NEW IDEAS: Teach a fundraiser to fish…Rogare’s theory of change for fundraising

Amanda Shepard outlines Rogare’s new theory of change, which aims to move fundraisers away from a ‘copy the case study’ model to a situation where they demand to see the evidence for what they are being told to do.

This is how we learn in fundraising. We go to a conference. We choose our sessions. They’ve often got titles such as a ‘writing better grant applications’, or ‘direct marketing copy that really works’. Someone who has written better grant applications or direct marketing copy that really works then tells us why they are better and why it really works.

We conscientiously write down what they tell us – because our charity is paying for us to be at the conference and we’re expected to come back with a lot of practical tips to help us raise more money. Back at the ranch, we then have then have to apply all that learning from the case studies we absorbed at the conference. However, there’s something we might not have considered: that the situation in which that case study was so successful isn’t necessarily the same scenario that we face.

That example of giving donors total control over the comms they received was for a charity in which all the donors were also service users. Will it work for your animal charity? That example of a challenge event that fired people up to take part was for a refugee charity; will the same idea work for your arts organisation?

They might, but they might not. If they don’t work, will you understand why they didn’t. Come to that, will you understand why they did work. Maybe it was just blind luck you tried it and it worked. In fact, maybe it was just blind luck that the original case study worked. Perhaps what you were listening to at the conference was an account of something that nine times out of 10 would have crashed and burned.

And how often at conferences do we hear a delegate ask: “What’s the evidence that this works? What’s the theory behind it?”

When Ian MacQuillin set up Rogare a little over three years ago, he did so with the aim of changing the way fundraisers use theory and evidence in overcoming the challenges they face in their profession. I’ve been the co-ordinator of Rogare’s International Advisory Panel from the start (in fact I was in a pub in Vauxhall with Ian when the idea for Rogare was born – the name might even have been my idea). And we’ve always known that this ‘copy the case study’ model of acquiring knowledge had to be changed.

A theory of change for fundraising

As someone who is involved in and committed to what Rogare is doing, I think we’ve achieved a lot in three years. But perhaps we were missing something. There is the current ‘copy the case study’ paradigm. And there’s the theory- and evidenced-based paradigm we want to put in place. But how do we get from one to the other. This was discussed at a meeting of the Advisory Panel in London last year, during which Paul Farthing said: “Sounds like we need a theory of change.”

So that’s what we set about devising, first with a small group comprising Advisory Panel members Adrian Salmon, Meredith Niles, Nick Mason and of course, Paul Farthing, which I chaired, to come up with an initial outline, which we refined and then put to the full panel for their input.

This is the theory of change we have come up with:

  • By enabling fundraisers to Ask the right questions about
  • Theory and
  • Evidence
  • through Critical thinking,
  • in a mode of enquiry we call ‘Critical fundraising’,
  • we can establish a Critical fundraising movement
  • that will engender a Culture of questioning, in which we will explore
  • Under-researched issues (evidence), and
  • Under-thought issues (theory)
  • leading to Better theory and Better evidence
  • that will close Knowledge gaps,
  • and, by Influencing the influencers
  • Embed new knowledge and thinking in professional practice
  • resulting in a Paradigm shift in how fundraisers use Theory and Evidence to tackle Professional challenges.

Here’s the narrative version of those bullet points (and click on the image for a full sized graphic).

We want to be able to skill up fundraisers to be able to ask the right questions about the information they have or need, not simply provide them with that information.

Rogare therefore enables and empowers fundraisers to ask the right questions rather than providing the answers to those questions.

Ultimately we want to change the way that fundraisers use theory and evidence in their day-to-day jobs and when formulating policy for the fundraising profession. We want to transition the profession to a stage where every fundraiser seeks and is able to use theory and evidence in assessing how best to develop not just their own fundraising strategies and plans, but also in the way they tackle their profession’s major challenges.

We will do this by encouraging both a mindset and a mode of enquiry we call ‘critical fundraising’.

Critical fundraising is a type of critical thinking that rigorously evaluates what fundraisers know, or think they know, about their profession. It means being prepared to challenge the status quo in fundraising rather than being indoctrinated by it: there are no sacred cows in fundraising. Everyone presenting ideas should accept that fundraisers will challenge, critique and constructively criticise those ideas; in fact they should welcome this criticism. We are engendering a culture of questioning and informed debate in fundraising.

In order to close the knowledge gaps in fundraising, Rogare will use the critical fundraising mode of enquiry to explore and investigate issues that are:

  • Under-researched – Rogare will find the evidence on which to base better decisions and policies.
  • Under-thought – Rogare will develop the theory with which to make better decisions.

This will lead to better evidence and better theory than we had before.

To achieve this change in fundraising, we will need to build, maintain and facilitate a self-sustaining, self-motivating critical fundraising movement – a network of critical fundraisers – that will make this change happen (some of the members of this movement are our International Advisory Panel, but it extends way beyond the panel, for example those fundraisers who have joined and take part in debates in the Critical Fundraising Forum on Facebook).

These fundraisers will be/are the vanguard of the paradigm shift we are trying to make happen. Their role is twofold:

  1. Identify the knowledge gaps in professional practice that Rogare could fill.
  2. Translate and embed new knowledge into professional practice and – perhaps most importantly of all – embed new ways to think about and use this new knowledge.

Some of the components of this theory of change are things we’ve been referring to and using for a while, particularly the concept of ‘critical fundraising’ and the idea of ‘under-thought’ topics.

There are a couple of newer ideas I want to say a bit more about: getting fundraisers to ask questions rather than just giving them answers; and ‘influencing the influencers’.

Asking the right questions

When we put this to members of the International Advisory Panel, it divided opinion.

Perhaps the issue here was that this proposal was ambiguous. Rogare is not in a position to provide definitive answers that fundraisers can take away and say, yes, this is correct, because Rogare says it is. All we would then be doing is replacing one kind of authority (the authority of personalities and learning by case study) with another kind of authority.

We’re confident our ideas will be based on the best evidence and theory. But we still might be wrong (or at least not as right as we could be). And fundraisers will need to interrogate our ideas to satisfy themselves that what we say is backed by theory and evidence, not simply take our word for it.

For example, one respondent suggested that Rogare could provide answers about what types of fundraising are ethical and then lobby to have these ethical justifications accepted and promulgated throughout the profession. However, almost no-one can say definitively whether a type of fundraising is or is not ‘ethical’; what we can do is give good or less good ethical justifications for what we do. Knowing how to ethically justify something requires knowing how to ask the right questions about why something might or might not be ethical, not simply accepting that it is ethical ‘because Rogare says it is’.

Another respondent said: “Rogare shouldn’t be afraid of taking strong positions on fundraising issues and this will involve giving answers.”

Rogare has never shied away from taking strong positions and we have done so particularly during the fundraising crisis in the UK. But we have not done this by providing answers. Instead, what we have done is to challenge the thinking and concepts of those who have been critical of fundraising and encouraged fundraisers to think differently about those issues. It doesn’t follow that taking a strong position necessitates providing answers.

A number of respondents highlighted what they thought was an inherent contradiction in the Theory of Change. They pointed out that if the ToC says we will close knowledge gaps by providing better theory and better evidence than we had before, then we must, by definition, be providing ‘answers’ (or solutions).

“The risk for anyone who sees their role as providing answers (or solutions) is that their answers might not be very good ones, and if no-one knows how to challenge them (i.e. ask questions), those poor answers will be perpetuated throughout professional practice.”

Yes, of course, this is true. But we are not providing a definitive or final answer to a problem, we are providing a better one than we had before. But that answer can be further refined and improved.

Our work on ethics and relationship fundraising has already provided answers (on a conceptual level) to problems that we didn’t previously have, but they are in no way the final, definitive answers.

For example, some of the new ideas suggested by our review of how relationship building in social psychology could be applied to fundraising, are now being tested by Jen Shang, Adrian Sargeant and Karthryn Carpenter at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy in two projects in the USA and UK/Australia. When these results are published in 2018/19, they will provide some practical answers that we didn’t previously have. But they will not be the be all and end all. There’s always another question we can ask.

We know that fundraisers want answers to the challenges they face in their profession, but the first step in getting those right answers is to ask the right questions. And we will be providing the tools to enable fundraisers to do this. American AP members Cherian Koshy and Ashley Belanger have written critical thinking guidelines that we now use as the basis for all our written outputs. Next on our agenda is a similar guide for interpreting research.

Our Theory of Change is therefore an iterative one. We identify a knowledge gap, and provide a better solution in that gap than we had before. Then we challenge that solution to see if we can make it even better.

The risk for anyone who sees their role as providing answers (or solutions) is that their answers might not be very good ones, and if no-one knows how to challenge them (i.e. ask questions), those poor answers will be perpetuated throughout professional practice.

Influencing the influencers

Our rationale for an ‘influencing the influencers’ strategy is that our goal is so big that it can’t be achieved by trying to directly influence or change coalface professional practice, but would need to be achieved through a trickle down effect by influencing those people or bodies who will buy in to our vision, take it on board, and then reach a much wider audience through their networks.

Of course, we are not setting an objective of not reaching coal face fundraisers, just that we aim to reach most of them through intermediary stages.

However, some members of the Advisory Panel raised doubts about this approach. One respondent said this was élitist. Another said:

“I am very dubious about this idea of a cabal of influencers who are willing to spread the gospel of Rogare. Influencers is one way of spreading the word. But what about other methods? Partnering with training providers? Links to media contacts?”

My first response is that our Advisory Panel is already a “cabal of influencers who are willing to spread the gospel of Rogare”, although I wouldn’t phrase it like that.

The second point is that the ‘influencers’ are not intended to be a cabal or a secret society. This is a strategy for disseminating our ideas into professional practice. We have decided that we cannot do this by directly reaching all coalface fundraisers but will instead aim to influence anyone who can in turn do this for us. ‘Influencers’ could therefore be umbrella bodies, training organisations, and the media.

One respondent said that many people are influential in fundraising but are firmly rooted in the existing paradigm. And she is right that we would not want to waste our time trying to influence these people, just because they already have ‘influence’.

So for our needs, ‘influencers’ are:

  • People or organisations that are able to reach a wide audience and buy into our ideas.

We ask our Advisory Panel who they thought these influencers (and therefore the people we would need to reach) would be. This is what they told us:

  • CEOs and trustees
  • Training bodies
  • Educators (e.g. IoF Academy) and academics
  • Future leaders programmes
  • Students on fundraising courses
  • Media and bloggers
  • Fundraising umbrella and representative bodies (including regional branches and chapters).

UK panel member Jessica Burgess – a PhD student at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy and a fundraiser at Brighton and Sussex University Hospital Charity – articulately encapsulates our position:

“As in any field – law, medicine, accounting, etc. – not everyone on the front line will be inquisitive and involved within the profession. There will be plenty of individual fundraisers who will happily implement proven techniques to raise support for their cause, without digging into the details. Additionally, this theory of change is introducing a cultural change in the profession. These types of changes take time and effort to implement, often with minimal results to begin with.

“By utilizing the investment and involvement of the ‘influencers’, Rogare is intelligently recognizing that the best asset in the field are these individuals. Starting with this group, Rogare can infiltrate the profession from the inside out, like when a stone is thrown in a still pond and creates ripples across the water.”

The success of Rogare stands or falls on:

  • The calibre of the critical thinkers we recruit to this critical fundraising movement globally.
  • How well we can motivate, engage and support these members of the movement.

The influencers in this movement ­are what links Rogare’s academic and theoretical outputs with the professional practice that will utilise and apply them. Without a cohort of motivated fundraising professionals behind us, Rogare is little more than an academic institution producing reports that fundraisers might or might not read, let alone act on.

I think we can sum up what we are trying to do at Rogare by updating the give/teach a man to fish proverb, whose first recorded use in English is from 1885 in Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s novel, Mrs Dymond.

If you show a fundraiser a successful case study, she can use it for her next similar campaign. If you teach a fundraiser to understand the theory and evidence behind the case study, she can adapt that to suit any campaign she runs in the future.

  • Amanda Shepard is a fundraising consultant and co-ordinator of Rogare’s International Advisory Panel.

Further reading:

Download Rogare’s Theory of Change.

Download Rogare’s Critical Thinking Guide for Fundraising. This will be available shortly.

Rogare director Ian MacQuillin’s blog: You have nothing to fear from asking – or being asked – the right questions.

And his blog on resolving the tension between practice and academia in Rogare’s work.

And finally, Ian talks about the ‘need for critical thinkers in fundraising and philanthropy‘ in Alliance Magazine.

Find out more about becoming part of our movement for change.

Join the Critical Fundraising Forum on Facebook.

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