NEW IDEAS: How Canadian fundraising is changing the way it engages with critics

Canadian fundraisers are using a new narrative to engage with their critics. But they won’t be ‘defending’ fundraising using facts. Ian MacQuillin explains the thinking behind the AFP Canada’s values-based advocacy of the profession.

Fundraising has a perception problem. More than that though, it has an engagement problem.

The perception problem is that many people don’t understand how charities and fundraising work, and criticise them for things such as spending ‘too much’ on salaries and overheads, and using particular types of ‘aggressive’ fundraising.

The engagement problem is that fundraisers so often try to solve this perceived lack of understanding by ‘educating’ people by giving them facts.

But what if people are not interested in facts? What if their views and attitudes about how much you pay your fundraising director are simply not contingent upon how much money she brings in, and not at all that she could have earned more by working in the corporate sector (a justification regularly advanced in defence of charity sector salaries).

Narratives that aim to ‘educate’ people are negative (in that they try to negate what someone else thinks), while justifying particular charity practices. They’re corrective in that they are trying to show people the correct or ‘right’ type of thinking. And moreover, they are rational. They are saying:

What is it about fundraising/charities that people don’t like and how can we get them to change their minds about that?

You could present the most cogent, coherent, fact-based argument – one that’s so convincing that any reasonable person should agree with it. And yet still they don’t. 

That’s because their belief that all the money they give you should be spent on the ‘cause’ – with none frittered away on things like staff salaries, electricity, or staples – is genuine, deep seated, and very possibly ideological, an ideology about how charities should operate that I have describe as ‘Voluntarist’.

And if it is ideological, then that’s important new information. Saying something is ‘ideological’ is not a pejorative term; an ideology is a way of thinking about particular wide-ranging issues. You almost certainly subscribe to one or two ideologies. I know I do.

But people who subscribe to ideologies employ various tactics to downplay and derogate facts that interfere with their worldview. Democrats and Republicans have mutually exclusive views about welfare and healthcare, yet they have the same facts to inform their opinions, and those facts are never going to persuade them to think differently to how they currently do.

“Fundraising is justified. If we always start from the position that we have to justify what we do with facts, we’re always going to be chasing our tails and fighting a rear-guard action defending ourselves against someone else’s ideological argument.”

And so if the reasons that (some) people have such vehement objections to particular aspects of how modern charities work are ideological, then ‘educating’ them about how charities really do work with facts is not going to change their mind. If anything, you’re more likely to reinforce their beliefs.

What the fundraising profession needs instead is a counter-ideology. Instead of defending and justifying what charities and fundraisers do – which comes across, naturally, as defensive – such an ideological counter-narrative aims to say:

What about fundraising/charities do we value, and can we get other people to value those things too?

I’ve written about ideological drivers to attitudes about fundraising before in a three part blog on Critical Fundraising (see links at the end of this blog) so I am not going to rehearse all those arguments here, but please take a look at the links if you are not familiar with them.

But what I do want to talk about in this blog is how these ideas have been turned into just such a counter-ideological Narrative for Canadian fundraising.

How the Canadian Narrative came about

For the past two years I have worked with the Association of Fundraising Professionals Canada to turn these ideas into a coherent story that fundraisers can use to engage critics of the profession.

This project grew out of a presentation that ViTreo Group’s ceo Scott Decksheimer (then chair of the APF Canada) and Neil Gallaiford of Stephen Thomas Ltd (one of Rogare’s Associate Members) saw me present at AFP’s annual International Conference (ICON) in San Francisco in 2017.

My ICON presentation had looked at whether media coverage of fundraising had been ideologicaly’driven, and presented a putative ideological advocacy – rather than fact-based defence – of what charities do. 

Canadian fundraising leaders wanted a way to engage with stakeholders that would preempt the kinds of headlines that dogged the UK profession in 2015

Scott and Neil (and many other Canadian fundraisers) were worried that the media storm that had engulfed fundraising in the UK during the so-called ‘Fundraising Crisis’ following the death of Olive Cooke, and the regulatory change it had engendered (things such as the Fundraising Preference Service) would soon be heading to Canada – and they wanted to be prepared for it, and to head off any of the UK’s worst excesses. So they invited me to the AFP Canada’s Leadership Retreat in Ottawa in the summer of 2017. Following that, a working group led by Jennifer Johnstone, ceo and president of the Central City Foundation in Vancouver, asked me to develop these ideas into a Narrative, containing various key messages that Canadian fundraisers could use as appropriate to engage with critics.

Background to the Canadian Narrative

There are two core components to my ideas about a fundraising ideology. 

The first is that fundraising must be as professional as it needs to be in order to bring about the change in the world – something I have called ‘Professionalist’, in contrast to the Voluntarist ideology I discussed above:

  • The role of charities is to effect the greatest necessary change in the world.
  • To bring about that change, nonprofits need to be professional (and possibly ‘business’-like), utilising the best talent and staff to effect change, and rewarding staff fairly and proportionately for the contribution they make.
  • What matters is effecting change, and provided change is effected, a nonprofit organisation can be big or small, local or national, campaigning or helping, fundraising or non-fundraising. There is no one, preferred, ‘ideal’ way to change the world, provided the world is changed.
  • Charities cannot change the world unless they have the money to do it, so they have a right – in fact a duty – to ask people for support, and must adopt the most effective and efficient methods to raise that money.

The second core component, following from the fourth point above, is Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics. There are limits to what fundraisers may be permitted to do in their efforts to change the world, and so Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics makes sure that whatever it is that fundraisers do is balanced against their duties to their donors. But a duty to donors (and the general public) isn’t necessarily to spend less money on overheads and salaries just because that’s what some people might want them to do.

Until I was asked to develop this into an ideological narrative for Canadian fundraising, most of the analysis and thinking I had done around this issue had been focused on how it played out in the UK – it was the British media, public, and legislative/regulatory attitudes that I’d been mainly considering.

But the solution was not simply to take what I had previously written, replace any mention of ‘UK’ with ‘Canada’, and hand it over as ready to go. 

The new Narrative for Canadian fundraising had to be just that – a Canadian narrative that was couched in a Canadian context, and not simply a general new narrative that I attempted to shoehorn into the Canadian context.

For example, while Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics seems universally applicable – since to be ethical, a fundraiser must identify her duties to her donors and her beneficiaries and ensure these are balanced correctly, and those duties will differ between countries and cultures – there may be some nuance of Canadian discourse that means Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics would be less effective in Canada (or maybe more effective).

Similarly, the ideological biases I’d identified in the British (and also US) media in relation to fundraising stories may not have been found to the same degree (or at all) in the Canadian media. If this were the case, a strong ideological response developed for critical British and American media commentators may have been too strong for Canadian critics. 

So the first part of the project was to produce an extensive white paper that explored these issues in depth.

  • It looked at public attitudes to fundraising through several research surveys conducted by the Muttart Foundation.
  • There was an extensive analysis of more than 300 media items about fundraising going back more than 15 years.
  • The paper also examined legislative and regulatory initiatives over the past 20 years and the drivers for those changes.

While ‘Voluntarist’ attitudes were present in all three cases, the good news for Canadian fundraisers was that they were far less hostile than has been the case in the UK. For example, when Canadian legislators have considered introducing new legislation, even if they started out with very firm ideas about the types of ideologically ‘unsound’ Professionalist practices they intended these new laws to prevent, they engaged in discussion and compromise with the fundraising profession.

It might look bad, but the tone and language used in the Canadian media is far less hostile than in the British press.
A more typical example of Canadian media coverage of fundraising, particularly in local and Provincial media.

And the Canadian media was far more reasonable in its coverage of fundraising than the British media. In fact, having been well acquainted with the type of coverage the British press so often metes out, when reading through Canadian media items, I’d often find myself thinking: ‘Is this is? What on earth are you worried about?’ 

There was one article in the national media about third-party fundraising costs (a typical Voluntarist concern) that I well remember. It contained objectively-reported opinion from the fundraising profession, to which it gave prominent space, and in tone was more like the type of article to be found in the UK in the trade press such as Third Sector than in a tabloid like the Daily Mail.

And so while narratives about fundraising in the UK are more often than not damage limitation exercises, Canada was not starting from such a low base and could use their Narrative to build bridges and head off criticism rather than defensively respond to it.

But why would the Canadian media, public, and legislators and regulators be more amenable to such bridge building than their British counterparts? I also looked at Canada’s civic philosophy. There is a school of thought in Canadian political philosophy that the country’s institutions are grounded in a “civic reasonableness” that seeks to balance collective and individual rights, plurastically representing minorities through an “impulse to seek reconciliation between opposites at the levels of both political philosophy and practice”. 

So any narrative that talks a similar language about balancing competing interests and rights should be falling on receptive ears: Canada should be more, not less, amenable to listening to such a narrative.

The Canadian Fundraising Narrative

The role of the white paper was to consider whether an ideological Narrative for fundraising was appropriate for Canada and if so, what might be the factors that would influence what it said. 

Having done this, the Canadian Fundraising Narrative is constructed from these five key component:

  1. The Professionalist charity ideology
  2. Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics
  3. The Canadian way of doing things: a Canadian civic philosophy
  4. Donor-centered language and messaging
  5. Extra facts and information.

The first three we have already discussed. The fourth is straight out of the donor-centred fundraising playbook and suggests that when engaging with critics, it will always be sensible to talk about the generosity of donors and how charities rely on that.

And while I stressed that the Narrative is not based on facts, facts will be a part of it, and there are times when ideological points can be reinforced by relevant factual information, which you need to know about. For example, if someone is trying to argue that people will give to charities when they choose to of their own volition, it’s helpful for anyone countering this to know that research shows that upwards of 85 per cent of people donate because some asks them to. But you have to know this stuff; you can’t just guess at it.

The Muttart research into Canadian donor attitudes also contains a wealth of information that might be useful in framing responses. To pick on just one fact, two thirds of Canadians are comfortable with a “reasonable” proportion of their donation being spent on overheads.

From the first of these three components came a series of key messages that fundraisers can mix and match as they seek ways to engage with the ideological objections to fundraising. The APF Canada has assembled a cohort of fundraisers who have been trained in the use of the Narrative to act as advocates.

I won’t list all those key messages here – since the Narrative is the property of the AFP Canada and it’s up to the AFP how and with whom to share it. But the links at the foot of this blog show so some of the ways that the narrative has already been used in Canada in engaging with donors, volunteers, the media and legislators.

The Canadian Fundraising Narrative is not like other ways that fundraisers have tried to argue for what they do. It is not trying to ‘educate’ donors, nor justify what fundraisers do. It is:

  • positive (rather than negative) – it states positive values about fundraising rather than denying someone else’s negative values
  • advocative (rather than defensive) – it advocates for fundraising’s values and practices rather than being drawn into defending particular instances that come in for criticism 
  • non-justificatory – it starts with an assumption that fundraising is justified

And that might be something that a lot of us can take away from the work on the Canadian Narrative. Fundraising is justified. If we always start from the position that we have to justify what we do with facts, we’re always going to be chasing our tails and fighting a rear-guard action defending ourselves against someone else’s ideological argument.

One thing I didn’t mention earlier about ideologies is that they contain so-called “non-negotiable assumptions” – things that are so central to the ideology that they can’t simply be jettisoned without the ideology collapsing. Which is why facts won’t make any difference to Republican and Democrat attitudes to welfare. 

So this is one of fundraising’s non-negotiable ideological assumptions. Fundraising is both ethical and justified and so we don’t need to spend time justifying it. But if anyone wants to discuss some aspects of why we do the things we do in fundraising, that’s great, let’s talk. And in talking, we might find out whether some of the things that people believe about fundraising actually are up for negotiation.

  • Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

Further reading

AFP Canada materials about the Narrative

  • series of articles and videos about the Narrative can be found on AFP Canada’s website
  • More about the Narrative on the Rogare website
  • Simon Scriver podcast featuring Juniper Locilento (a member the AFP Canada Narrative working group) discussing the Narrative.

Ideology and public engagement on the Critical Fundraising blog

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