Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising really is all about money

Building donor relationships is a good thing in and of itself, but let's not conflate the means with the ends or we'll never change the world for the better

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

The first time someone told me that fundraising was not just about raising money, I honestly thought they were pulling my leg. I mean, what else could it be about?

You all know the answers to this (not so) rhetorical question. Fundraising is not "just" about money because it is also about building relationships, providing a great donor experience, making people feel good about themselves and, of course, changing the world.

And I’ll happily agree that fundraising is about all of those things. But in what seems like a perennial debate about the nature of fundraising and what it should be for – whether it is or is not about money – means and ends are being conflated.

Building great donor relationships and giving them a great experience is the best way we’ve yet invented to inspire people to keep giving and give more.

It’s a good thing in and of itself to do nice things for people. It’s a good thing in and of itself to make donors feel good about their giving and enhance their sense of moral worth. But that’s not why we do it. Providing great donor experiences is a means to the end of ensuring charities have sufficient sustainable voluntary income, and having that level of income provides charities with the means to change the world.

The conversation with the fundraiser who first told me the fundraising is not just about raising money was 18 years ago. The conflation of means (donor experience) and ends (voluntary income) was happening then, and it’s happening now in the same form.

But also during that time (it probably goes back longer than that) these two different approaches to fundraising – it’s about money or it’s not just about money, but also about relationships and donor experience – have polarised into almost mutually exclusive camps.

The "money" camp get caricatured as "transactional" fundraising, with transactional being used pejoratively, and set up as a straw man of all that’s wrong with just asking for money.

This almost inevitably leads to a professional existential crisis: if fundraising is not just about raising money, why do we call it "fund" raising? Shouldn’t we change its name to something that better reflects how we make donors’ lives better?

Over the past 20 years we’ve fluctuated between being proud of fundraising – in 2014 the Institute of Fundraising ran a campaign that encouraged practitioners to declare themselves as "proud fundraisers" (and even produced a toolkit to go with it) – to wanting to disown the term and call ourselves anything but.

So, yes, fundraising is about relationships, donor experience and changing the world. But it is about money, and money is the most important factor. Most charities can’t exist without voluntarily donated income, and it’s the fundraiser’s responsibility to make sure they get it. If you are a fundraiser reading this and doubt these arguments, ask yourself a question: if it’s not your responsibility to get the money in, then exactly whose is it?

If anyone wants to create a new vision for fundraising, one in which fundraising is genuinely not primarily about money (in other words, does not have "sustainably resourcing charities through voluntarily donated income" as its end goal), but is equally, and perhaps more so, predicated on enhancing donors’ lives for their own sake (in other words, not just because this will result in more sustainable income), then that will require a wholesale philosophical re-evaluation of what fundraising is and is supposed to accomplish.

And that is a lot more than merely changing the lexicon we use to describe it.

Anyone who attempts this had better be damn sure of what they’re doing, because the stakes are high: if such a new approach fails, charities won't have enough money and we'll fail to change the world.

As we start the new decade, I want to take us back the middle of the last one.

Be proud to be a fundraiser. Be proud of the role you play in making sure charities have the money they need to change the world.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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