Ian MacQuillin: What leads people to believe fundraising is inappropriate in the pandemic?

Cash-strapped charities need help to help the needy, yet in tough times public resistance to appeals can be higher than ever, making it harder to cut through

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Imagine charities are in dire need of funding because people had stopped giving. This could be as a result of something like a natural disaster, war, economic collapse or, I dunno, a pandemic.

Now imagine there is a strong groundswell of opinion that charities ought not fundraise to replace the lost income they desperately need to carry on providing services for and helping their beneficiaries.

This is the situation many fundraisers are facing, fuelled by a sense that it is inappropriate to ask people to help others while they are suffering or undergoing hardship themselves. And so much of this opposition to fundraising comes from within charities.

Rogare’s recent work on the best ways to advocate for fundraising during the pandemic unearthed some of these attitudes. We asked fundraisers to describe some of the arguments against fundraising they had encountered (the following quotes are what fundraisers reported and are not necessarily verbatim).

This is the position of the board and SMT as reported by a fundraiser:

  • Our wealthy donors will also be struggling. We don't want to be seen to be 'capitalising' on the situation. We don't do frontline work so we can't make a good case – people will give elsewhere.

This is what the communications team at another charity thinks:

  • We have already asked our supporters to give to our emergency appeal so we shouldn't be asking them to do anything else.

This is what one donor said to the charity they give to:

  • You're not a frontline charity. It's unethical to be begging for money during this time when so many people are dying, more needy or in poverty.

You can look at this issue at different levels. At one level, you can find out what the objections are and find the best counter-arguments to mitigate those objections and allow fundraising to go ahead. That’s what the Rogare project did.

At a different level, we can ask why such attitudes exist in the first place.

Fundraising has a perennial brand problem. Many people think the way we do it is fundamentally wrong and inappropriate, and that it’s a ‘necessary evil’. The objections to fundraising encountered during the pandemic are examples of deep-seated attitudes that have risen to the surface, but the pandemic didn’t create these attitudes – they have always been there.

Joe Saxton at nfpSynergy wrote a blog last week arguing that the pandemic had exposed the ‘brand paradox’ of charities – that people don’t notice the good things that charities do, only the bad things. Part of Joe’s solution is to set up a steering committee to manage the brand of ‘CharityUK’.

I don’t disagree with this. It’s a great idea, and I’d argue that fundraising has to be central to any such rebrand, and not something tagged on at the edges.

But, excellent idea as it is, haven’t we been here before? Isn’t this what the ImpACT Coalition (remember them?) was supposed to do? Isn’t this what CharityComms’ and NCVO’s Understanding Charities Group was supposed to do? I’ve been in fundraising for almost 20 years, and in about every one of those years someone has made a call for just such an initiative.

There’s two questions we need to ask, then.

The first is why such initiatives so rarely gain traction (and funding) within the charity sector and fail to deliver successful outcomes. If we don’t understand why previous initiatives have failed, we reduce the chances of success of future projects.

And the more fundamental question: why is such a brand management project even needed? Why does the charity brand paradox exist? Why do people only see the bad that charities do and not the good? Why would a donor even think it ‘unethical’ for a non-frontline charity to ask for money when it desperately needs the money?

Solve these riddles and we’ll start making progress.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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