Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising is more than just philanthropy’s poor relation

Too often when we talk about philanthropy, the role of the asker is overlooked

Headshot of Ian MacQuillin

If you want to read a history of philanthropy, at more than 700 pages, Paul Vallely’s A-Z (Aristotle to Zuckerberg) of the subject seems a good place to start.

I must confess I haven't finished the book – I've enjoyed what I’ve read  – but so far, there hasn’t been much attention given to fundraising, and to be honest, I’m not expecting to find much in the rest of it.

There’s no entry in the index for the word fundraising. Amazon’s "look inside" feature reveals the word appears on 23 pages. This mostly refers to the volunteer fundraising activities undertaken by philanthropists through their philanthropy.

The organised professional practice of asking people to give to charity is almost entirely absent from a 700-page tome about the history of people giving to charity.

This marginalisation of fundraising vis-à-vis philanthropy is commonplace in philanthropy scholarship, which often treats is as an adjunct or afterthought to giving: philanthropy happens largely in the absence of fundraising, which has little or no impact on how people give, how much they give, what they give to or why they give.

This ethos is apparent in the report on the generosity gap in British society, published last month by Pro Bono Economics.

This report provides policy solutions to reverse declining participation rates in giving and declining voluntary income.

The main solutions are better tax incentives, normalising giving as a social practice, and better education and qualifications for wealth advisers.

The report stresses how important fundraising is but then accords the fundraising profession virtually no role in closing the participation and generosity gaps it has identified.

Fundraising’s role is to “create awareness of need”, after which, fundraisers exit the picture and the likes of wealth advisers, so-called philanthropy commissioners, legislators (through the tax regime) and local government take over by creating the social conditions that make it easier for philanthropists to exercise their own agency to give to charity, such as through giving circles.

There’s an inherent philosophical issue that leads to this constant derogation of the role of fundraising.

Philanthropy is promoted as a good thing to do (and the Pro Bono Economics report aims to make it even more of a good thing to do). Giving to charity is something that good people do, because they are good people.

But…if you had to be asked (let alone persuaded, cajoled, or – heaven forfend – "pressured") to do this good thing by a fundraiser (who represents the people who will benefit from your benevolence), then perhaps you’re not quite as good as you thought you were.

The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides devised eight levels of giving (pp94-97 in Vallely’s book) – a normative hierarchy in which types of giving higher up the ladder are better and more worthy than those on lower rungs. Giving without being asked is ranked as more worthy than giving as a result of being asked.

Maimonides’s eight levels contains an in-built bias against fundraising. It’s this sort of pervading bias that results in histories of giving and initiatives to strength philanthropy ignoring or diminishing the causal role played by fundraising in getting more people to give more.

Fundraising has many perennial PR challenges. One of those we struggle with is that it’s often seen as the "necessary evil" that charities need to perform in order to exist.

A related one that we are less aware of is that we are philanthropy’s poor relation who is rarely invited to family dinners.

The fundraising academic Beth Breeze has argued that fundraisers need to come to the defence of philanthropy and philanthropists.

We should also be asking philanthropists and their advocates to better recognise the central role fundraisers play in their giving, rather than the lip service it so often gets.

Ian MacQuillin is director of fundraising think tank Rogare


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