Ian MacQuillin: Accountability in fundraising applies to the regulators too

Fundraising has to be regulated, but that doesn't make those who are regulating exempt from criticism

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Fundraising always had a bit of a fractious relationship with those who want to regulate it.

The hoo-ha that led to the revamp of fundraising regulation a couple of years back was not new. There was a similar kerfuffle about 15 years ago, with an independent commission set up by the Institute of Fundraising after a government report­­.

After some false starts and a lot of criticism – two of the leading critics then were Stephen Lee and Adrian Sargeant, both of whom have made their voices heard this time around – this process ultimately led to the formation of the Fundraising Standards Board in 2006.

In late 2003, writing in what was then called the Journal of Non-Profit Marketing and Fundraising, Lee argued that attempts at setting up a "coherent" self-regulatory framework had been held back by the "vested interests" of both the IoF and the Home Office.

I remember a plenary session at the IoF convention that summer. The chair of the IoF at the time defended his organisation against criticism from the floor (that is, from rank and file fundraisers) by saying that there was a lot going on behind the scenes that fundraisers were unaware of.

Professor Lee responded that he didn’t buy into this "false consciousness" approach of "if you knew what we know, you’d think what we think". The solution, Lee said, was to tell fundraisers precisely what was going on.

Sound familiar?

In my capacity as a sector a journalist, I was also critical of the process from 2002 to 2006, just as I have been critical of the processes that led to the current regulatory set up, particularly concerning the Fundraising Preference Service. I even called for Lord Grade’s resignation, which is something I did not do lightly. In fact, I’ve been such a vocal critic that to some people I seem to come across as anti-regulation full stop. When I met the regulator’s former chief executive, Stephen Dunmore, 18 months ago, the first thing he asked me was whether I thought fundraising ought to be regulated at all.

The answer is that of course I think fundraising ought to be regulated. I think all charities ought to join the regulatory regime and abide by its rules. Freeloading is completely unjustifiable.

But just because fundraising has to be regulated (and we all agree on that), it doesn’t exempt those regulating it from criticism.

Part of the problem has been that, at a policy level, fundraising has operated a bit like an old boys’ club ("boys" being the operative gender). Conversations were had and deals were done behind closed doors and not always opened to public scrutiny.

So that "fractious" relationship I described in the opening paragraph is not because fundraisers don’t want to be regulated, it’s because a lot of the time they are a) not told what is going on and b) treated like errant children to be scolded by the regulator. To a degree, this was the approach adopted early on by the FRSB, then taken to new levels by Lord Grade, chair of the Fundraising Regulator. As a result, fundraisers are often left feeling they are being regulated badly.

The new regulatory regime is designed to stop fundraising repeating the mistakes that led to the 2015 fundraising crisis. One of those mistakes was that decisions were not opened to sufficient scrutiny or criticism.

We talk about having more accountability in fundraising. That also applies to all those organisations involved in regulating – in the widest sense – fundraising, who need to be accountable to those they are regulating and setting policy for. They should welcome criticism: if they are wrong, they can change things. But if they are right, they can win critics round, through discussion, debate and cogent argument.

At the policy level, the days of telling fundraisers "if you knew what we know" have to come to an end.

Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the Plymouth University Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy

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