Ian MacQuillin: The ethical challenge of 'donor dominance'

Putting donors at the centre of fundraising campaigns can inspire people, but the results pose ethical questions

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Ask yourself a question: who is your most important stakeholder? 

It’s an odds-on bet you said it was the donor.

And that’s not surprising, since most of fundraising’s best practice, standards and ethics emphasise the primacy of fundraisers’ responsibilities to their donors. We know this by various names, such as relationship fundraising, donor-centred fundraising, donor love and donorcentrism.

As a short-term rule of thumb, putting donors’ interests at the centre of ethics and practice is a good thing.

The work of practitioners such as Mark Phillips, Tom Ahern and Lisa Sargent tells us that talking about how the donor can help rather than what the organisation does will better inspire people to give.

Professors Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant have described the theory behind why this works and are now quantifying the effect of relationship fundraising on the donor experience.

Most day-to-day ethical dilemmas in fundraising can be solved by doing what you think is in the best interests of the donor.

But there are longer-term problems with this way of thinking.

First, putting donors at the centre has the effect of pushing beneficiaries to the margin. This can be harmful when it comes to making policy decisions: the headlong rush towards opt-in consent taken by some charities because, they argue, this is the right thing to do by donors, will result in a lot less money being raised for beneficiary services.

Another issue is "donor dominance". The work on this by Rogare – led by the US fundraiser Heather Hill – has revealed many abuses by donors of the power they hold over fundraisers, from demanding to jump the queue for events to meddling in an organisation’s mission (not to mention sexually inappropriate behaviour).

But there’s another I’d never considered until the Stacey Dooley and David Lammy "white saviour" controversy that bedevilled this year’s Comic Relief

This story engendered much debate in the media and blogosphere. The author of this article in Third Sector’s sister magazine PRWeek not only exhorts charities to tell a positive story, but also that says such stories should not focus on the benefactor.

In the wake of the Stacey Dooley row, someone posted a tweet that depicted them doing voluntary work in an African village, surrounded by African kids. He wrote that these kids weren’t concerned about his skin colour when he was digging a well for their village.

This response was quickly forthcoming (capitalisation in original):

"This is my issue with volunteer tourism and poverty porn. You do his work because YOU want to make it look like YOU are a good person and the work, while it may help people, is centred around you, your ego and your white saviour complex."

The central tenets of donor-centred fundraising are making donors feel special and making them feel good for making a difference. It aims to give donors agency in changing the world, then recognise them for doing so.

Yet here we have examples where donors and benefactors are being criticised for acting and feeling in exactly the way donor-centred fundraising encourages them to act and feel.

That tweet is almost a manifesto against donor-centred fundraising.

"It’s all about you," says the donor-centred fundraiser.

"It’s not about you," says the anti-poverty-porn activist, "and thinking it is about you is harmful in the long term."

I am not arguing one way or the other. However, whatever the respective merits and demerits of each side, there is clearly an ethical challenge.

Once again, fundraising’s total commitment to putting the donor first, no questions asked, has led to ethical challenges that no one foresaw because we weren’t asking ourselves challenging questions.

In the domain of short-term best practice, no sane fundraiser should ever think about ditching a donor-centred, relational approach. But the fact of donor dominance and the challenge of "white saviourism" suggest that, however secure the dominant mode of fundraising best practice is, the dominant mode of fundraising ethics needs a rethink.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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