NEW IDEAS: Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 2. What could go wrong?

Ian copy

In the first part of this blog, Ian MacQuillin argued many fundraisers don’t have a consistent idea of what they mean by ‘donorcentric’ fundraising. In part 2, he explores some of the issues this can lead to.

In the first part of this blog, I argued that when fundraisers talk about donorcentric or donor-centred fundraising, or donorcentricity, or donorcentrism, they don’t have a single concept in mind. In fact, they can flit between concepts. And there are at least four different concepts of donorcentrism, which can be viewed as:

  • Communications best practice
  • A communications process
  • A theory of donor choice
  • An ethical theory.

Further to that, which types of donors are fundraisers thinking about when they talk about donorcentric methods? Are they thinking of donorcentic fundraising applied in a one-to-one context such as major gifts, trusts and corporate. Or do think it’s applicable for one-to-many direct marketing?

Having many different concepts of donorcentrism leads to several problems for developing the thought and philosophy underpinning fundraising practice, leading to some real issues in applied practice when these concepts are conflated, as they all too often are.

Obscures discussions of what’s ethical in fundraising

There seems to be an assumption held by some in fundraising that the ethical theory of donorcentrism is self-evidently correct and true. This can lead to faulty ethical reasoning.

Following the Ask Direct Summer School in Dublin last year, John Lepp of Agents of Good wrote a blog about the need for a ‘love revolution’ in fundraising. One of the calls to arms in this manifesto was:

“It’s time to do what’s right, and not just what generates the most cash.”

This sets up a false dichotomy (two alternatives being presented as mutually exclusive when they might not be) between doing what’s right and raising the most cash – in some cases, raising the most cash may well be the ‘right’ thing to do.

It’s also a dubious argument because it pits a concept (moral correctness) against a particular activity (raising cash), and implies – or encourages the reader to infer – that the activity is morally incorrect.

So there are some assumptions going here behind the scenes. If you expose those assumptions, this is what I think you find:

It’s time to do what’s right…

  • [what’s ‘right’ isn’t stated, but it’s probably certain donorcentrist practices]

…rather than just what raises most cash

  • [‘just’ raising most cash, probably by use of ‘transactional’ processes, is – or can be – ‘morally wrong’; we have to raise cash in a way that conforms to what’s ‘right’, even though what’s right hasn’t been explicitly described].

So this could be rephrased as:

We have to do what’s right rather than what’s wrong (which is a tautology).


We have to use particular donorcentrist principles rather than doing just what raises most cash.

This is not self-evident (unless you take this to be self-evidently true – in which case we’re in ideological territory, and see below), may or may not be true in some, all, many, or a few situations, and needs further justificatory argument than simply asserting that one is right and the other is wrong.

Why am I taking so much time indulging in what I’m sure many will consider to be semantic pedantry to make a fairly nice point? Two reasons.

Since we at Rogare published our ethics white paper in September 2016, there’s emerged a type of argument that says, and I’m paraphrasing:

‘We don’t need to overthink this, we just need to do what’s right.’

So, I’m deliberately being pedantically semantic to show that deciding what’s ‘right’ in fundraising is not the simple matter some people seem to think it is. The ethical correctness of donorcentric approaches to fundraising cannot be assumed: they must be supported with sound argument and theory – just like any other claim in ethics. Thinking about how to do this is not ‘overthinking’ things, it’s simply giving appropriate consideration to an important and complex topic.

And second, as I described in Part 1 of this blog, certain conceptions of donorcentric fundraising – the communications best practice and elements of the communications process – are scientifically testable: we can form hypotheses and test these to determine whether donorcentric approaches do raise more money than other approaches, and in what circumstances.

However, Lepp’s false dichotomy of ‘doing what’s right’ versus ‘raising most cash’ makes money irrelevant to these calculations since submerged within it is a strong implication that money is irrelevant to doing what’s right. This means that if any time a donorcentric fundraising hypothesis is tested and the results show that it doesn’t raise enough money, anyone holding Lepp’s view can dismiss this as simply not being relevant to ‘doing what’s right’. As we have seen though, the reasoning behind this faulty.

Influences ideas of how fundraising ought to be regulated

For most of this century, donorcentric thinking has dominated fundraising in English-speaking countries. It has influenced best practice, it has influenced professional ethics, and it has influenced the way fundraising is regulated. It’s had – and is currently still having – the biggest impact on how fundraising is regulated in the UK in the wake of the ‘fundraising crisis’ of 2015.

For years, fundraisers have said, claimed, asserted, written into codes of practices and tracts on ethics, that the donor is the most important person in fundraising and that their wishes should be considered paramount – see, for example, the ideas of Jane C. Geever and Albert Anderson I quoted in Part 1.

Then, in the summer of 2015, it seemed that for all this bluster and bravado about ‘putting donors at the heart’ of whatever it was they were supposed to be at the heart of, that wasn’t happening at all, and fundraising’s much vaunted ethics of donorcentrism looked to have failed – spectacularly.

“Donorcentric ethics in fundraising never had a theoretical foundation and now the edifices built upon it are starting to crumble.”

And so regulators stepped in to say that if you can’t do this voluntarily, we will make you do it. The Institute of Fundraising has lost control of developing and setting fundraising’s professional standards in the UK, and the code that used to belong to the IoF has moved to the Fundraising Regulator, a body that has made repeated public assertions that its role is to represent the (donating and non-donating) public.

By making the donor the centre of everything charities do, donors have been placed into an analogous position of customers in consumer marketing theory and ethics. And now regulators are transferring supplier-customer models of regulation to charity-donor relationships.

However, as I have argued in other Critical Fundraising blogs, consumption and donation and not the same thing, customers and donors are not analogous, and regulation that seeks to protect the interests of donors (as consumer regulation seeks to protect the interests of customers) is not appropriate for fundraising because it ignores a vital component of the relationships – beneficiaries.

A normative donorcentric focus has contributed to models of regulation that borrow from consumer protection being applied to fundraising (which ironically consider the donation process to be an exchange, rather than a relationship). However, beneficiaries by definition fall outside of this regulatory model.

Something I’d argue has been a large contributory factor in this situation is the lack of understanding about what donorcentrism is. Over the years, rather of being advocated as best practice in generating most sustainable long-term net income, donorcentrism shaded into normative ideas about how donors ought to be treated, and how they ought to have all their wishes and desires fulfilled. Donorcentrism slipped from practice to ethics, yet no-one developed the theory and argument that supported this way of thinking. Donorcentric ethics in fundraising never had a theoretical foundation and now the edifices built upon it are starting to crumble.

Which concept should be defended when donorcentrism is criticised?

The whole first part of this blog addressed the question of what donorcentrism actually is and suggested that a) no-one can agree and b) different people have their own ideas about what it is/should be. Sometimes, they promote their own ideas and/or criticise other people’s ideas, without having first defined either.

So let’s look in a bit more depth at Roger Craver’s blog from earlier this year. One of Craver’s main contentions in this blog is that that unless you are collecting and collating feedback, then you are not ‘donorcentric’. That’s a conditional argument that states that if you are not collecting feedback, then you are not donorcentric. The obverse of this is that if you are collecting feedback, then you are donorcentric.

That may not be true, because it all depends on how you use that feedback. If all you are using it for is to segment donors so you can better fundraise to them, then that might not be very ‘donorcentric’. Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising theory drew a bit from academic thinking in public relations, which says there are ‘symmetric’ and ‘asymmetric’ ways to build two-way relationships with people. The symmetrical way requires you to use their feedback to change your own behaviour, not just use it for better marketing. And you’d need to get different types of feedback get at different stages of a relationship ­– again social psych theory helps to understand this.

So you could spend a lot of time and effort getting feedback, and still not be very ‘donorcentric’ – at least not to the level that proponents of symmetrical two-way comms in PR would consider to represent “excellence“.

The second thing to come out of the way Craver defines ‘donorcentricity’ is just that, the way he defines it – that you are donorcentric if you collect feedback.

That just leaves it open to someone else to say, well, I define donorcentricity a different way so I think you are wrong. This is what Craver has done: he thinks people who conceptualise donorcentricity in terms of ‘donor love’ are wrong.

And there’s the nub of the problem – the one that this whole two-parter is about. What is ‘donorcentricity’?

Let’s take the accusation about ‘donor love’ by the horns. Agents of Good, the Canadian agency run by John Lepp and Jen Love, have come up with seven principles of donor love. For example, one of these principles is “say thanks with passion”, which fits with the concept of donorcentrism as communications best practice. Another is “connect to donors’ values and emotion”, which fits into the concept of donorcentrism as communications process.

I would never say donor love is ‘bullshit’ but it does seem to me a very nebulous concept (or a ‘buzzword’) that raises a number of questions.

  • Is ‘donor love’ a synonym for relationship fundraising and/or donorcentricity?
  • If it is, then why bother with it?
  • If not, how is it different? What does it add that relationship fundraising doesn’t? How is this evidenced?
  • What do we mean by ‘love’? Is it philia, agape, ludus, or pragma (though presumably not eros), each of which is a different type of love appropriate for different types of relationships and contexts? Or is ‘love’ being used as a kind of catch all for ‘treat donors really, really nicely’. Is this a deontological concept or is it a consequentialists one, perhaps based on the behavioural science idea that if you genuinely like your customers you’ll sell them more stuff?
  • Is donor love given unconditionally (such as in many parent-young child relationships) or is some kind of ‘tough love’ appropriate (see here for an academic exploration of a ‘tough love altruism model’).
  • Is donor love ‘monogamous’ or ‘polyamorous’? Do you ‘love’ all donors equally, or some donors more than others, and if so, how do you decide who to love most and how do you protect your other donors from feelings of ‘jealousy’ – in the argot of polyamory, are some donor relationships ‘primary’ and are some ‘secondary’?
  • How do you know if donor love is working?

All of these are relevant and appropriate questions to ask, not just in trying to develop the best defence of donor love from accusations of being bullshit or a buzzword, but also to put the concept on its firmest footing for its own sake.

Yet some of things I read on Twitter and in the comments section about ‘donor love’ in response to Craver’s article did sound a bit like the aphorisms you used to find on those management posters in the 90s that showed elephants balancing on balls or penguins being leaders.

Defences of donorcentric fundraising can sometimes sound like 90s management aphorisms.

In his two recent blogs criticising donorcentric fundraising (here and here), Vu Le treats ‘donorcentric’ fundraising as if it were a huge monolithic, readily-understood concept. Yet he variously criticises the different conceptions. Sometime, he attacks the communications practice – arguing that it actually encourages more transactional giving. Other times, he criticises the communications process and the ethos behind it by saying that it short-changes donors rather than helps them to develop deeper relationships. And rather than connect people with causes, he says it crowds out the voice of beneficiaries by “infantilising” them and their communities.

In fact, his criticisms go much wider than just the four concepts I sketched out in Part 1 of this blog, focusing on the negative and unethical – as he sees it – consequences of a donorcentric approach.

As I said in Part 1, the purpose of this blog isn’t to comment on Le’s thesis. Others however, have done so. But what conceptions of donorcentrism are they trying to defend and which of Le’s concepts are they trying to attack. Many people on Twitter said the practice works – that the science of donorcentrism supported it (by which they meant donorcentrism as communications best practice and process). However, defending the communications practice of donorcentrism doesn’t provide a rebuttal of an ethical critique.

The understanding is that if there is no single thing as ‘donorcentrism’, then there can be no single defence or justification of it. We need to understand what we mean when we talk about donorcentrism, not just so that it can be defended against critics, but also so that proponents can make the best arguments they can in support of their own concepts, not just rely on assertions and assumptions – which leaves us chasing our tails and going round in circles.

Donorcentrism as ideology

In this two-parter, I have argued that a lack of understanding or consensus about what donorcentrism really is has led to a number of problems for fundraising. In resolving these problems, we need better discussion than we currently have. We need people advocating donorcentrism to interrogate their own ideas and beliefs to provide the best supporting arguments they can.

  • Anyone who claims to be a ‘donorcentric’ fundraiser needs to decide what they mean by that and which of the concepts of donorcentrism they’re using.
  • Anyone who claims that donorcentic fundraising ‘works’ has to be able to provide evidence that it actually does work, and better still, the theory about why it works.
  • Anyone who claims that donorcentric fundraising is the ‘right’ way to fundraise needs to provide a sound ethical justification of why that is so, not just assume – and then assert – that it is.

Anyone who subscribes to donorcentric ideas of fundraising also has to concede that they might be wrong about some of the things they hold dear. And when the likes of Roger Craver and Vu Le criticise the ideas they hold so dear, the defence is not gainsaying and re-asserting those cherished ideas, but to engage with them and critique them (for which you need to critique the concept of donorcentic they’re using, not just the one you want to defend). If you can successfully do that, then not only do you have good reasons why they might be wrong, you also have better reasons why you might be right. But if you cannot, then you might have to admit that it’s your ideas that might need to change.

If, however, you’re a donorcentrist fundraiser who is not prepared to do any of these things, and particularly not reconsider your ideas in the teeth of argument and theory against them, then you’re probably an ideologist.

And rather than seeing donorcentrism as a communications practice or process, a theory of donor choice or an ethical theory, for you, donorcentrism is an ideology that you’ll defend until death, even if, when pressed, you can’t actually say what it is.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the independent fundraising think tank.

One thought on “NEW IDEAS: Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 2. What could go wrong?”

  1. I think you may be mistaking Craver’s argument. The blog post talks about feedback as the “missing ingredient” to donorcentricity, not that it is where donorcentricity begins and ends. Rather, I think he’s saying that getting feedback is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for donorcentricity.

    Thnk of it in terms of the statement “if you don’t have a thousand pounds to your name, you are not a millionaire.” This doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone who has a thousand pounds is a millionaire.

    And, to your criteria at the end of the piece, he does show that this aspect of donorcentricism does have significant positive results.


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