steward Throne.

“What hardly any fundraisers seemed to notice was that ‘stewardship’ wasn’t much more than good old relationship fundraising tarted up with a bit of American glitter and re-imported into the UK”

This approach often leads to a superficial understanding of new ideas, so much that they become simple buzzwords. Insights gleaned from behavioural science are some of the most important developments for fundraising, especially those that could be classed as nudge giving techniques. It is hugely in vogue ­– conference sessions attract big audiences and social media traffic confirms the popular interest. Yet there is a danger that the whole potential of behavioural science will be condensed into a couple of regularly-cited reports that do the rounds at conferences (Michael Sanders’ report for the Behavioural Insights Team is perilously close to falling into this category); and soundbited into a few Tweeted false dichotomies such as:

Fundraising is about emotion, not reason, because emotion leads to action and reason leads to thinking.

And fundraising is riddled with false dichotomies that are uncritically accepted as tenets of the fundraising profession. Here are just a few:

Good fundraisers are passionate about their causes rather than about the process of fundraising

Giving to charity should be done out of altruistic motives; if done for selfish motives it devalues the act of charity

Asking for money is either ‘transactional’ (focused on the process of asking) or ‘transformational’ (focused on the impact of the gift)

Fundraisers should not ‘recruit’ donors but should instead ‘inspire’ them.

And the best of them all:

Fundraising is not about raising money, it is about building relationships.

The mode of analysis we need to replace that which currently holds sway in normal fundraising is Critical Fundraising. We want to encourage every fundraiser to constantly challenge accepted ideas and practices, explore and analyse them in greater depth, and demand the evidence that backs them up. Above all, Critical Fundraising does not accept arguments at face value.

The more people we can convert to a Critical Fundraising mode of thinking, the better and more widely used our profession’s arguments in support of fundraising will become and it will be more likely that we’ll identify durable and sustainable solultions to the challenges we face. Critical Fundraisers will be the vanguard of any new fundraising paradigm.

One thought on “NEW IDEAS: Critical Fundraising – a new mode of thought for our profession”

  1. Great blog, Ian. If we step back from fundraising…step back from any business/ industry… And look at human beings. Look at life….The bad news is that many people are NOT critical thinkers. In fact, it seems that contemporary society doesn’t embrace critical thinking.

    I have a wonderful little pamphlet that I require my masters degree students to read: The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking – Concepts and Tools by Drs. Paul and Elder. You’ll find it on the internet. Topics include: Why critical thinking? The elements of thought. Three levels of thought. Universal intellectual standards. Analyzing and assessing research. What critical thinkers routinely do. The problem of egocentric and sociocentric think. And more.

    There’s also a wonderful article by journalist Chris Mooney “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” in Mother Jones magazine, June 2011.

    I think both the miniature guide and the Mooney article are essential reading for all human beings. And these two pieces certainly set the context for your blog.

    All education should teach critical thinking. All professions should expect critical thinking. And that includes fundraising!!!

    Keep up the fight.


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