NEW IDEAS: Moralists at the feast – what really drives public hostility to fundraising?

We all know that many people don’t like being asked to give to charity. But what’s really driving this public hostility? Ian MacQuillin sets out to uncover these deep-seated objections to fundraising.

In his excellent, bite-sized introduction to ethics, the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn writes about how people don’t like being told what to do by pesky do-gooders:

“We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them.”

Fundraisers are ‘moralists at the feast’. They come into people’s personal spaces ­– whether physically, in the form of street or doorstep fundraisers; virtually, through email and TV adverts; or by proxy on the telephone or via direct mail – and ask them to do something good on behalf of someone else.

And people do not like that. They resent the intrusion, the feeling that they are being patronised because they are being instructed how to behave, and the sense of guilt that comes with declining to give in response to that ‘instruction’ to do good. People react negatively and often vehemently to being asked to give to charity, finding reasons to retrospectively justify not just their decision not to give in response to a fundraising ask, but their righteous anger at having been asked to give in the first place.

If some moral or ethical fault can be found with the practice of professional fundraising, then people have moral licence to view their non-giving as an ethical act against ‘corrupt’ professional fundraising.

However, that anger is almost never a primary emotion, but rather often simply a transference of feelings of guilt, hurt or fear on to the cause of those feelings. In other words, the anger directed at fundraisers is a proxy for the guilt that people feel at not giving (or perhaps it is driven by indignation, helplessness or some other emotion or mental state).

For some people, the guilty feeling comes about because they know, deep down, that they should be giving more. So simply declining to give, as they would have a perfect legal and moral right to do, would still leave them feeling that they had somehow failed to fulfil their duty of aid. Fundraisers have thus ‘disturbed their equilibrium’. However if some moral or ethical fault can be found with the practice of professional fundraising, then people have moral licence not just to not donate, but to view their non-giving as an ethical act against corrupt (as they define it) professional fundraising.

To allow them to do this, they construct a ‘multitude of defences’ against the requests of fundraisers. These include:

Accusing fundraisers of guilt-tripping them, rather than admit that they genuinely feel guilty about not giving enough

Complaining about the amount of money that goes to the cause, without having any knowledge about how much actually does

Accusing fundraisers of being aggressive and harassing people

Criticising the amount that fundraisers and other staff are paid

Objecting to being asked at all: “I give to the charities I choose to without needing to be asked/”

That these are often post hoc justifications for not having responded to a fundraising ask is supported by nfpSynergy’s recent study into ‘annoying’ fundraising techniques. This found that people rated as least effective those forms of fundraising that they found most intrusive (such as telephone and doorstep fundraising) even though in reality they are among the most effective.

As these reasons for not giving are retrospective and often fallacious (as evidenced by the effective/intrusive example in the nfpSynergy research), a rational person ought to jettison these objections when provided with contrary evidence. However, the recent history of fundraising’s portrayal in the media suggests this is not the case.

This would in turn suggest that hostility to fundraising is driven by something much deeper, and that objections based on guilt, harassment, cost-effectiveness etc, are simply proxy objections for these fundamental reasons, which is why disposing of a ‘proxy objection’ does not appear to diminish a person’s hostility to fundraising.

Uncovering deep-seated objections

This is the basis of the doctoral research I am about to start at the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University. I’ll be exploring what these deep-seated, underlying objections to being asked to give to charity are.

One hypothesis I’ll probably explore is whether attitudes to charitable giving in Anglophone countries have been shaped by a Protestant/Calvinist culture (Dan Pallotta advanced a similar argument his 2009 book Uncharitable) that has combined with a vestigial sense of seeing charitable giving as a ‘civic duty’. I find it quite astonishing that some sense of ‘duty’ as a motive to give is persistently revealed by surveys into donor motivation as a significant yet probably subconscious motivation to give. For example – New Philanthropy Capital’s Money for Good report released last year found that more Britons than not thought that people (though not necessarily themselves) ought to donate out of a sense of ‘social obligation’: 47 per cent said people should donate if they had the means, whereas 44 per cent thought that people “should not feel obliged” to donate.

I don’t have the space here to elaborate on that hypothesis and in any case, I don’t yet know whether my research will substantiate it.

But the main area I want to focus on in my research is developing a theory of public opposition to fundraising and using that to devise practical applications to mitigate that opposition and hostility. The theoretical explanatory framework I plan to use is Moral Foundations Theory.

Moral foundations theory

Moral Foundations Theory aims to understand why morality varies across cultures while exhibiting many similar themes. Rooted in evolutionary theory, it proposes that there are “innate and universally available psychological systems” which are the foundations of “intuitive ethics”. Cultures then construct their moral communities – with their virtues, narratives, and institutions – on top of six ‘moral foundations’ of:

1. Care/harm

2. Fairness/cheating

3. Loyalty/betrayal

4. Authority/subversion

5. Sanctity/degradation

6. Liberty/oppression.

In other words, individual moral and ethical outlooks and societal moral communities will be informed to a greater or lesser degree by each of these six foundations.

For example, some moral communities will be shaped more by ideas about how people ought to respect established institutions such as the church or village elders (sanctity, loyalty); others will be more influenced by ideas of equality for all (liberty, fairness), irrespective of what the ‘establishment’ says about these matters. However, what Moral Foundations Theory stresses is that there is no single morality or ethic that is solely concerned with the prevention of harm and caring for the oppressed.

Professor Jonathan Haidt

One of the main proponents of Moral Foundations Theory, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University, says that people on the ‘liberal’ spectrum of Moral Foundations Theory have a different moral/ethical ‘narrative’ to those on the ‘conservative’ spectrum, with the result that people with these two outlooks often talk past each other in areas where they disagree. Liberals have a moral narrative based primarily on the care/harm foundation, supported by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. They thus tend to focus on matters such as equal rights and poverty, and show a sceptism towards authority. By contrast, the conservative moral narrative embraces all six foundations. Conservatives see fairness less as a matter of equal opportunity and more as fair reward for effort; while supporting and respecting established institutions – those that are seen as sustaining and preserving the moral community – is seen as the correct thing to do.

Moral Foundations Theory

Righteous Mind liberals
Righteous Mind social conservatives

Haidt also says that our minds have evolved for “groupish righteousness” resulting in our being “deeply intuitive creatures whose gut instincts drive our strategic reasoning”. His book ­– The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – explores these arguments in depth, and presents many ideas and solutions to bring competing narratives closer together. Crucially, Haidt says that people will employ post hoc reasoning (often “ridiculous” post hoc reasoning) to justify their intuition about a subject they find morally objectionable – just as I predict is going on with much opposition to fundraising.

I reckon there are going to be some correlations between how a person scores on Moral Foundations Theory and how strong, and of what type, their objection to fundraising is. I think the main correlations will be seen with people who score strongly on sanctity/degradation and fairness/cheating foundations and that the strongest objections to fundraising will be found in the ‘conservative’ spectrum rather than the ‘liberal spectrum’.

Jonathan Haidt says in his book that for some people, the things they hold to be “pure, noble and elevated” on the sanctity foundation can trigger feelings of disgust if these are breached by things that are “base and polluted” (p170), while he adds that ‘conservatives’ have “inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity” (p180). This could explain the fundamental hostility to professional fundraisers felt by people if they retain a subconscious notion of charitable giving as a religious/civic voluntary ‘duty’, and if they believe that paying people to ask for money debases and pollutes the ‘noble’ enterprise of charitable activity.

Developing a new fundraising ‘narrative’

As I’ve written previously on this blog, people who criticise fundraising often do so on a point of genuinely-held moral principle (for example, fundraisers ought not receive large remuneration; people ought not be made to feel guilty). But fundraisers attempt to rebut these ethical objections with practical arguments (this form of fundraising is particularly effective; the high salary is justified because of the beneficial consequences it brings).

Critics of fundraising and defenders of fundraising probably have different ‘narratives’ according to Moral Foundations Theory. As I explained above, I suspect that there will be a big strand of opposition to fundraising that is located in the conservative spectrum because it transgresses the sanctity foundation. But I have a suspicion there might well be a different quality of opposition that comes out the liberal narrative, perhaps related in some way to perceived transgressions of the care, liberty or fairness foundations (perhaps along the lines of believing that paying professional fundraisers is unfair because it diverts money that would otherwise be used to provide care for disadvantaged people).

Most people who strongly support professionalised fundraising, including the fundraisers themselves, will be squarely in the liberal narrative. Last year, as part of its 2015 Project, NCVO ran a series of workshops on what the charity sector would like to see in the main political parties’ 2015 election manifestos. As you can see from the photos, much of the consensus is a classic ‘liberal’ narrative based on the care, liberty and fairness foundations, likely to fall on deaf ‘conservative’ ears: the criticism of charity ceo salaries and the failure of the charity sector to make much headway in combating those critcisms looks like a classic clash of narratives to me; while the assault on charities’ right to lobby and campaign – and how best to combat this – makes much more sense when viewed through the filter of a conflicting moral narrative.

Understanding that opposition to fundraising might be rooted in a conflicting moral narrative will enable us to construct arguments that will engage with the underlying objections of critics – to engage with their actual anti-fundraising narrative rather than the proxy objections to fundraising that don’t change the underlying narrative one iota if they are defeated.

The anger directed at fundraisers is often a proxy for the guilt that people feel at not giving.

In fact, I’ve already had some success along these lines as head of communications at the PFRA, where I devised a set of key messages that were aimed at tackling just these underlying objections, and assembling a cohort of advocates to deliver those key messages. This contributed to halving the amount negative media coverage received by face-to-face fundraising and I think this ‘key messages (based on a new narrative) delivered by key advocates’ model could be used to advocate and defend any form of fundraising, or indeed any contentious issue in the voluntary sector, such as the right to lobby or the need to pay high salaries. (You can read more about this in my article in the ImpACT Coalition’s Through A Glass Darkly pamphlet published last year.)

If I can identify the fundamental objections to professional fundraising that underlie the proxy objections that are regularly arrayed against fundraising, I’ll be in a position to turn this insight into recommendations for professional practice. To be sure, it’s going to take a couple of years or more to develop a full theory of what drives public hostility to fundraising. But once we have it, it might, for the very first time, give us the advantage in breaking through the public’s ‘multitude of defences’ against being asked to donate to charity.

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