Ian MacQuillin: The modern fundraising dilemma - raising money while not misrepresenting people

Solving this issue is a decision the entire organisation has to take, with expert input from fundraisers

The ethics of certain types of fundraising was again put under the spotlight a couple of weeks ago when The Guardian ran an article arguing that child sponsorship schemes “perpetuate racist attitudes”.

Of course, child sponsorship is just one aspect of a much wider issue - the decolonisation of aid.

This wider decolonisation issue was the subject of a panel session at the Third Sector Fundraising Conference at the end of May, which explored how to represent the needs that beneficiaries face without misrepresenting them as people.

By now we are familiar with the arguments around decolonisation of aid, and decolonisation of fundraising as part of that.

Some forms of fundraising perpetuate saviourism and othering (Save the Children’s director Gemma Sherrington said organisations such as hers have “othering in [their] DNA”), and often address just the symptoms of poverty but not its causes.

And yet fundraising methods such as child sponsorship raise shedloads of money, which is used to directly help beneficiaries and often to redress the cause of their situation.

This is the modern fundraising dilemma. How can we reframe fundraising so that we fulfil two separate duties to beneficiaries: firstly to raise the money to provide the services they need; secondly to represent them in appropriate ways, even though doing so may result in raising less money with which to provide services.

Sherrington said finding new solutions to this dilemma ought not be beyond our imagination.

But fundraisers’ imaginations might be stretched more than they should be: they are likely to be tasked with finding new solutions that will still be required to hit the short-term targets they are given, targets that existing methods such as child sponsorship are so good at reaching.

Solving this dilemma is therefore a decision the entire organisation has to take, with expert input from fundraisers.

Doing the right thing often doesn’t come cheap, and in this case it’s likely to deliver the double whammy of a short-term drop in income coupled with long-term increased investment in fundraising to test new approaches, and the patience to wait for these to bear fruit.

Yet the panellists at the conference session didn’t spend much time discussing how to do this apart from a few comments about how hard it will be.

The session was entitled The end of the ‘saviour’ narrative: representing need without misrepresenting people.

This is an important debate and no one is saying we shouldn’t have it. But there is a very important factor missing from how that discussion is framed here.

Here’s a different title that takes the discussion in a direction in which it will sooner or later need to go: ‘The end of the saviour narrative: raising money by representing need without mispresenting people.’

There are two directions this issue could take.

The first is that we change the narrative independently of any considerations about how it will be used in fundraising, and then see how well it works (or doesn’t) at raising money.

The second is that we change the narrative with a view to using it in a fundraising context – ‘raising money by representing need without mispresenting people’.

Put another way, are we developing a non-saviour narrative to be used for fundraising, or are we developing a non-saviour fundraising narrative? They are not necessarily the same thing.

Ending the saviour narrative shouldn’t be too difficult – we can see what needs to be done.

Ending it in a way that still delivers effective fundraising is a different matter altogether.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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