NEW IDEAS: How anthropology can give us new insights into donor-centred fundraising

Responding to the debate around donorcentrism, Ashley Scott asks whether fundraisers should look to anthropology to better understand what donorcentrism means, and how it could generate completely new insights into their donors.

In his recent blog, Ian MacQuillin highlights the problem of the apparently ‘correct’ practice of donorcentrism, despite its lack of agreed definition. Neither is there is theory of donorcentric fundraising beyond a collection of borrowed and adapted commercial marketing techniques.

MacQuillin’s case is that in taking donorcentrism as effective marketing strategy (notwithstanding the transatlantic variations on a theme) and elevating it to fundraising orthodoxy, it risks becoming an ideology with a tendency among its ideologues to reduce complexity to polarising aphorisms.

If we were to better understand why donorcentrism is useful in the fundraising enterprise, we could move beyond the sterile debate over whether donorcentrism is about relationship or income maximisation.

A starting point is to place the rise of donorcentrism in its cultural context. In a similar way to which Rogare placed donor behaviour in the context of social-psychological theory, an anthropological perspective might help us understand the socio-cultural context of that behaviour and frame more clearly the ethical challenges fundraisers face in a complex philanthropic environment.

Anthropology is the study of humankind in different cultural contexts. In a post-colonial, 21st Century it has come in from the tropics and there has been a marked shift towards the study of western, globalised cultures. Among other things, anthropologists are concerned with what meaning is communicated in cultures and how different groups of people become agents of making their own meaning; and, how people act on the basis of their cultural understanding. Anthropology has had to become more nuanced to deal with postmodern complexity and now comes in a pallet of colourful variants.

However, the basic hypothesis is that by providing a broad interpretive framework, well-produced anthropological insights will help fundraisers towards a general theory of donorcentric tactics.

To give a flavour of what this might look like, here are four illustrations informed by the donorcentrist debate of the role anthropology could play and the kind of questions it would raise, and what insights it could provide towards definition of donorcentrism.

1 Donorcentrism as a product of donors’ pre-existing values can change the conversation

This goes back to the donor-as-consumer issue. Fundraisers need to raise their game because the donor-as-consumer is sufficiently inured to the postmodern, consumerist narrative that they don’t distinguish expectations of transactional performance between the commercial and nonprofit sectors. In fact some recent research suggests that donors recognise and may well appreciate professional marketing approaches by fundraisers.

If donorcentrism is a version of ubiquitous, customer-centric marketing, then fundraisers should not be held accountable for a cultural context over which they have no control. The more interesting question is whether they can interpret dominant cultural models to different, positive and ethical effect.

So, any attempt by fundraisers and their organisations to better manage culturally-formed, consumer-fuelled expectations by saying there is more to this than an impact report or a feel-good injection at the point of giving is an implied critique of transactional approaches and invites an alternative conversation.

The social anthropologist question:

To what extent are fundraisers enacting donorcentrism normatively because it is part of the dominant fundraiser narrative; and, to what extent is the discourse around relationship and transaction producing new and critical learning that can be applied by professional fundraisers?

2 Segmenting the file can add meaning and motivation to donors

‘Segmenting the file’ is a mantra that I’ve heard in every fundraising function I’ve been associated with. The technical marketing definition of a segment is along the lines of the smallest, reachable group of customers who seek to acquire the same set of benefits that provide the agency with an adequate return on its investment. In other words, profit is built into the definition of the term.

Nonprofits borrow extensively from commercial marketing because it works. The challenge is to produce profit and meaning.

So, for fundraisers, the ability to personalise messages to different segments is also an opportunity to help the giver to better make personal meaning in a postmodern context. This personalised engagement becomes significant where the traditional mythos – the patterns of attitudes and beliefs in a culture that persist and are often reflected in the historical stories people tell – about what is the ‘right’ or ‘good’ thing to do has been lost or eroded. A cultural anthropologist might refer to the marrying of message to motivation as creating moments of altruistic stability for the donor in a fast-paced world.

The cultural anthropologist question (in anticipation of GDPR):

How do fundraisers develop a more systematic understanding of the motivations of different donor segments including everything from their use of technology through their religious beliefs, to household wealth and altruism, that correlate with giving?

3 Customised messaging can be positively disruptive

Nonprofits are having to address the post-truth trend where pronouncements of what is the case are treated with scepticism or subject to echo-chamber style repudiation. If donorcentrism is able to create a two-way dialogue that is transparent, segmented and customised then it offers the prospect of introducing disruptive narratives into the relationship that would be hard to countenance in broadcast mode (where the intended outcome is more feel good factor). By disruptive I am thinking, not of shock tactics, but of the conscientious and ethical articulation of more unpalatable ‘truths’. And, to audiences that are already sympathetic.

Exposure trips to the front-line of a charity’s mission, constructed sensitively with concern for the wellbeing of the donor would be one such intervention. Disruptive exposure trips give donors permission to engage in a way that consent tick-box could not touch.

The cognitive anthropologist question:

How can fundraisers create the space where donors are encouraged to (safely) reflect on disruptive narratives that are profoundly alien to their lived experience; that raise the level of ethical literacy, activism and giving in relation to an aspect of social justice?

4 Engaging the ‘other’ is about the beneficiary AND the donor

The fulmination of donorcentrism by the blogger Vu Le, which preceded the current debate, includes two adjacent paragraphs – one where fundraisers foster an unhelpful ‘saviour complex’ in the donor and one that ‘others’ the people we serve.

Semantically, one could argue that the use of ‘you’ in donorcentric messaging to position the donor as saviour is similarly othering. Another experienced blogger has has emphasised their agency’s use of the term ‘us’ in preference. By that measure, ‘us-ing’ the donor would confer saviour complex on the agency! And, perhaps, identifying the beneficiary as ‘other’ with negative connotations is an unhelpful diagnosis.

Away from semantics, acknowledging the ‘other’ is a challenge because we are the ones who are more likely to have to shift our position. A better understanding of ‘people not like us’ – who may well be the migrant, the poor and the marginalised – allied to reflection about how to better engage the other is vital to understanding ourselves let alone successful philanthropy in a postmodern, pluralist world.

In Jungian psychology, ‘saviour’ and ‘hero’ are archetypes. Archetypes work in communication and cognition because they are part of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. So, are archetypes ‘other’ or are they bits of all of us in varying degrees?

Engaging the other is at the heart of the anthropological quest.

The psychological anthropologist question:

To what extent do archetypes help fundraisers craft beneficiary stories that are innately meaningful and motivational to a donor who has no personal knowledge or experience of the need of the beneficiary group?

Anthropology in the blood

If fundraisers are serious about better understanding the motivations of donors rather than poring over, say, predictive donor analytics, then anthropological perspectives may be a way forward.

And fundraisers are well positioned for the task. Anthropology relies on the nature and quality of the discourse between people that is observable, recordable and analysable. Discourse can take many forms from written texts, speech, semiotics and film.

Fundraisers as authors of these media, and who invite response, are discourse practitioners trying to engage in constructive dialogue with their audiences over big cause-related issues. Audience-focused fundraisers are predisposed to use and learn from anthropological insights to make philanthropy authentic, professional, ethical and anti-ideology.

  • Ashley Scott is a consultant specialising in enterprise development in the nonprofit sector in the UK and US.

Other blogs by Ashley Scott on Critical Fundraising:

2 thoughts on “NEW IDEAS: How anthropology can give us new insights into donor-centred fundraising”

  1. Thank you for a fresh look at this discussion. Anthropology, psychology, story-telling archetypes, and this: “that raise the level of ethical literacy, activism and giving in relation to an aspect of social justice.” All play a working role in daily donor-centricism as practised internationally by agencies like Bluefrog, Agents of Good, Pareto, Ask Direct and the list gets longer by the day. I don’t mean to leave anyone out, but I once could count the deeply donor-centered practitioners on the fingers of one hand, and now … I’d need to be a centipede. What the agencies practise furiously now eventually drips down. I see it changing the communications output of in-house institutional fundraising at places like US universities in, oh, maybe 20 years?


    1. Tom, appreciate your comment and challenge!

      If I read you right, the tendency towards ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ makes developing processes that accelerate drip down a big issue. Seems to me that advocacy for critical fundraising and its theory of change, as set out in Amanda Shepherd’s blog here, is a starting point. Getting this kind of dialogue on fundraisers agendas across the sector is fundamental to producing fundraising cultures that will work for agencies and donors in future.

      Also, I am of the view that fundraising practitioners are more than capable of engaging with the trans-disciplinary approach you note. But how you go about designing the creative interventions to make it happen I am less clear. The emerging conversation around the professionalization of fundraising and fundraisers is one potential vehicle. Another would be to conduct our own anthropological research project on how fundraisers learn and develop professionally at fundraising conferences and generate some theory to practice understanding from that.

      Whether the outcomes would migrate to US Universities I couldn’t say!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.