Beth Breeze: We can't provide sure-fire donors

Research into fundraising yields knowledge, not donors, says Beth Breeze

Beth Breeze
Beth Breeze

I had an air-punching moment recently when I learned that some research I've done at the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy is being used as part of the curriculum for the professional qualifications offered by the Institute of Fundraising.

As a former fundraiser myself, I'm committed to doing research that ultimately helps more good causes to raise more funds. Yet relations between fundraisers and researchers are not always healthy, and I've been thinking about why this is so.

The typical complaints made against academic researchers are that we pursue the questions that interest us, rather than those that matter most to fundraisers; that we write long-winded, self-indulgent prose, rather than brief, accessible reports; and that we keep our findings within academic circles, rather than taking them out to practitioners. There's some truth in those charges, but they also reflect outdated cliches about academia, which are untrue and unhelpful if they deter people from even picking up a report originating from a university because they think they know it will be inscrutable and impractical.

But even when we present relevant, digestible information to gatherings of fundraisers, the sense of disappointment in the air is palpable. Research into fundraising will always leave fundraisers feeling dissatisfied because, however much their heads are interested in the bigger picture, what their heart really desires is the names and addresses of sure-fire donors. It's even worse in face-to-face encounters. Me: "I research philanthropy." Other: "Oh good, do you know anyone who'll give me some money for this wonderful project?" Me: "No, but we could talk about how life experiences affect giving patterns." Other: "???"

The real root of the problem is an understandable confusion between prospect research and proper research (don't be offended - this is just a little alliteration, not a suggestion that prospect research is improper). When I first met fundraisers whose job titles included the word 'research', confusion ensued until I realised they spent their time doing the important job of identifying prospective donors and funders, rather than the equally important - but quite different - job of testing hypotheses in a search for knowledge.

The primary job of fundraisers is to raise the funds that organisations need to keep doing their work; the primary job of researchers is to advance knowledge in a chosen field. But given the symbiotic relationship between giving and fundraising (even unsolicited gifts need a prompt, otherwise how would the donor know the charity exists?), there ought to be a greater sense of shared mission between those who do it and those who study it.

So I'm glad my research is seen as useful for those pursuing professional fundraising qualifications, despite knowing many will still deem it 'not useful' because I can't guarantee it'll help them hit their targets this year.

Dr Beth Breeze is a researcher at the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy, University of Kent

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