Why are organisations that claim all your money will go to the cause so successful at seizing the moral high ground? Ian MacQuillin wonders how we can make our arguments against zero-cost fundraising more convincing
On the face of it, my latest column in Third Sector – ‘The closure of Virgin Money Giving should hammer the final nail into the ‘something for nothing’ mindset’ – is just another that is critical of the zero overheads/zero cost model of fundraising. There are plenty of blogs, articles and social media conversations that are critical of the approach of the likes of VMG, charity: water, and Comic Relief’s golden pound promise.
There are, however, plenty of other people in the fundraising sector who champion their approach as innovative and ingenious. Good luck to them if they can make it work, the argument goes.
That’s fine. If one charity or agency can make zero cost fundraising work for them, then they should do it.
The problem arises when they take something that is purely descriptive about what they do (it works for us) and turn it into a normative prescription for everyone else (this is how you ought to do it too, because our way is ethical and your way is not).
Even if they don’t explicitly state this, it’s nonetheless implicit in their marketing: give to us because all your money goes directly the cause (the bit that’s unsaid but implied: if you give to someone else, part of your donation will be eaten up by overheads).
Zero-cost fundraising can only work for a few organisations in very constrained and specific contexts, usually if someone else is paying the cost. It’s not zero-cost fundraising, it’s ‘some else pays the cost fundraising’. As soon as that someone else stops paying the cost, the model collapses, which is what happened when Virgin Money stopped subsidising VMG.
“There is always a new company or charity that will come along and present donors with the magic formula that more (or all) of their donation will go directly to ‘the cause’, and not be ‘wasted’ on overheads.”
So beyond being critical of VMG specifically and the zero-cost model specifically, my Third Sector column raises two issues.
First, as VMG (and others) present this as a moral issue, then any failure of the model is a moral failure. They have let everyone down and behaved unethically by promising something they could not deliver, and potentially causing harm by encouraging people to stop using more financially-sustainable options, not to mention the race to the bottom it encourages among charities that can’t offset their fundraising costs but have to make it look like they do.
Second, the arguments we use against adopting the zero-cost model clearly aren’t working. For a long time, people have argued against this idea, and yet the counterarguments seem to have little impact or make few inroads: there is always a new company or charity that will come along and present donors with the magic formula that more (or all) of their donation will go directly to ‘the cause’, and not be ‘wasted’ on overheads.
The line I use in the Third Sector article about these organisations is that they’re “collaborating with the public’s fantasy” that every penny they give can and ought to go directly on helping people.
Populist positions like this always have an intuitive appeal and it’s an easy and lazy position to adopt for anyone who wants to make a PR splash or grab market share.
Our challenge, then, is to find different ways to talk about the zero-cost model that will persuade its proponents that they are, if not wrong, then not as right as they think they are; to persuade them that even though it might be the ethical/moral thing for their beneficiaries, their actions are potentially harmful to the beneficiaries of other charities.
What, then, should that discussion look like? How do we change this conversation? What different arguments should we put forward?
- Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.
- Photo credit: Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash.