Ian MacQuillin: Beware the fundraising aphorism that comes without context

As we emerge from lockdown, fundraisers will be getting a lot of advice, but not all of it will be good or helpful

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

A couple of weeks ago I shared a cartoon on my Facebook page. It shows a woman at a computer checking her social media. The man standing behind her (I don’t wish to jump to heteronormative stereotypes, but I think it’s intended to be her husband) is saying: “Did you fact-check that before posting?”

“I don’t need to,” the woman replies. “It agrees with my preconceived views and biases, so it must be true!”

We all recognise how this satire applies to people whose views don’t accord with our own. Do we also recognise it as applying to us and our own views, and to those of our friends and colleagues in our echo chambers?

When I shared this meme I had in mind a couple of quotes I’d seen doing the rounds in various fundraising social networks.

One was from Mother Teresa: “It's not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.”

Predictably, fundraisers like this quote.

The second was by the US businessman Naveen Jain: “True philanthropy requires a disruptive mindset, innovative thinking and a philosophy driven by entrepreneurial insights and creative opportunities.”

Fundraisers also like this quote.

But should they be so eager to like them?

Mother Teresa says the amount of money a fundraiser brings in for the cause is less important than the feelings that motivated the donor to give. It’s a variant of that old chestnut that £1,000 given out of genuine “altruism” is morally better than £10,000 given because the donor gets some kind of benefit from giving.

We do realise, from the perspective of professional fundraising, that this is a daft argument, don’t we? The services beneficiaries receive are of exactly the same quality irrespective of whether the donations that enable them are motivated by love or by a more self-serving reason. Fewer services funded through love are not better than more services funded through self-serving motives, at least from the perspective of the service user.

And take Jain’s quote about what constitutes philanthropy. He says it requires a disruptive mindset, innovative thinking and entrepreneurial insights. But philanthropy requires none of these things. One can easily give a lot of money to a good cause that will produce massive change for the better, without much consideration at all.

So Jain sticks the adjective “true” in front of philanthropy to contrast it with, what, “ordinary” (maybe “fake” or “false”) philanthropy? And who wants to be an “ordinary” (or “false”) philanthropist?

Mark Phillips at Bluefrog is the source of an oft-recycled social media quote that says: “She is not one of your donors; you are one of her charities.” I’ve seen Mark present the research this insight is drawn from. It relates to those high-value donors who spend time carefully considering their giving to portfolios of charities. So there is context to this quote, which Mark’s original Tweet provides.

But in the retelling, the context (and often the original attribution) is lost and what we have is a soundbite that chimes with many fundraisers’ aspirations for what they want fundraising to be – such as what is “true” philanthropy, or “love” being the morally best motivation for giving – but has lost much of its information content.

And right now we need reliable information. As we emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown and try to rebuild fundraising, all kinds of advice is going to the be thrown at fundraisers. Some will be good, some will be less good, some will be little more than management aphorisms.

So when quotes flit across your social media stream, don’t just uncritically move your mouse/finger to the like button. There is far more insight to be drawn reading between the lines and looking at the context behind them.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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