Ian MacQuillin: Fundraisers must rise above the culture wars – there's work to do

A proliferation of conflicts across the sector has jeopardised its reputation as a friendly profession, but respectful pluralism is the best way forward

Prior to 2016, people had a pretty good sense that things that purported to be true should be supported by facts and evidence. 

Trump and Brexit changed the landscape to one of ‘alternative facts’ and post-truth, in which truth is contingent on what you feel it to be, not on what the facts and evidence say about it.

Of course, 2016 was no such watershed. Debates and controversies about the nature of facts and truth have raged for years, and the culture wars they engender can get personal and vitriolic (you might know about the ‘Sokal hoax’).

Philosopher Lee McIntyre describes post-truth as “ideological supremacy, whereby its practitioners try to compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence or not”.

You might be forgiven for thinking that we in fundraising are immune to such ideological supremacy. Don’t kid yourself. Fundraising’s own culture wars – over whether fundraising is a ‘science’ or an ‘art’; whether passion or knowledge are the ‘right’ qualities of a fundraiser; whether donor-centred or transactional is the ‘right’ way to run donor relationships – have been simmering for a long time. They might be about to boil over.

The evidence is firmly on the side of donor-centred fundraising. Yet there are a few fundraisers who wilfully disregard this evidence and argue for (and practise) what is effectively churn and burn. But science/art and passion/knowledge haven’t been empirically tested (they can be if you frame the right research questions). In the absence of evidence, adherents take the side they feel best represents their truth.

Beth Breeze has analysed the ‘science vs art' culture war in her book The New Fundraisers, finding that authors of ‘fundraising as art’ books are often “contemptuous” of ‘fundraising as science’ authors.

If, when the research is done, the facts – the evidence – point towards the scientific approach making for better fundraising, how will adherents of fundraising-as-art (those who are contemptuous of ‘science’) receive this information? Will they change their minds because the facts aren’t on their side? I have my doubts.

There are emerging culture wars in fundraising where evidence is absent and may not even be considered relevant.

One is the community-centric alternative to donor-centred fundraising. There’s wish-fulfilment among some donor-centred fundraisers that the two approaches are perfectly compatible. But they are not – they represent a clash of worldviews about how philanthropy and fundraising ought to be practised, and evidence that donor-centred fundraising works will be of little weight with a viewpoint that argues such an approach is inherently unjust; and they have ‘alternative’ facts about the harm (as they see it) donor-centred fundraising can do.

Another emerging conflict is over the professionalisation of fundraising, encompassing the debate about whether fundraisers ought to be graduates. One argument is that professionalisation will lead to a more knowledgeable, more competent workforce with clear entry pathways open to anyone. A different take is that professionalisation is elitist and will be unjust and inequitable because it erects barriers to entry. 

Pluralism of views and ideas is absolutely a good thing. We need to constantly challenge what we know, or what we think we know. 

In doing this, ‘facts’ are not everything. We have to weigh them, discriminate between them, and interpret them in support of the narrative or position that we favour; and doing so may lead us to change our minds.

But neither are facts nothing. Without evidence, we have ideology or faith: we believe passion is more important than knowledge to being a good fundraiser, but we don’t have any evidence to suggest that it is. And you know what? We don’t care, because our belief is enough.

And this is where it gets problematic.

For a profession that likes to boast (kid itself?) about how friendly and collaborative it is, some of these debates, particularly recently, have spilled over into personal abuse.

I’ve written in Third Sector previously about the need to give people with whom you disagree the benefit of intellectual doubt and to treat both them and their arguments with respect.

Pluralism doesn’t have to lead to a culture war. If someone on one side of a debate asks to see the other side’s evidence or challenges their theory, that doesn’t make them a cultural or ideological enemy, and they ought not be besmirched and attacked for being on a different side, especially not in a profession that prides itself on its amiability.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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