Ian MacQuillin: Getting fundraising right is not easy – just ask Celeste Barber

The Australian comedian's crowdfunder for the bush fires has been spectacularly successful, but not a penny has yet been spent on the cause. This is why we have professional fundraising

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Imagine raising £25m in a matter of weeks through an online campaign, with more than a million people donating. It’s the kind of once-in-lifetime fundraising success most fundraisers can only dream of. You’d be fêted. You’d win awards.

Now imagine you’d cocked up the wording of the appeal so badly that none of the money could be used for the purpose for which it was originally solicited and was now locked up pending complex legal resolution.

Both situations describe the Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s crowdfundraising appeal for the Australian bush fires. This has raised more than A$50m (£25m), but not a penny of this has been spent on the cause. That’s because Barber raised the money for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, which can legally spend donations only on equipment, facilities and training, not the families of firefighters or those made homeless by the fires, the purposes that Barber appealed for in her campaign.

Celeste Barber’s appeal highlights both the opportunities and the threats from so-called disintermediated giving.

Microfinancing mechanisms such as Kiva.org and givedirectly.org allow donors to give or lend money directly to people who need it, giving them agency to find their own solutions, rather than making them passive beneficiaries of a charity’s services. There’s evidence that such mechanisms are effective. They also give donors more choice and control over how their donations are used.

There can be a rather uncritical acceptance that giving without the need for “big charity” to become involved is necessarily a good thing. And yet harm can result from circumventing the expertise and the failsafes that professionalised charity provides.

Take the Celeste Barber appeal. Had a professional fundraiser – rather than an amateur – been running such an appeal, it’s very unlikely the disbursement of funds would be the subject of legal wrangling. Fundraising, like many roles that require specialist knowledge, is not easy, which is why professionals do it.

You might think “so what? That’s just some technical gubbins. The most important thing is all the money that was given.”

Sure, lots of money was given. In fact, too much money was given. Barber’s appeal was clearly oversubscribed, yet it was never closed, as an emergency appeal run by an organisation such as the Disasters Emergency Committee would be once it reached a particular level.

And people kept on giving to it, even when the value of each extra gift was marginal. The psychology of giving offers an insight into how donating to a cause gives people a sense of connection to and an identity with something that is bigger than themselves. Smart fundraisers aim to prick these emotional touchpoints.

But if those touchpoints continue to be stimulated, there is a risk of runaway positive feedback, resulting in an appeal having quite literally more money than it knows what to do with.

But that’s not the only risk. Other people and other causes might be crowded out by runaway crowdfundraising such as the Barber appeal. Research has shown that some Kiva lenders “discriminate in favour of more attractive, lighter-skinned and less obese borrowers”.

Charities and NGO are established to ensure that the right help is delivered equitably and sustainably to those who most need it. They might sometimes fail to do this, but nonetheless it’s their whole raison d’être, legally enshrined in their constitutions.

Other forms of giving and helping, having no such constitutional foundation, cannot give us that guarantee. If disintermediated giving and helping replaces giving and helping mediated through charities and NGOs, we can be far from sure that those in most need will receive the help and support they most need, with some turned away because their faces don’t fit their donors’ or lenders’ perceptions of what a borrower should be.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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