Ian MacQuillin: What exactly is 'authentic' fundraising?

Without a clear definition of what makes fundraising authentic, the sector risks becoming obsessed with another meaningless buzzword

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

What does it mean to practise "authentic" fundraising? Or put it another way, what is "authenticity" in fundraising? Or with yet another variation on the theme, what does being an "authentic" fundraiser entail? Are you an "authentic" fundraiser?

These are fascinating questions about a topic (authenticity in fundraising) I find quite compelling.

But only a few fundraisers have considered this topic (Google "authentic[ity] and fundraising" and you’ll find them), and none of them has really defined what they mean by "authentic", what constitutes "authenticity" in fundraising or what an "authentic" fundraiser is and does.

There is a tendency to assume that authentic fundraising means doing fundraising the "right" way, and right in this instance is typically defined by the fundraiser in question. This also quite often conforms to donor-centred/relationship-fundraising principles.

So fundraising that builds and stewards relationships is authentic and transactional fundraising that focuses only on the ask (such as "chuggers", to cite the usual bête noire) is inauthentic. Maybe donor-centred fundraising is the best way to do fundraising, but does that make it authentic?

At this point I am sure some people are furiously sounding the overthinking klaxon. If relationship fundraising works best, why does it matter if we decide this is authentic?

It matters for three reasons.

First, if someone disagrees that relationship fundraising is authentic, and instead contends that fundraising is really about getting the money in, they can just as equally argue that their way is the authentic way. Without consensus on what authenticity in fundraising is, anyone is free to claim it for their own devices and the concept becomes meaningless.

Second, without a definition, we’re in danger of contracting "buzzworditis". Fundraising is awash with buzzword concepts, ideas that people have flocked around without really knowing what they mean in theory or in practice.

"Stewardship" is an example from the past decade. In about 2008, everyone wanted to do stewardship and put it in their job titles, although no one could really say how stewardship differed from the relationship fundraising they had already (supposedly) been doing for the past decade. Something similar happened with "innovation" in the first half of the 2010s, and – though many will take issue with me – I’d say "donor love" is veering close to the same territory.

But if we don’t know what these buzzwords actually mean, how can we be sure we’re applying the ideas they (purportedly) contain to best advantage?

That’s the third problem. Buzzwords betray a need to identify (and perhaps claim) ideas, but without getting bogged down in the philosophical malarkey of having to argue for what they really mean. Instead, all the challenges and difficult questions in fundraising can be answered – or maybe obscured – by labelling them with a buzzword.

This happens because we don’t have a philosophy of fundraising the way other professions have their foundational philosophies. You would be surprised how many Philosophy of… books you can buy: journalism, law, engineering, marketing, physics, history and even software design. But fundraising has no such provision.

The philosopher Nigel Warbuton describes philosophy as a way of thinking about certain questions, analysing and clarifying concepts and examining beliefs that we mostly take for granted. He adds that many of our beliefs, when examined, turn out to have firm foundations, "but some do not", saying that "the study of philosophy not only helps us to think clearly about our prejudices, but also helps to clarify precisely what we do believe".

Buzzwording makes it sound like we have examined and challenged our beliefs, and identified some new ideas a result, when it’s actually doing the opposite. There are a lot of fundamental questions and beliefs in the sector that we either take for granted or fail to examine, not least the most fundamental questions of all: what is fundraising?

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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