OPINION: You have nothing to fear from asking – or being asked – the right questions

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Fundraisers are being called on to make changes but they’re also being told not to think too much about how they do it. Ian MacQuillin wonders if there’s an anti-intellectual undercurrent in fundraising.

In 2015, fundraisers were criticised for behaving unethically. In 2016, it seems, they were criticised for learning about behaving more ethically. Over the past year, Rogare – the fundraising think tank I run at Plymouth University in the UK – has been developing a new theory of normative fundraising ethics. Whereas existing conceptions of fundraising ethics consider ethical duties only to donors, Rogare’s ideas aim to consider fundraisers’ duties to both their donors and their beneficiaries. Fundraising is ethical when it strikes an appropriate balance between these two duties so that neither stakeholder group is significantly harmed vis-à-vis to the other; it’s unethical when it doesn’t strike this balance.


I’ve presented these ideas at major fundraising conferences around the world, including twice at the International Fundraising Congress. Generally, the ideas are well received – quite well received, in fact.

However, since we published the first draft of the full theory in a white paper in September, I’ve noticed some strange criticisms starting to appear.

First, there’s the contemptuous attitude that fundraisers are even trying to behave more ethically.

Take a look at the two Storify segments of Tweets relating to my ethics workshop at IFC this year – here and here

I wasn’t even half an hour into the workshop before three experts on data protection and privacy were remotely laying into the session.

Now of course, it’s perfectly legitimate to criticise my ideas about ethics. But neither of these Storifies represents a critique of Rogare’s theory. Instead they exemplify an attitude that fundraisers somehow have no right – or have lost the right – to consider their own professional ethics.

This is bad enough.

But worse is that since the white paper came out, I’ve noticed a different kind of criticism from within the fundraising profession.

This argument – and it’s one subscribed to by one or two quite notable people in our sector – goes that any sophisticated consideration of fundraising’s professional ethics is completely unnecessary. What we need to do is cut out thinking about ethics and skip straight to the bit where we ‘do the right thing’.

If only doing the ‘right thing’ were that easy, eh? There’s been 3,000 years and counting of moral philosophy aimed at providing Homo sapiens with the tools to do the right thing. Yet get a class of Philosophy 101 undergraduates together and ask them if it’s ethical to lie, and the resulting discussion could last for the rest of the course.

When almost every profession other than fundraising has a well-stocked supply of literature on its own professional ethics, it seems quite remarkable that fundraisers should be able to stand apart from their professional peers and ‘just do the right thing’ without having to think about what the right thing actually is.

Don’t think about it, just do – is there an anti-intellectualism in fundraising?

These sentiments about fundraising ethics seem to be part of a wider attitude that fundraisers should not think ‘too much’ about or overthink the challenges they face, but should instead just get on with tackling those challenges. I’d even go so far as to say that there is a small but quite vocal undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in fundraising, at least in the UK – that thinking too much about the issues in our sector is actually the cause of some of our problems.

I don’t believe these attitudes reflect what the vast majority of the fundraising profession wants. The 2016 IFC was one of the best I’ve ever attended, and the reason it was so good was that fundraisers were being encouraged to think more deeply and with more sophistication about their professional challenges.

Rogare works closely with The Resource Alliance because we share similar ideas about how the fundraising profession needs to evolve. So, it’s not surprising that we have converged on the notion of empowering fundraisers to ask the right questions.

Asking the right questions necessarily involves some criticism: How does that work, why do you believe this, where is the evidence you base that assertion on, are those data correct, is your research methodology appropriate to the question you’re studying?

No idea is exempt from criticism, nor should it be. And no individual has any claim to be spared criticism. But neither should anyone fear criticism. Criticism is your friend. It will help you refine and improve your best arguments and encourage you to jettison your worst ones.

So, if you come across someone who is trying to shut down debate and appears to be discouraging you from asking questions, you have to ask why.

Perhaps they simply don’t care about a proper debate and just like the sound of their own rhetoric?

Perhaps they are so convinced of their own rightness that they are trying to prevent ‘overthinking’ for distracting the profession from what they just know ought to be done?

Or maybe they are secretly scared that if you ask too many right questions, the thing they hold dear will be demolished.

Whichever it is, it’s no way to improve and develop the fundraising profession.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare – the fundraising think tank at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University in the UK.

This blog first appeared in December 2016 on the Resource Alliance’s blog.

AM logos May 2016

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