OPINION: Resolving the tension between practice and academia in Rogare’s work

Some respondents to the Theory of Change consultation either explicitly stated, or implied, that Rogare was ‘too academic’, and so Rogare would be disconnected form the majority of the profession. Some of our AP members were concerned that Rogare would be considering issues purely for the sake of considering them, without connecting them to the majority of the profession.

  • “Amongst mainstream fundraisers there is limited time and appetite to engage in academic questioning and debate, and that intellectualising arguments without translating these back into pragmatic usable strategies will not engage fundraisers, and therefore won’t achieve the paradigm shift that is desired. What they need, I believe, is clearly evidenced and argued choices of actions to take.”
  • “My sense is that we don’t just need fundraisers to use theory and evidence. What we want to do is to make fundraising practice better. What does ‘better’ mean? Increased income? Sustainable income growth? Engaging non-donors? Better donor care and retention? More satisfied donors? Wider variety of fundraising activities?”
  • “Why do we want to equip fundraisers with critical thinking? I assume it’s because we want that critical thinking applied into more effective practice that will improve our impact for beneficiaries? In which case, I’d reframe the goal to make explicit that success is not just achieving the new paradigm in applied practice, but that critical thinking is demonstrably improving the impact that fundraisers make.”
  • “Simply raising awareness of an issue/problem without providing answers – or at the very least – recommendations, means Rogare is in danger of being perceived as not being connected to the needs of fundraisers.”

So the first response this is that Rogare is part of an academic institution. Our approach as a think tank based at a university is an academic approach.

But our approach has never been for the sake of academic navel gazing.

I have said right from the start that the role of Rogare is to search for new solutions to existing problems in various academic disciplines such as moral philosophy and social psychology, and then translate and embed these new ideas into professional practice.

The reason why have the Advisory Panel is to ensure that our work is grounded in the needs of the profession and has practical applications. One of your roles is that translation role the first quote above says is needed.

I’ve always assumed that it goes without saying that the reason I wanted to achieve this paradigm shift is to improve practical fundraising so that more money is raised more sustainably to improve the lives of charity beneficiaries (and along the way provide meaning for donors).

Many others individuals, groups and organisations are engaged on similar exercises to improve practical fundraising, using different modus operandi to reach their goals. Rogare’s stated MO is to achieve better, more sustainable fundraising not just by providing better theory and evidence but also by equipping fundraisers to understand and use that theory and evidence, which includes challenging the status quo when required (and this requires knowing which questions to ask).

Rogare’s MO is and will be going forward an academic approach that is based on sound theory and robust evidence.

This does not mean that we are not focused on using that academic approach to arrive at better practical outcomes. If we were not aiming for this, we might as well pack it in now.

However, it is important to state what Rogare is not. We are not an innovation incubator. We are not focused on finding the next big (or small) fundraising method or technique. It is up to the fundraising profession to use the new theory, evidence and ideas that come out of Rogare to do that.

Is Rogare ‘too’ academic?

People often set up a false dichotomy between practice and academia, usually biased against the academy: they say something is ‘too academic’ meaning that it has no practical use.

Everything that comes out of Rogare is intended to have a practical use. However, because we are building new theory, that practical use may not be immediately available.

But when we are in a position to translate new theory into practice, it will be an order of magnitude better than what we currently have.

False dichotomies are always tempting things to fall prey to since they provide us with black and white alternatives. So if you think we are being too academic in our outputs, then I’d ask you to step back and think about whether you have fallen into the trap of a false dichotomy.

Please take time to reconsider if our ideas really are ‘too’ academic and think about what the practical applications of, say, my latest blog about the philosophical divide in data protection regulation, could be.

However, the flip side of this coin is that there might be times when we are ‘too’ academic.

There are a three relevant considerations here concerning what people might mean when they say we are ‘too’ academic.

First, if they mean that what we do has no or limited practical use, then I hope I’ve dispelled those concerns above.

Second, ‘too academic’ could refer to the language and terminology we use, and some responses to the consultation could be summarized as expressing slight concern about using academic conventions, jargon, and writing techniques that can be ostracising for non-academic fundraising professionals.

In response to this, I’d say that I spent 18 years as a journalist and eight years as a PR/comms professional. I am fully aware that Rogare’s primary audience is not an academic one, and so Rogare’s outputs are written and presented in way that is designed to convey complex and sophisticated subjects to a non-academic audience. However, these are complex and sophisticated subjects that have their roots in academic theory, and while I aim to make the language accessible (I write as a journalist, not as an academic), I make no apology for presenting challenging topics to this audience. We are not “intellectualising” arguments; they are already intellectual.

And third, there is the question of ‘too academic to whom?’. It is true that the subject matter Rogare presents is sophisticated, complex, and challenging, perhaps too much so for some fundraisers, sometimes. Two ways around this problem are to dilute what we say and write about, so that it is accessible to the vast majority of coalface fundraisers. The second is to maintain this level of sophistication in our outputs but target as an audience those in the fundraising profession whom are likely to buy into engaging at this level, and encourage them to disseminate our ideas further throughout the profession and translate them into professional practice (and this includes members of the International Advisory Panel).

This is why we have gone with an ‘influencing the influencers’ theory of change. Our approach may be ‘too academic’ for a direct marketing officer who wants to know how to beat her banker pack’s response rate in a new test. But I suggest that we are pitching things at the right level for a group of engaged critical thinkers who want to bring about long-lasting systemic change in the fundraising profession.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be times that Rogare won’t be ‘too academic’, in all three senses described above. When we are, I’ll rely on members of the Advisory Panel to pull me up on that.

Ian MacQuillin

Director – Rogare

  • This blog was first posted as a communications for International Advisory Panel members only and has been published now that Rogare’s Theory of Change has been announced.

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