Ian MacQuillin: Donor-centred fundraising was always going to run into trouble

From an ethical point of view, donor-centred fundraising has its issues - but let's try not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to building professional practice

The American fundraising copywriting guru Tom Ahern announced on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that he is “retiring” the phrase ‘donor-centred’ from his professional vocabulary.

As Tom is one of the foremost exponents and champions of using donor-centred/focused language in fundraising communications, what could have led him to such a decision?

It seems to be in response to the new self-styled ‘movement’ to make fundraising more community-centric, which has some issues with the whole donor-centred thing, including that it affords donors too much power and control, marginalises and crowds out the voices of beneficiaries, and might even perpetuate white saviourism.

Fundraisers created a rod for their own backs when they adopted the term 'donor-centred'. If they had confined it to describing best practice, that would have been OK because, as we all know, donor-centred fundraising comms raise way more than those focused on organisations (notwithstanding accusations of white saviourism and marginalisation of beneficiaries).

However, fundraisers expanded its reach beyond best practice, turning it into an ethical theory for fundraising that requires fulfilling and servicing donors needs to be the focus of fundraising because this is the right thing to do for donors, not just because doing so raises more money for beneficiaries.

This permitted things to be done, or happen, in the name of being donor-centred. These included various facets of donor dominance – such as mission creep – which result from some donors abusing the power they hold in their relationships with charities. Another is regulation that puts unnecessary restrictions on fundraising – such as limiting the proportion of a donation that can be spent of fundraising – because regulators consider it not in donors’ interests for fundraising to be carried out that way.

So while donor-centred communications are relatively unproblematic from a best practice perspective; from an ethical perspective, donorcentrism raises some serious challenges (again, let’s park the question of white saviourism).

Yet attempts to challenge the donor-centred orthodoxy are often (I’d say usually) seen as ‘heresy’ by proud donor-centred fundraisers. There is often a circling of the wagons to defend this orthodoxy against outside attacks – recently we’ve seen counterattacks on the community-centric approach, and the “non-fundraisers” (an ad hominem argument) who “misunderstand” what being donor-centred means – rather than accepting the criticisms and critically engaging with donor-centrism’s inherent flaws.

Others have tried to come up with a rebranded term. In the conversation around Tom Ahern’s Tweet, a whole host of suggestions were offered to replace the word “donor” in “donor-centred fundraising”, including mission, audience, emotion, heart, people, story and human.

Other suggestions included “grassroots fundraising”, “people-first fundraising” and “impact buyer” (which prompts the question “If your fundraising isn’t focused on delivering the mission then just what is it focused on?”)

Here’s my suggestion for a replacement term. How about ‘fundraising’?

We are in serious danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees in what looks like a compulsion to make fundraising into ‘something’-centric. There is sufficient evidence and theory – such as through philanthropic psychology ­– underpinning professional practice that points us towards centring the donor, that we don’t need to explicitly state this anymore. Good fundraising practice is donor-centred, unless and until – and if – a critically reflective conversation shifts it to being something else, such as community-centric (which itself is not without its weaknesses and flaws).

But if we do want to call fundraising something more specific, there’s a name that’s been knocking around for best part of 30 years that does the job just fine – relationship fundraising.

Professional practice and scholarship of both marketing and public relations are founded on building relationships with stakeholders – and in its most enlightened form, when it is termed ‘total’ relationship marketing, that is all stakeholders, not just a privileged class of stakeholder such as ‘customer’ or ‘donor’.

That should be our goal for fundraising – to fashion a ‘total relationship fundraising’ that will build and balance relationships with all fundraising’s stakeholders, all members of the communities fundraising serves, taking all of their needs and desires into account.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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