OPINION: Fundraising must be central to any ‘rebrand’ of ‘Charity-UK’

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Earlier this month, Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin spoke at a lunch hosted by CharityComms to discuss ‘rebranding’ the third sector. Here’s what he said.

Charities do two things.They deliver their core charitable purpose – which ultimately means improving the lives of their their beneficiaries and service users.And they make sure they have enough money to do that. So in a nutshell, charities are about service delivery and fundraising. Everything else is really a support function to these two core, key activities.

So these two activities – service delivery and fundraising – are inexorably intertwined and interlinked.

And of the two it’s fundraising that has the most problematic brand image. That’s not to say that some of the support functions don’t suffer similar fates – I’m thinking particularly about senior staff salaries and general overhead costs.

“The problem is not that critics of charities don’t think like us, but that we don’t think like them, or even try to.”

But undeniably, it’s fundraising that has copped it most in the public relations stakes of late.

Because they are so intertwined, any ‘rebrand’ of the third sector has to include a rethink about fundraising at its very heart, rather than treat fundraising as some kind of appendage that the rebrand can be imposed on once it’s completed.

We know there are issues that need to be addressed. We know that some things were found to be wrong in fundraising last year. To put them right, we need to change the culture and values of fundraising.

I guess that what I am saying here doesn’t come as much of a surprise or won’t be particularly controversial. Initiatives such as the Commission on the Donor Experience are attempts to change the values underpinning fundraising.

But I am worried that many of the initiatives currently under way will fail to rebrand fundraising’s culture, or will only partially succeed. We will achieve only a brand refresh of fundraising.

I’m going to briefly talk about some of these.

1 What went wrong?

First, although we know a lot of stuff went wrong last year, we still don’t know exactly what went wrong, or more importantly, why it went wrong. That commission of enquiry hasn’t been done. Was it simply bad practice, lack of leadership, market conditions, a poor ‘culture of philanthropy’ throughout the organisation?

Until we know exactly what it is we need to change and why we need to change it, our rebranding – based on what people assume needs to change – could well be taking us down a blind alley.

2 Does the rest of the organisation fully support fundraising?

If there is a legal issue at a charity, the board or SMT will call in the legal team and ask for advice about what should be done. That’s because they see the legal team as professionals. If there is an issue with income generation, too often they call in the fundraisers in and tell them what to do.

That’s because fundraiser are seen as tradespeople.

What seems to me one of the most likely contributory causes of last summer’s crisis was that for years, boards and finance have under-resourced fundraising and effectively undermined efforts to establish long-term fundraising by insisting that fundraising programmes return a surplus each year – something that would never happen in business.

This has forced fundraisers to adopt the mass marketing fundraising methods of the type that have been so castigated for the past 12 months.

The ‘necessary evil’ stereotype of fundraisers held by so many boards is a major barrier to the rebranding the sector needs.

3 Are the profession’s ethics up to the job?

Third, fundraising’s ethics are not sufficiently comprehensive or deep. We currently have lots of applied ethics in fundraising. These are embedded in the codes of practice and they are focused on protecting public trust and prioritizing the interests of the donor. Fundraising’s codes have adopted a consumer protection model.

So when it appears that donors’ interests are not being protected, as happened last summer, the obvious solution is to tighten the codes and other regulatory measures.

But focusing so much on the donor excludes the beneficiary from the picture. This has allowed suggestions such as the Fundraising Preference Service to be taken seriously.

The FPS has the potential to seriously damage charities’ service delivery by vastly restricting voluntary income.

Yet it is being accepted as an ‘ethical’ initiative and fundraisers who question it are dismissed as being in denial about the nature of the problem – which as I have already argued, no-one has yet delineated or quantified.

The problem for fundraising is that it has ethics that tell fundraisers what they may or may not do. But it has very little in the way of ‘normative ethics’ that helps them to understand why they may or may not do these things.

As a result, the profession has historically made up its applied ethics as it goes along without any consistent or coherent theory to inform what those applied ethics ought to be.

As we rebrand, we need a much more sophisticated way to differentiate right from wrong in fundraising practice.

4 Is the ‘new narrative’ sufficiently ideological?

And fourth and finally, we have the question of the new ‘narrative’ for the fundraising sector.

It makes me want to rip my hair out when I hear people talking about how we need to ‘educate’ the public about how modern charities work.

Of course, there are a lot of criticisms about charities – salaries, overheads, fundraising – that to us with our specialist knowledge look like they exist simply because people making those criticisms aren’t in possession of the full facts.

“When it appears that donors’ interests are not being protected, as happened last summer, the obvious solution is to tighten the codes and other regulatory measures.”

All we need do then, is provide them with those facts, and then they will understand, think like we do, and drop their criticisms.

The problem is not that they don’t think like us, but that we don’t think like them, or even try to.

Those criticisms don’t stem from a lack of information about how modern charities do operate; they stem from an ideological stance about how charities ought to operate.

The ideological stance on charities can be looked at in terms of a ‘professionalist’ and a ‘voluntarist’ approach.

We’re the ‘professionalists’. We think charities should be as professional as they need to be in order to change the world.

Voluntarists think charities should not be too professional, should be small and local, and, very importantly considering last summer’s fundraising crisis, that people should ‘give when they choose’ and not be ‘fundraised to’.

Look at much of the recent attacks of fundraising – and on many aspects of charity – from the perspective of this voluntarist ideology and they make a lot more sense.

Take salaries. Someone objects that a ceo earns a six-figure salary. The charity responds that their ceo is worth it because she does a great job and earns less than if she worked in the commercial world.

But that’s not what the criticism said. It didn’t say she wasn’t worth a six-figure salary; it said she ought not have one, full stop, irrespective of whether the work she does justifies it.

Critics and defenders talk past each other with no consensus being achieved. Criticisms are ideologically driven and the counter-arguments are constructed around practical rebuttals.

There is an ‘ought’ on one side of the ethical equation and an ‘is’ on the other. Because it has two variables, the equation can’t be solved.

The vaunted ‘new narrative for charities’ will not succeed as well as it might unless it acknowledges that there is at least partly an ideological attack on charities, and it develops its own counter-ideology in defence.

That ideology must not be apologetic or defensive for being effective, efficient and professional. Professionalism is a strength of the third sector, not a weakness.

To sum up:

  • Fundraising must be central to the third sector’s rebrand.
  • It needs to result in a change of culture within organisations that supports and resources fundraising and treats it like a profession.
  • The narrative that emerges from any rebrand needs to be overtly ideological in it defence and advocacy of what charities do.
  • Fundraising must develop a much sounder and sophisticated normative ethical foundation.
  • And we need to base it on sound knowledge, evidence and theory.

Further reading

The ideological attack on fundraising, Part 2: Are you a Voluntarist or a Professionalist? – 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.

The ideological attack on fundraising, Part 3: Why we need an ideological defence – In the third and final part of his exploration of the attacks on fundraising, Ian MacQuillin argues that the ideological narrative the profession needs to defend itself is undermined by anti-fundraising attitudes in its midst.

The gaping hole at the centre of fundraising ethics – The ongoing investigations following the death of Olive Cooke are looking at how the fundraising profession needs to reform its applied ethics. Ian MacQuillin argues that we first need a theory of ‘normative’ ethics to inform these decisions – one that includes fundraisers’ duties to their beneficiaries, not just their donors.

Arguments defending fundraising often don’t engage with the real objections – Objections to fundraising are often of an ethical nature but charities attempt to rebut then with practical arguments. Ian MacQuillin says that fundraisers should stop talking past their critics.

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