Ian MacQuillin: The culture of secrecy at the CIoF

The Chartered Institute of Fundraising has been fearful of being transparent for too long

My first career was journalism. That’s how I came to be in fundraising; editing a fundraising magazine.

I have this mate, Pete. Pete’s an excellent journalist, one of the best I’ve ever known. I’d get Pete to do freelance shifts wherever I worked.

One day in about 2003, Pete was working on a story about a fundraising agency that had been implicated in malpractice and called the then-Institute of Fundraising to check whether the agency was a member.

IoF’s current membership book said it was, but we wanted to check it hadn’t left – or been expelled – since the book was published.

But the IoF refused to confirm or deny this. It wanted to know why we wanted to know. It wanted to know why it was relevant to the story.

It also wanted to know who Pete was and whether he was a bona fide journalist, and wouldn’t accept his word that he was working for me.

In the end, I had to call the IoF to get this piece of information (yes, the agency was still a member).

“Why didn’t you just tell Pete that?” I asked.

The IoF staffer replied: “Because we had to be sure who he was. We don’t give that kind of information out to anyone.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” I asked.

Why would a membership organisation feel it was not able, or just didn’t want, to confirm the membership status of one of its members? It’s not exactly a matter of national security.

That anecdote reflects an organisational culture that has existed at the IoF as long as I’ve been in fundraising (which, incidentally, is 20 years this month) – a culture of secrecy, being fearful of being transparent, doing things behind closed doors, and running a bit like an old boys’ club (phrase used advisedly).

The IoF did (and does) much of its policy negotiations behind closed doors.

It did so in two separate bouts of interest in the self-regulation of fundraising, from 2002 to 2006, and again following the "fundraising crisis" in 2015.

Some of that was excellent; some of it I don’t think was quite so good. That’s the stuff I know about. There must be plenty of other deals the IoF has done behind closed doors of which I have no idea.

It has been a perennial complaint of some (C)IoF members that their membership organisation doesn’t keep them informed of what it is doing, or consult them on these matters: some members have felt the (C)IoF, over its history, has not been accountable to them as much as it should have been.

Facing down such criticism at an IoF convention during the self-regulatory reforms of 2002 to 2006, a volunteer IoF representative told delegates that he could not tell them the content of negotiations with the Cabinet Office, but that members should trust that the IoF was negotiating in their best interest.

He was followed on the platform by a quite important figure who dismissed this as “false consciousness nonsense” – “You may think you know better than us, but if you knew what we know, you’d agree with what we are doing.”

Before it changed its name to the Institute of Fundraising in 2002, our membership body was called the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers.

I said then to someone at the IoF that this changed the nature of its mission, because advocating on behalf of fundraising might not always align with the interests of the individual fundraisers who constituted the body’s members.

I was assured this concern would never come to pass, because “whatever is in the best interest of fundraising will be in the best interests of fundraisers”.

And I think going hand-in-hand with that sentiment has been a sense that what’s in the best interests of the IoF is, ipso facto, always in the best interest of both fundraising and fundraisers, and its members should just trust that this is so.

The now-Chartered Institute of Fundraising recently announced that it was setting up a "culture board" to “lead a long-term systemic change in culture across the fundraising community and within the Chartered Institute”. This board will have the task of “challenging and disrupting our thinking”.

One thing it could immediately start to disrupt is the CIoF’s historic culture of secrecy.

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