Ian MacQuillin: Can we support our own beneficiaries and wider society at the same time?

Fundraisers must balance the needs of the people their charity supports with big-picture concerns

Fundraisers will take almost every opportunity to tell you that "fundraising is not about money". Sometimes they put a "just" before money; sometimes they don’t.

I’ve always maintained that of course fundraising is about money. Sure, not all fundraising is about the actual act of asking for money; but it’s all directed to that end goal.

This seems to be fairly cut and dried if we are talking about fundraising as a profession, whose members have the role of ensuring their charity is sufficiently well-resourced with voluntary donations to improve the lives of that charity’s beneficiaries.

The ethical imperative for fundraisers is therefore to maximise good and minimise harm to the beneficiaries of their charity, which they achieve by raising money.

But what if charities' concerns extended – or ought to extend – beyond their own beneficiaries? Suppose the overriding concern is to all or a majority of beneficiaries of other charities? Or to society as a whole?

This changes the ethical equation. Your beneficiaries are no longer the primary stakeholder in your ethical decision-making. That’s because their needs could be outweighed by the significantly greater numbers of people impacted by what’s harming society as a whole: racism, sexism, climate change, and homophobia.

More specifically, it extends to whether charities should cut ties with companies that are less than authentically supporting LGBT rights, and whether to join the boycott of Facebook over its position on hate/free (depending on your perspective) speech.

Tackling these big-picture issues casts fundraising in the role of a social movement that genuinely isn’t just about money raised.

One such step towards becoming a more socially-conscious movement is the Institute of Fundraising’s agenda to tackle climate change, which includes advice on refusing donations that come with environmental concerns.

Another indicator of this change is how some fundraisers are starting to ask whether predominant donor-centred narrative reinforces white saviourism or white supremacy.

This is something that US thought leader Vu Le and Canadian legacy fundraising expert Ligia Peña have both recently written about. I also raised this challenge in a previous Third Sector column, and got a lot of pushback from fundraisers on social media as a result.

Vu Le is initiating a movement he calls "community centric fundraising", which aims to “reimagine fundraising grounded in racial and economic justice”.

There is a school of thought called "critical marketing" that argues that marketing needs to subvert the system it generally serves by challenging some of the marketing’s fundamental assumptions.

Academic critical marketers are mainly "critical theorists". Critical theory has a number of historical roots, including critique of political economy, literary criticism, and philosophy all aimed at uncovering underlying power structures in society and advocating for social change.

Questions such as whether fundraisers should boycott Facebook or ditch donor-centred narratives are amenable to a critical theory approach. It would aim to examine fundraising’s social role, and in so doing could change it to a movement for social change that sought change for all, rather than being a profession that sought change for the beneficiaries of the charities its members worked for.

But doing so raises challenges of balancing the needs of beneficiaries specifically (to help redress the specific injustice they face now) and more generically (to change the entire system so they don’t need that specific help, even though doing so may mean they don’t get the specific help they now need, because you haven’t raised the money needed to help them).

Here is that choice laid out:

Choice 1 – take a course of action that maximises good and minimises harm for your beneficiaries.

Choice 2 – take a course of action that maximises good and minimises harm for society at large, even though doing this may harm your beneficiaries (at least in the short term).

The challenge we face is how we can frame the first choice in the context of the second, and it’s far from simple. Because by becoming a social movement that campaigns for social justice across the board, there is a genuine possibility that individuals could be harmed, at least in the short term.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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