In the second of three blogs, Ian MacQuillin outlines the two competing ideologies jostling for control of the public’s conception of how nonprofit organisations ought to operate.
In Part 1 of this blog, I made the case that the repeated recent attacks on charities by the state and media – particularly attacks on fundraising – were ideological in nature and outlined some concepts of what an ideology is and does to see if these claims would stack up.
In this second part, I’m going to outline what I think are two competing ideologies that compete for organising public attitudes, not only about what charities ought to do, but how they ought to go about doing it: the Voluntarist Charity Ideology (or ‘Voluntarism’) and the Professionalist Charity Ideology (or ‘Professionalism’).
The Voluntarist Charity Ideology (Voluntarism)
I can’t do much more that compile a candidate list of this ideology’s central “non-negotiable” tenets from which adherents draws logical – and value-laden, normative – conclusions about how the voluntary sector ought to work. Much more work than I can spare here needs to be done to tease apart and unpack these concepts. But I don’t think I’d get too much dissent if I started the list with the following:
First tenet: Charities should be run on an ethos of self-sacrificial, voluntary service
Charity is first and foremost about people voluntarily giving up something of themselves (time, money, initiative, intellectual property etc) to help other people. The whole enterprise should be imbued by this voluntary ethos, and the focus is more about the well-meaning intentions of those contributing to the collective endeavour than what its outcomes actually are.
There should also be a strong element of self-sacrifice (I’m deliberately avoiding the word ‘altruism’), meaning those contributing to the collective endeavour – be they donors, volunteers, staff – should not receive disproportionate benefit from doing so (including a decent career – because if they were truly motivated by the Voluntarist ideology, they would do it for very little, perhaps even nothing).
Charities should not become too professional, because this would require them to relinquish some of their self-sacrificial character. So this also raises a serious question mark over charities’ relationships with companies (whether suppliers or partners), because companies are very professional and not particularly self-sacrificial. Moreover, charities ought to behave better than companies and hold themselves to higher ethical standards.
Further, the money voluntarily given through self-sacrifice should be put to doing the most actual good – i.e. helping people. Money spent on administration is ‘wasted’: because it’s not directly going to doing good, that’s not how donors would have wanted their money used.
(These are precisely the kinds of arguments advanced by Dan Pallotta in his first book Uncharitable in 2008 and in many forums since, including his famous TED talk. Pallotta describes a ‘nonprofit ideology’* that encompasses all the critical aspects – rather than the Voluntarist and Professionalist variants I outline here – which he contrasts with the for-profit or free market ideology that he argues is the paradigm under which the nonprofit sector ought to operate. While there are differences in my approach to Pallotta’s, we are clearly in the same ideological corner.)
Gina Miller’s so-called ‘True and Fair Foundation’ report ‘A Hornet’s Nest’ is a prime example of this core first tenet deployed as weaponised ideology (but don’t waste your time reading that, read Pesh Framjee’s coruscating rebuttal – Neither True Nor Fair – instead).
An ideological analysis also makes more sense of the recent Age UK/E.ON affair. On such a reading, the issue is not so much that Age UK were offering a deal to their service users that might not have been the best (I caveat this by saying I am not an expert in energy markets and not qualified to comment). Rather, the problem was that being engaged in commercial activity is ‘not something that a charity ought to do’, from an ideological perspective, as evidenced by the line of questioning Age UK’s Ian Foy received on BBC TV News. (Asking, in this context, if a charity ‘ought’ to conduct commercial activity, carries within it a strong assumption that it ought not! Otherwise, why would you even ask the question?)
Second tenet: Decisions to help charities should be entirely within a person’s control
If people want to support charities then that is something that is entirely up to them. Charities should not ask in a way that causes any kind of distress, however minor, however small relative to distress suffered by beneficiaries if charities don’t ask. People may choose to patronize charities with their support, but for charities to ask for that patronage, especially if it costs them money to do so, is distasteful and degrading.
From this ideological tenet – which falls quite logically out of the first – stems much of the disquiet and unease about professional charity fundraising in general and specific methods.
We’re all so familiar with the ‘I give to the charities I choose to’ objection that I’m not going to take up space providing any examples.
Divisions and dichotomies
These first two tenets of Voluntarism establish a series of ideological schisms, divisions and dichotomies within the third sector:
- big v small
- national v local
- high paying v low paying
- mass market fundraising v community/volunteer-led fundraising
- (transactional fundraising v relationship fundraising?)
Third tenet: Charities should concentrate on directly helping people – ‘stick to their knitting’
Charities should deliver good works but they should not lobby or campaign for societal change: in other words they can fix bad things when they happen but shouldn’t try to stop the bad things happening in the first place (or as disgraced former civil society minister Brookes Newmark put it “charities should stick to their knitting”). This is why some people can find ideological objections to certain charities’ prosecutions of animal cruelty.
Nor should charities try to bring about societal change in a way that isn’t compatible with the first two tenets. Charities selling stuff to their beneficiaries – as Age UK does – rather than just giving it to them counts as ‘not sticking to their knitting’: hence the querying whether it was an activity a charity ‘ought’ to be doing.
Possible fourth tenet: The third sector should be subservient to the state
This is the most controversial claim for a non-negotiable core tenet of Voluntarism and probably the weakest link here. But, it does fall out of the third tenet and it is a view that is held by significant groups of people, though this may actually be a hijacking of the Voluntarist agenda by the state.
It is that the voluntary sector should become an executive arm of the state, delivering services (‘sticking to their knitting’) via state grants and (more likely) contracts. This is not a 19th Century view of charity, which was fiercely independent of the state in the late 1800s, fighting to keep service provision out of state hands, even though the scale of social ills were beyond a charitable solution and the state would be able to do it better (see First Tenet for intentions being more important than outcomes).
Examples of this ideological tenet are the Sock Puppets report by the Institute of Economic Affairs, from which flowed all the ideological thinking that culminated earlier this month, via the ‘Lobbying Bill’, in the new government rules that prevent charities using statutory income to ‘lobbying’ government. (Read Matthew Sherrington’s latest column in Third Sector for an account of how the government’s new provisions treat charities differently in this regard from lobbying by other types of organisations they fund: the explanation being the ideologically different way they view charities. And take a look at Andrew Purkis’s Civil Society blog for a total dismembering of the ‘sock puppet argument’.)
Giving the state a say in how the voluntary sector conducts itself opens the door for further state involvement, and some adherents of Voluntarism firmly believe that the state should intervene in the running of the third sector to establish regulation that will compel it to conform to the Voluntarist Charity Ideology – at the very least when it comes to keeping fundraising in check (see Part 3 for more on this).
In fact, much, if not most, of the proposed new regulatory control of fundraising is arguably to ensure charities do fundraising ‘the right way’ – i.e. protect people from being asked in a way that contravenes Voluntarism, such a three-drop ask by a telephone fundraiser.
This might even mean imposing on fundraising – and subsequently enforcing – professional standards that are higher than required by law, and consequently not required by other sectors, such as business or government. It will be interesting to see how the NCVO’s opt-in working group interprets the EU requirements that a person’s consent to be contacted be “freely given, specific, informed and ambiguous”. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that NCVO might recommend a tougher interpretation than the new EU law would actually demand. For example, the EU wording doesn’t require “explicit” consent to be given (this is required only for “sensitive” data) but this is still something that NCVO could recommend, and the Fundraising Regulator could adopt. If this were to happen, we would need to ask what might have led to fundraisers being required to operate to a higher standard of consent than commercial marketers, and even charity campaigners. The answer, I contend, would be found in an ideological approach to charity. (See paragraph 25, p17 and paragraph 8, p84 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation and this analysis of what consent means under the new regulation.)
These core tenets of Voluntarism interconnect and reinforce each other. For example, ‘ideologically good’ small charities express a moral objection to using ‘ideologically bad’ street fundraisers; or Age Concern branches (small, local = ‘ideologically good’) refuse to merge with Age UK (big, national = ‘ideologically bad’) over ‘ethical’ concerns about their corporate partnerships (that is, the very fact Age UK had such partnerships – ideologically-speaking, the pits!).
Nothing exemplifies the anti-Professionalist position better than this recent Third Sector blog by Brian Seaton, the principal chair of Small Charity Support. Here’s a sample quote:
“So what’s wrong with…British charity? For those charity trustees and executives with the skill and acumen to exploit the needs of others by running their charities like large profitable commercial businesses – nothing at all, clearly.”
Going through this blog line by line would be a critical discourse analyst’s dream.
But the core tenets can also conflict with each other, and the Office for Civil Society has tied itself in ideological knots over a mutually exclusive clash of ideas. The Fundraising Preference Service is designed to give people control over ‘ideologically bad’ professional direct marketing fundraising – all of it. But the OCS also wants to exempt ‘ideologically good’ small charities from its provisions. So ‘good’ small charities will be able to practise what the ‘bad’ charities will no longer be allowed to do, and in exactly the same – presumably ‘bad’ – way that the big ‘bad’ charities currently do it. This has not been thought through.
Navigating charity ‘ethics’ using the Voluntarist road map
I think we can begin to see that the attacks that charities have been subjected to over past few years are not random and incoherent but are part of a guiding ideology – a set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values that are competing over providing and controlling plans for public policy, with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community – our political community in the third sector (see the section ‘What is an ideology’ in Part 1).
Not only that, Voluntarism also provides a ‘social road map’ (again, see Part 1) for people confused by what charities do and how they ought to do it. It provides very simple signposts that resolve complex issues to simple dichotomies, such as:
- local charities = good; national charities = bad
- small charities = good; big charities = bad
- throwing starfish back into the sea = good; lobbying government to build a breakwater to stop starfish getting washed on to beach = bad
This is how the Voluntarist Charity Ideology road map allows you to chart a route though the discussion about whether charities ought to employ field forces of professional fundraisers:
- Low admin/fundraising costs = good; high admin/fundraising costs = bad.
- Dropping coins in a collecting box or adding a donation to your restaurant bill (‘your decision’) = good; being accosted or hassled for a Direct Debit (‘not your decision’) = bad.
- Warm glow after ‘choosing’ to give = good; feeling guilty about being forced into having to decline to make a donation = bad
- Giving directly to the charity = good; giving via a ‘middleman’ agency = bad
- Volunteers = good; paid fundraisers = bad.
- Volunteer tin rattlers = good; ‘chuggers’/telephone fundraisers/etc = bad.
Charities ought not (i.e. it is a normative value-judgement) use street fundraisers and telephone fundraisers. QED
The argument tends to the conclusion that using telephone fundraisers (or ‘chuggers’, or having corporate partnerships, or paying ‘high’ salaries) is ‘unethical’.
But what the argument really shows is that, at the very best, these are things are simply ‘ideologically unsound’, when viewed from the perspective of the Voluntarist Charity Ideology.
The alternative to Voluntarism is the Professional Charity Ideology, or ‘Professionalism’.
The Professional Charity ideology (Professionalism) – the counter ideology
The counter ideology to Voluntarism is the ideology I subscribe to and assume many of the people I know do to. Under a Professionalist ideology:
- The role of charities is to effect the greatest necessary change in the world.
- To bring about that change, nonprofits need to be professional (and possibly ‘business’-like), utilising the best talent and staff to effect change, and rewarding staff fairly and proportionately for the contribution they make.
- What matters is effecting change, and provided change is effected, a nonprofit organisation can be big or small, local or national, campaigning or helping, fundraising or non-fundraising. There is no one, preferred, ‘ideal’ way to change the world, provided the world is changed.
- Charities cannot change the world unless they have the money to do it, so they have a right – in fact a duty – to ask people for support, and must adopt the most effective and efficient methods to raise that money.
- The third sector is independent of the state and fiercely protects that independence. It’s an essential part of a pluralist democracy. This was enshrined in the first version of the Compact from 1998-2010, which saw “voluntary action as an essential component of democratic society” and an “independent and diverse voluntary and community sector [as] fundamental to the well-being of society”. (See the work of Jon van Til and the erstwhile National Coalition for Independent Action.) Civil society regulates itself and the state has no business telling the third sector what it can and can’t to, what it can or can’t spend its money or, or how it can or can’t go about raising that money in the first place.
Alas, countering Voluntarism is not simply a matter or rolling out the counter ideology of Professionalism. For as we shall see in Part 3 of this blog, Professionalism is riven with an anti-fundraising undercurrent.
- Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.
* The seven tenets of Dan Pallotta’s ‘non-profit ideology’ are:
- People who work in the nonprofit world should be more interested in the good they can do than in the money they can make.
- Charities should not take risks.
- Donated money should be spent immediately to alleviate the suffering of others.
- Charities should not waste money on expensive advertising.
- Charities should not make mistakes.
- No-one should seek to earn a profit in charity.
- Charities should maintain a low overhead percentage.