Ian MacQuillin: No one likes us, but we do care

Fundraisers need a counter-ideology to fight the haters

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

What do fundraisers and Millwall fans have in common? It’s the lyrics to the south London’s team’s (some would say infamous) fan chant: "No one likes us, we don’t care."

Fundraisers get criticised from all directions: they guilt-trip and morally blackmail people, they’re paid too much, they harass vulnerable people, they’re unethical and unprincipled, they're little different to second-hand washing machine sales people.

But unlike Millwall fans, fundraisers do care what people think about them, because it is often so far from the truth (perhaps Millwall fans would say the same). But here’s the rub. If fundraisers deign to defend themselves against these accusations, they’re derided as being defensive, failing to face the truth, and for "shooting the messenger" (notwithstanding that, when it comes to fundraising and the media, so many of the misleading, biased and uninformed messages are actually written by the messenger).

Any defence mounted by fundraisers is often worn as a badge of honour by the critics (one could call some of them "haters") because this just "proves" they have touched a raw nerve and hit the nail on the head, without any concession that counter-arguments from fundraisers might be valid.

And we all know fundraising is often viewed as a necessary evil by colleagues, boards and senior management, and that fundraisers can’t always rely on their support in public: in the immediate aftermath of the events that kicked off the 2015 fundraising crisis, 17 charity chief executives signed a letter to The Sunday Times in effect apologising for the actions of fundraisers.

No wonder fundraisers don’t feel like they have a voice. It gets to the point where they just don’t bother standing up for their profession and professional values.

I was at a conference in 2017 where fundraising was coming in for one its regular lambastings from a speaker. No one countered these arguments from the floor. During the coffee break, a colleague asked me why I hadn’t said anything. "There are about 170 fundraisers in the room," I responded. "Why didn’t one of them?"

Criticisms of fundraising are so often based on values, yet the sector’s counter-positions are usually grounded in facts. Pesh Framjee destroyed Gina Miller’s arguments about charity overhead costs. Do you think she changed her mind because of that? I doubt it, because her views about overhead costs are ideological, and we are not going to defeat an ideological argument with facts, because ideologies are simply not amenable to contradictory facts.

What we need instead is a counter-ideology, and I’ve just finished working with the Canadian branch of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to develop a new narrative for Canadian fundraising that has aimed to do that.

The way we approach criticisms of fundraising is to base a response on our answers to this question: what is it about fundraising that people don’t like and how can we get them to change their minds about that?

But that approach is almost certainly doomed to fail, because what people don’t like is driven by values and ideology, not facts.

We should instead be asking a different question: what about fundraising do we value and can we get other people to value those things too?

It shifts the nature of the discourse and makes for a different agenda, which is what we are hoping to do in Canada.

Rather than defending against negative facts by justifying their actions with more facts (of course this makes fundraisers look defensive), fundraisers can state with belief, pride and passion why they do the things they do. Instead of justifying fundraising costs with a lot of facts and figures that will probably fall on deaf ears, say that you invest money in fundraising because that’s the best way to help your beneficiaries and you’re not going to apologise for that.

Will you persuade people like Gina Miller? Unlikely. But will you sway people – perhaps influential people – who might otherwise have veered towards a Milleresque anti-fundraising ideology. That’s the aim. And will thinking this way give fundraisers more confidence to voice their proud support for their professional values? Hopefully. Very hopefully.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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