Ian MacQuillin: Should we ditch the concept of the donor as a hero?

It's almost a central tenet of fundraising, but some believe that working in this way can actually be detrimental

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Because of you, someone was helped.

If you want to distil donor-centred fundraising into one fundamental communications mantra, this is it.

Donors make possible the things that charities do, which happen only because of their help. And making them feel special by telling them they were the ones who made this happen is the best way to get them to carry on giving. Donors become the “heroes” of the fundraising narrative. A quick online search will bring up not just many examples that recommend this technique, but also some critiques of it.

From a purely practical fundraising perspective, none of this is (that) controversial because these types of communication technique work, and work well.

But from an ethical and philosophical perspective, there are some problematic issues.

Being so donor-centred opens the possibility of abuses of the power dynamic in the relationship with charities – so-called donor dominance. It might also – rather counterintuitively – lead to inferior relationships with donors, something the American voluntary sector commentator Vu Le has written about.

But there is a further problem, alluded to in Rebecca Cooney’s recent Third Sector feature on whether the whole model of international aid – in which money is sent from the Global North to help impoverished people in the Global South who cannot help themselves – is embedded in and perpetuates “white saviourism”.

So the question is whether this situation is made worse by promoting donors as heroes for having made this help possible?

But is this charge against charities a utilitarian-type argument in that more people will be helped in the long run if they ditch the hero-donor approach? This argument depends on finding a fundraising approach that works even better, or a change in donor attitudes that will have many beneficial knock-on effects far beyond the amount of money raised for a particular cause to help particular beneficiaries.

Or is it a deontological, non-consequentialist argument that says hero donor-centrism is simply wrong on a point of moral principle, irrespective of whether this might be the best way to help the most beneficiaries? In other words is it more important that donors help for the right motives, even if less help is delivered overall?

Different responses are needed for the different types of ethical argument.

But either could provoke an existential crisis in fundraising because, for close to three decades, revering donors as heroes has been a central tenet of the profession’s identity. If we ditch hero donor-centrism as part of the core of our professional identity and practice, with what do we replace it?

What other donor motivations could we tap into that would work at least as well and perhaps better than making them heroes or saviours?

The academics Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang base much of their work on something called self-determination theory, which is about people living their best lives by becoming good at things, having autonomy and being connected. This could suggest a different donor-centred approach – giving helps you live your best life and connects you to others – rather than making you out to be a hero for having given. (Discussing this topic on social media, one fundraiser commented that donors aren’t heroes because giving to charity isn’t really heroic.)

Various interpretations of identity theory could also form the basis of an alternative to hero donor-centrism.

So that we might choose to or have to drop the hero donor as the central plank of donor-centred comms does not mean we have to stop being donor-centred or stop tapping into donors’ motivation or help them to live meaningful lives. We just use a different comms device to tap into different motivations, and plenty of people are exploring these alternative approaches.

Even so, these new approaches could still be open to the same concerns expressed in Cooney’s article, which would bring the whole donor-centred paradigm into question, not just the hero donor part of it.

In the meantime, that traditional donor-centred paradigm is so well embedded that, quoting Cliff Richard’s first and greatest hit: “We just don’t know what’s a-goin’ to replace it.”

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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