NEW THINKING: Neither amateur nor professional but something in between – the ‘Corinthian’ nature of fundraising and the problems that causes

Fundraising is torn between the need to be professional while at the same time embodying ‘amateur’ values. Ian MacQuillin argues this compromise exacerbates a power differential between givers and askers.

A few years ago I was on a train heading back to London from a fundraising event in Manchester. It was late afternoon; late enough to have had a few drinks after work but still get home at a relatively respectable hour. A bloke plonked himself down next to me. He’d been having a few drinks after work.

He immediately struck up a conversation by asking where I’d been. When I told him, he launched into a speech about all the things that were wrong with and objectionable about charities and fundraising, such as admin costs and salaries, chuggers, and carpeted offices in that London. Then he told me he had the solution to problems he’d outlined. This was his solution:

Plenty of people retire from high-level careers in the business sector and are at home twiddling their thumbs. You could appoint them as CEOs and finance directors of charities, but you wouldn’t have to pay them anything as they’d be doing it as volunteers. Not only that, plenty of other people also get made redundant from their jobs, so you could also get them to fill vacant charity C-suite positions while they were temporarily out of work.

I pointed out that being a charity CEO is a full-time job, not something you could do in between tending radishes on your allotment and sinking a couple on the 19th hole. I also said that people who were made redundant would take the first opportunity to find new employment, so wouldn’t be hanging around at a charity for very long (notwithstanding that there might be reasons why they were the first ones out of the door when the restructuring came).

But he was adamant he was on to something.

By this point, he’d told me that he ran his own company. So I asked him if he’d ever appoint a retiree to be the volunteer marketing director of his firm or whether he’d want someone who was committed to the role full-time. I didn’t find out as the train was about to leave from his station and he dashed off.

“There is a general expectation that the nonprofit sector should be in some way ‘amateur’ or ‘amateurish’. Or if not exactly amateur, then not ‘professional’ the way the commercial sector is.”

Here’s another anecdote. Shortly after I joined the fundraising sector (as a journalist) someone I knew who was quite well connected in fundraising was invited to lunch by someone who had just been appointed fundraising director of an armed forces charity. He was a retired army office, a brigadier or something. After a while, he got to the reason he’d asked my friend to lunch, to pick his brains.

“I’ve got to fundraise £2 million this year,” the brigadier said. “How am I going to do that?”

Neither ‘amateur’ nor ‘professional’

The two anecdotes above reveal something fundamental about charities and fundraising.

The first, as exhibited by the Mancunian on the train, is that there is a general expectation that the nonprofit sector should be in some way ‘amateur’ or ‘amateurish’. Or if not exactly amateur, then not ‘professional’ the way the commercial sector is. I’ve written before about what I call the ‘Voluntarist’ ideology (you can find out more about by following the links to the blogs here). Rogare developed a way to combat this ideology as part of the Canadian Fundraising Narrative we developed with AFP-Canada.

The second revelation is that the fundraising sector so often plays up to this expectation, to the extent that it can feel as if fundraising is willingly complicit in the public’s expectation that it should be, if not ‘amateur’, then not too professional. Just as many members of the public consider ‘chuggers’, telephone fundraisers and other forms of interruptive fundraising to be unethical, so do many fundraisers. As documented by Beth Breeze in her book The New Fundraisers, fundraisers who see fundraising as an ‘art’ often decry the professional marketing techniques (read: proven to be effective and efficient) advocated by those who see fundraising as ‘science’.

Yet ‘amateur’ is the wrong word. The literal, non-pejorative sense of amateur is that someone does something in an unpaid, voluntary capacity, pretty much as a pastime or hobby, as in amateur dramatics or amateur photography. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not skilled at it. Then there’s the pejorative meaning of amateur, such as when you use the phrase ‘amateur hour’ to imply something is shoddy or not done very well, or done on the cheap.

Neither of these two senses of ‘amateur’ applies to professional fundraising. So if there is a normative viewpoint – as there seems to be – that fundraising ought not be (too) professional, but that it isn’t amateur either, then what is it?

The answer is that it is ‘Corinthian’.

What it means to be ‘Corinthian’

Sir Timothy Carew O’Brien, Irish aristocrat and England cricket captain. International batting average of 7.37; did not bowl. He wasn’t the only non-batting, non-bowling aristocrat to captain England. It wasn’t until 1952 that England was captained by a professional cricketer.

Corinthianism is the Victorian ideal of the ‘gentleman amateur’, particularly in sport. The name derives from the ancient Greek city of Corinth – which was renowned for its wealth, luxury and licentiousness (that’s the temple of Apollo at Corinth in the main photo). From the 17th Century onward, the term morphed into meaning a wealthy man, a “profligate idler”, and a fashionable man about town. But the most recent usage derives from its sporting connotations, such as the Corinthian Football Club and the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club.

Corinthian values are imbued with a sense of fair play – the ‘Corinthian spirit’ – and stand in steadfast opposition to professionalism (the ghastly idea that someone would be paid for acting on these values). For decades, both cricket and rugby were divided along professional and amateur (read: Corinthian) lines. Again, to reiterate the distinction with the pejorative sense of ‘amateurism’, this did not mean that amateur players were any less good than the professionals – though some were, and a few aristocratic captains of the England cricket team in the late 19th century couldn’t bat, bowl or field (that might be a bit harsh). 

Although associated with sport, the Victorian-Corinthian ideal of the gentleman amateur was embedded in many careers, from the military (in which you could literally buy a commission), science, academia and the clergy.

Over time, most sports and careers have become professionalised. This means that you can no longer ‘buy’ your way into something that you are unqualified for by knowledge, competence or experience – as could England cricket captains and British army officers – but instead must acquire those attributes as a prerequisite of entry to the profession or advancement in sport.

Apart from fundraising.

Corinthian fundraising, and how it distorts entry into the profession

There are no formal barriers to joining the fundraising profession (there are plenty of informal barriers, for sure). What I mean by this is that you don’t have to ‘qualify’ as fundraiser by going through an entry pathway that equips you with the skills and competencies you need to perform the role, and then assesses your competence and signs you off as competent – a process that almost every other profession has.

A lieutenant-colonel in the 14th King’s Light Dragoons, 1812. He paid £4,982 for his lieutenant-colonelship. Cost of uniform not included.

This means that, provided you are lucky enough to get offered a job (that’s the hard part), you are a full and equal member of the fundraising profession from day one, on as equal a footing as someone who has been a fundraiser for 25 years.

But, as I said, the hard part is being offered a job in the first place. In the absence of entry pathways that allow candidates to demonstrate their competence to perform a role, recruiters need to rely on other factors that imply competence, but don’t necessarily demonstrate it. One of these indicators is holding a first degree. Another is having done an internship or volunteering. This is far from ideal, but at least some criteria are being used.

At worst though, recruitment into fundraising roles falls prey to unconscious (or even deliberate) bias. Faced with two equally unqualified candidates – i.e. neither can formally demonstrate suitable competencies for the role ­– it’s all too easy to choose the one who is most like the person doing the recruiting (similar school, similar hobbies, similar social network etc).

How does this relate to the idea of Corinthianism?

It’s because not everyone has equal access to the criteria that are being used to judge their fitness to enter profession, and some are better placed to exploit those criteria: for example, few people are in the position where they can work as an unpaid intern. Those who can exploit these entry criteria are effectively ‘buying’ their way into the fundraising profession without needing to demonstrate their competence for the role – just as army officers and England cricket captains have done in the past.

(I’ll stress that no blame is attached to the people who do this. This is a fault in the system and they’re not to be blamed for taking advantage of a systemic failure that’s to their benefit.)

“Just as cricket and rugby were split around the professional/amateur distinction, so is the whole enterprise of philanthropy, with a Corinthian ideal of giving cast at odds with a professional approach to asking.”

There is clearly a class problem in fundraising in that the profession contains barriers (whether deliberately erected or as a result of the way it’s built) to people from working class backgrounds. As I argued in my recent Third Sector column, this is a by-product of fundraising’s Corinthian values: we are not ‘professional’, and anyone can and ought to be able to become a fundraiser, even if it’s a retired brigadier with no idea what he’s doing.

Rogare explored how people gain entry to the fundraising profession in a major report published in 2020.

As the class issue – with its the barriers to people from working class backgrounds – is a structural problem within the fundraising profession, it requires a structural solution. That solution is to construct entry pathways suitable for people with different career aspirations and different aptitudes for learning so that, when someone asks how they can start a career in fundraising, we can point them to the entry route that is right for them, and they have as good a chance as anyone of passing through it. And no-one gets to circumvent it because they can afford to ‘buy’ their way in.

But is the class issue really the result of the Corinthianism that runs through the profession? Couldn’t the same issues result from a completely different cause, such as fundraising simply being rotten with classist attitudes?

I’d respond by saying that if this were true, then those attitudes have to come from somewhere, and Rogare’s MO of critical realism always leads us to look at what the structural causes might be.

So yes, there are other possible explanations why the class problem in fundraising exists. I nonetheless maintain that a profession that valorises Corinthian values in its members – such as passion for the cause ahead of professional competence – is causally connected to there being a lack of entry routes that teach and assess professional competence.

Where do fundraising’s Corinthian values come from?

If fundraising is beset by these Corinthian values, then where do they come from?

I think it’s down the imbalanced power relationship between philanthropy (giving) and fundraising (asking).

Giving is an entirely voluntary matter. There are few ‘professional’ philanthropists in the sense that this is their career, they are paid for giving away their money, and they follow codified practices and ethics when they practice their philanthropy.

Twelfth century Jewish philosopher Maimonides – not a big fan of being asked to donate.

Voluntary philanthropy is considered to be entirely within the control of the philanthropist, who always decides what to give, to whom they’re giving it, and when to give. More than this, philanthropic values often place greater moral approval on giving before some asks you to give, such in Maimonides’ eight levels of giving, in which giving to the poor when asked to do so is ranked as less praiseworthy and commendable than giving without being asked. If you have to be asked to give, the very act of being asked is an implicit moral criticism that you hadn’t already given of your own volition.

To protect against criticisms of less-than-optimal moral practice (only giving when asked to do so), much of the ethics and values of philanthropy are inherently biased against fundraising. The hierarchy of moral giving set out by Maimonides has its modern descendant in the anti-chugger shibboleth so often found in the comments section of the Daily Mail: “I’ll give when I choose to; I don’t need a paid fundraiser telling me I need to do it.”

Part of philanthropy’s in-built defence system is its Corinthianess. Donating large sums to philanthropic causes is something that historically was only open to a ‘Corinthian’ in the sense of a wealthy person with time and resources on their hands. 

If voluntary giving is a moral Corinthian activity, but being asked to give lessens the moral value of the act, one strategy is to diminish and derogate the act of asking, particularly if the asker is being paid to do so.

Just as cricket and rugby were split around the professional/amateur distinction, so is the whole enterprise of philanthropy, with a Corinthian ideal of giving cast at odds with a professional approach to asking. ‘Giving’ is perceived as morally superior to ‘asking’. But it is vulnerable to implicit moral criticism whenever an ask is made. To protect itself from such moral criticism, ‘giving’ keeps ‘asking’ subservient by decrying its professionalism (use of modern marketing techniques and remuneration for practitioners, etc) and imposing Corinthian values and practices on it (be passionate about the cause, don’t worry about getting professional education or training, and be a ‘servant’ to philanthropists).

It’s an imposition of values that some in the fundraising sector seem more than happy to accept.

This is the real problem with Corinthian fundraising: not only does it perpetuate the power imbalance between philanthropy/giving and fundraising/asking; it also holds many fundraisers in its thrall in some form of Stockholm Syndrome, resulting in the very people who should be leading the charge for the professionalisation of fundraising being some of its staunchest opponents.

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