NEW IDEAS: The ideological attack on fundraising, Part 1 – happenstance, coincidence, or enemy action?

Ian copy

The current attacks on fundraising are part of a wider ideology about how charity ought to operate. In the first of a three-part blog, Ian MacQuillin makes the case why the attacks on charity should be thought of as ideological.

Fundraising is currently being subjected to a concerted ideological attack by the state, certain sections of the media and even some from within the voluntary sector.

I don’t normally start my blogs by getting so directly to the point. I quite often employ what is known in journalism as a ‘dropped intro’ – pussyfooting around with something only tangentially-related to the main thrust (such as an account of the last alternative history novel I read) while easing readers into the flow of the piece.

Not this time though. For we have to face up to something that’s been staring us in the face for the past few years but which we’ve not wanted to admit.

We are under ideological attack. And that means we need an ideological defence.

‘Ideological’, however, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘political’, and we are not under not under attack from any one particular political ideology, much less a particular political party – it’s quite clear the attacks on charity and fundraising cross party political boundaries.

Neither is ‘ideological’ some kind of rhetorical insult that can be used to dismiss criticism that is delivered through poorly-constructed, ill-thought through, biased and prejudiced dogma and doctrine – as in ‘oh that’s merely ideology’. If only it were so easy.

So what is it we actually are up against, if it isn’t a political ideology such as ‘conservatism’, and it isn’t mere prejudice?

It’s actually a charity ideology – an ideology that prescribes how the voluntary sector ought to go about its operations.

For the past four or five years, the charity sector, and fundraising in particular, has been subject to a coherent and consistent (though not necessarily co-ordinated – I’ll leave that as an open question for now) assault on its foundations as this ideology has tried to subvert the way charities currently try to do things.

Some of the media attacks of the past couple of months have brought this into focus, particularly the spate we experienced in December:

Do you perhaps think that these are all totally separate, unrelated stories that have just happened to fall at the same time, but with little to unite them apart form the defensive ramblings of a few embittered fundraisers or academics – much less being components of some kind of coherent ‘ideology’?

As Auric Goldfinger says tells Bond about their supposedly ‘chance’ meetings, if something bad happens to you once, you can put it down to happenstance, twice and it’s coincidence, but if it happens a third time, it’s enemy action. All we need do is substitute ‘ideology’ for ‘enemy action’ and that’s where the voluntary sector is right now.

No Mr Bond, I expect you to stick to your knitting.

The lobbying bill, new rules preventing charities using statutory income to lobby government, Fundraising Preference Service, government-appointed fundraising regulators, reams of media attacks on charity policy matters, campaigning and fundraising, and think tank and foundation reports all suggesting charities should, in some form or another, ‘stick to their knitting’.

We’re way past happenstance. We’re way past coincidence. It’s ideology now.

Here’s why.

What is an ideology?

One of the leading authorities of the study of ideologies – Professor Michael Freeden, of Mansfield College, Oxford, and editor of the Journal of Political Ideologies describes ideologies as (see p3):

Michael Freeden
Michael Freeden

“…systems of political thinking, loose or rigid, deliberate or unintended, through which individuals and groups construct an understanding of the political world they, or those who preoccupy their thoughts, inhabit, and then act on that understanding.”

As this quote suggests, an ideology doesn’t have to have been specifically constructed by individuals or groups with a specific purpose, which is why I said above the attacks on fundraising need not necessarily be co-ordinated. The study of ideology is an approach to the way people think about and then act on particular subjects, so it is possible to identify an ideological approach even though no-one person or group authored this approach, or indeed, anyone adopting this approach even thinks of themselves as ideologically motivated.

Professor Freeden further says (see p32) that an ideology is a set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values. But not just any old collection of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values, because those constituting an ideology have a definite set of attributes. They:

  • Exhibit a recurring pattern
  • Are held by significant groups
  • Compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy, which they do with the aim of…
  • …Justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community.

Professor Freeden points out how ideologies are “major exercises in swaying…public opinion”, and while not every plan is an ideology, it “can be interpreted as part of a wider ideology”. But they still have to be part of a recurring pattern, since otherwise any set of ideas that sprung up and just as quickly withered would count as ideologies. And Freeden says ideologies must be held by significant groups of people. It’s interesting that he says that “significance may refer to the ability to control the media”. And he says that smaller groups – pressure groups for example – might align themselves with one specific ideological tenet (an example he uses is rights of pensioners) that is part of a wider ideological family.

Something else Professor Freeden states quite categorically is (see p56):

“All ideologies begin with non-negotiable assumptions from which logical conclusions can be drawn.”

Clifford Geertz

Freeden is talking about political ideologies. But there is more to ideology than politics. An important contribution to the study of ideology was made by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in a 1964 paper called ‘Ideology as a cultural system’.

Geertz conceived of ideologies as metaphors that carry social meaning through the symbols they contain (think about what a ballot box means to people aspiring to become part of a democratic ideology), and as such, ideologies constitute ‘road’ “maps of problematic social reality”.

With this map of social reality to guide you, you don’t need to know or understand every intricate detail that you would need to do if you were to come to your own decisions every time you hit a sticking point. Because someone else has done the thinking and drawn the map, you can use this to guide you around those ideological pinch points.

So we have two concepts of ideology, one relating to a set of organising beliefs, values and opinions, the other to a symbolic ‘road map’ of social reality.

In Part 2 of this blog, I’m going to examine what appear to be concerted attacks on charities to see if we can use these concepts to identify any ideological forces at work. I think we can start to sketch out two competing ideologies: the Voluntarist Charity Ideology (or ‘Voluntarism’) and the Professional Charity Ideology (or ‘Professionalism’).

AM logos

9 thoughts on “NEW IDEAS: The ideological attack on fundraising, Part 1 – happenstance, coincidence, or enemy action?”

  1. To understand some of the strategy and tactics of modern politicians, one needs to read the books of Robert Caro – the biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses. His books on LBJ were called “the greatest insight into power ever written”. His talk last year at Church House was introduced by William Hague and he is cited by Barack Obama as the author who influenced him the most in politics. A lot of what we see playing out in sectors such as ours is taken directly from the Caro playbooks on how these people dealt with those they perceived as a threat or did not like.


  2. I was at the Institute of Fundraising conference two years ago where Martin Syme suggested that just such an attack was taking place and it would get worse. His remarks were as prescient as HG Wells predicting tanks. Since then I have wondered repeatedly where this is going and what the desired effect will be – the death of the professionalised charity and a wholesale move into charity services being provided by for profit suppliers? Worrying times!


  3. So, Ian, in the beginning of your writing you showed your hand, so to speak, by writing, “So what is it we actually are up against, if it isn’t a political ideology such as ‘conservatism’, and it isn’t mere prejudice?” by saying that “up against” and “conservatism,” then “prejudice.”

    Let’s get right to the point. In the USA, “conservatives” tend to be the most charitable people with their own money. Liberals tend to be the most generous with other people’s money. Conservatives don’t “attack” fundraising and charity. Conservatives do not want government to behave like a charity. Conservatives want charities to be flexible and independent, finding their own sources of support to meet the true current and future needs of this world.



    1. It’s me again, Ian, replying to my own comment. I do understand that their is a big difference between the conservatives and liberals in Great Britain. I know however, that your audience is far beyond your own country. My response is not so much for the British as it is for Americans.

      Most of the bad “ideology” in the USA,I believe, stems from the poor performance, high salaries and lack of long-range vision that many nonprofits backslide into when receiving a disproportionate amount of government support.



      1. That’s an interesting point, Kevin, and that brings back into the discussion a political ideology of charities along the conservatism-liberal spectrum. That’s something I’m trying to avoid at this point.

        At the moment I just want to look at the ideologies at play in shaping how charities ought to operate and these do not seem to be linked specifically to a party political ideology – the Voluntarist ideology I describe in part 2 of this blog is shared in the UK by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat members of parliament (though it’s the Conservatives here who want to bring the voluntary sector to heel and restrict its independence).

        Whether the different charity ideologies are have more in common with or are adopted more by different political ideologies is an interesting question but not one I’m in a position to look at yet.


    2. I think I stressed that this is not a party political thing. If it makes you feel better, I’m perfectly happy to phrase the question as “So what is it that we are up against, if it isn’t a political ideology such as ‘conservatism’ or ‘liberalism’?”.

      The reason I used conservatism, however, is because we have a Conservative government in the UK and I was stressing that the fight is not with a conservative ideology.

      And separately, I was pointing out that the ideology we are ‘up against’ is not mere prejudice either.

      ‘Conservatism’ (as an example of a political ideology), and ‘mere prejudice’ are entirely separate and discrete concepts.


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