Ian MacQuillin: When we call for change, we must ask 'how?'

We have to target the actual problem if change is to be sustainable

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

You’ll usually find me in the "big questions" track at conferences, with those exhorting the need for systemic change, such as behaving more ethically or delivering a better donor experience. I almost always agree with the need for change, but I’m often left thinking: "OK, but how?"

And that was the question on my mind after I’d listened to the many calls to action from panellists at the IoF convention’s "Women in Fundraising" session, such as not normalising discriminatory behaviour and closing the gender pay gap. Yes, we need to close the gender pay gap. But how do we do it?

Knowing that change is needed, knowing what you need to change and knowing that you need to be a changemaker do not guarantee that you will know how to bring that change about.

Fundraisers are often told not to overthink things and just get on with making change happen. But if change is to be sustainable, it has to target the actual problem, not just a mirage of the problem and in a way that’s likely to succeed. To achieve that, you need knowledge and understanding of what the problem is and why it exists – theory, in other words.

Take the gender pay gap in senior positions. As was discussed at the IoF session, women who lead charities are paid, on average, less than men who lead charities, which appears to be a prima facie case of institutionalised discrimination.

However, rather than just a pay gap, we might actually be seeing a leadership gap as well. Women tend to lead smaller charities than men do, charities that pay concomitantly lower salaries and also often have lower status. The difference in pay might be a proxy measure of the leadership gap. So we should be asking a different question. It’s not only: ‘Why are female charity chief executives paid less than men?" One answer to that question – one we tend not to look for – is that they lead smaller organisations. A better question might be: "Why do women tend to lead small charities?" Or: "What are the barriers stopping women leading big organisations?" Undoubtedly, there is a huge chunk of institutionalised sexism involved. But phrasing the question differently takes us in a different direction on finding sustainable change.

After the IoF session, I was chatting to someone about these things and thinking aloud about what theoretical knowledge we could use as a foundation on which to build change.

One idea from gender theory is that fundraising has gone through a process of feminisation. This happens when women enter what was a previously male-dominated role and the field undergoes a "hierarchical stratification", with men coming to dominate the high-status, high-paid roles, while women end up constituting the majority of the workforce, often with a devaluing of the work that women perform and a depression in their remuneration. This has been shown to have happened many times, particularly in the co-called caring professions such as social work, nursing and teaching. How this has happened in fundraising is described in a paper published last year by Seattle University’s Elizabeth Dale.

However, the person I was chatting to told me that the term "feminisation" was "disgraceful". The next 15 minutes or so was a fractious discussion about the definition of terms and whether or not it’s a disgraceful term (I didn't name the process).

So my point is this. We cannot tackle the many issues relating to gender in the fundraising profession without taking into account the wealth of knowledge that already exists. And my think tank Rogare has begun a project – which is being led by Ask Direct’s Caoileann Appleby and the Canadian fundraiser Michelle Vinokurov – to bring that knowledge to the profession’s attention and make recommendations about how to use it.

If we want to correct the feminisation of fundraising, let’s use established knowledge to find the best ways to do that, and not spend our time arguing about what that process should be called.

Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the Plymouth University Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy

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