Ian MacQuillin: Let’s talk about us. No one recommends it – everyone does it

Why do we keep talking about our organisations when we’re told we should focus on donors?

Here’s a summary of the best book about fundraising you’ve never read. It’s called Organisation-Centred Fundraising: It’s All About Us, and says the most successful fundraising tells potential donors just how brilliant the charity is. Best practice in fundraising is talking about what the organisation does and how great its staff are, and includes rafts of facts and figures that ram the point home.

Of course, this book doesn’t exist. And neither does ‘organisation-centred fundraising’ – at least, not as a coherent set of ideas that are promoted as recommended practice. No one blogs that the best way to do fundraising is to talk incessantly about your achievements; no one presents at conferences imploring delegates to put head shots of their senior management in DM packs.

Last year a couple of prominent fundraisers pulled me up for saying, in Rogare’s paper on community-centric fundraising, that donor-centred fundraising is the dominant mode of fundraising theory and practice; organisation-centred fundraising is the dominant mode of practice, they said.

So here is the critical question. Why is that?

If some of the profession’s biggest luminaries have been proselytising for donor-centred fundraising for the best part of 30 years, while no one has been doing the same for organisation-centred fundraising, then how do so many fundraisers do fundraising that feels as if it’s come straight out of the organisation-centred textbook?

One possible reason is that donor-centred fundraising is a load of bollocks, and people have cottoned on to this fact. They’ve read the books and blogs, tried it out, and realised it doesn’t work – it’s all snake oil. But there’s an ever-increasing body of evidence that shows donor-centred fundraising does work.

Another, more likely, explanation is that they just don’t know about it because when they came into fundraising, no one taught them cutting-edge theory and practice in relationship and donor-centred fundraising. Many fundraisers learn the ropes from colleagues – so if the colleague teaching you practices ‘organisation-centred fundraising’, that’s what you are going to pick up.

But the issue may go further than simply having the wrong focus in communications. In a recent LinkedIn post, Bluefrog’s Mark Phillips described organisation-centred fundraising more as a management approach to fundraising – an organisational ambition to grow merely for the sake of growing, with fundraising directed to that end, leading to competition between non-profits for access to donors. According to Phillips, two things in particular have facilitated – and perhaps caused – this organisation-centred approach: paperless direct debits and the rise of field-force fundraising such as face-to-face, which enabled the recruitment of more people at lower cost.

This suggests another plausible explanation why donor-centred fundraising is not practised more: it requires long-term investment that is not needed to achieve short-term growth targets. Many of the donor-centred fundraisers Rogare interviewed during our review of relationship fundraising spoke of how frustratingly difficult it was to secure this long-term investment.

We tend to dismiss organisation-centred fundraising as random stuff that people do because they don’t know any better, and if only they knew about donor-centred fundraising, then that’s what they’d do instead.

But if the dominant form of practice is something that no one recommends or formally teaches, that’s an indication that there is a structural failing in the profession. To fix that, we need to look at the reasons why organisation-centred fundraising is so widely practiced and take it more seriously than we do.

Formally describing it and setting out some of its characteristics and practices the way Phillips has done might help focus our minds. This is something that has its own internal logic, and isn’t as haphazard as we might think.

We also need to realise that people are learning this stuff on the job. If there are better practices they should be learning, we need to think about how and where they can acquire that knowledge, before it is ingrained in them that the path to successful fundraising is a letter from the chief executive saying what a great job they have done.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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