Ian MacQuillin: Who will write the history of fundraising?

If we are going to truly understand our profession today, we need to a nuanced analysis of what it looked like yesterday

In 2003, there was a media-hyped charity scandal involving doorstep fundraising that led to a dramatic crash in charitable giving in Scotland. This decline was only reversed thanks to the ambitious Giving Scotland campaign the following year.

But negative press about doorstep fundraising goes even further back – in 1939, newspapers ran a very modern story decrying how “expenses had almost swallowed collections”. This was the year that new legislation came into force requiring doorstep collections to obtain a council permit.

These two stories have a couple of things in common.

First, they demonstrate the media’s interest in fundraising, with a narrative that doesn’t appear to have changed much in more than 60 years, and also hint at the role the media might play in shaping fundraising regulation. 

Second, you probably don’t know about one of these cases and possibly both of them. I’m surprised at how many fundraisers don’t know about the Giving Scotland campaign, despite it being relatively recent history, and lauded at the time for its success.

The lack of awareness of these two cases – even though both of them almost certainly have something to tell us about current day public and media attitudes towards fundraising, and how we might respond to those – suggests there is something amiss with how this profession records and archives its history.

Go and search for a "history of fundraising". You won’t find it. You’ll get a few introductory book chapters, a few blogs, and a book on the history of fundraising in the USA that was written in 1965 and has been out of print since the early 1990s.

When the history of fundraising is attempted, it’s often a fairly naïve historical approach, detailing the exploits of a few so-called "great men" as being the "inventors" of modern fundraising in the early 20th Century.

This isn’t meant as a criticism, since these chapters are only meant to provide a flavour of our profession’s history, and the authors are not professional historians.

But what we are missing is a more nuanced, more sophisticated historical analysis that looks at fundraising history not just as a chronological timeline of events instigated by fundraising’s great men (and they are always men), but examines the historical social, cultural and political context of fundraising.

Beth Breeze has done this in the first chapter of her 2017 book The New Fundraisers. First, Breeze takes issue with fundraising’s "origin myth" – that it was invented by a few men either side of the First World War – by providing evidence of organised fundraising well before that.

But more than that, she looks at the social context of fundraising, under subheads such as "What social conditions facilitate fundraising?", "The spread of wealth and fundraising", and "Continuity and change in fundraising over time".

There’s also this section heading: "Fundraising as a social problem."

This is an intriguing idea. It suggests that the media criticism of fundraising in 1939 and 2004 is part of a coherent historical narrative that stretches back decades, if not centuries, and has social and cultural roots and causal factors.

If we are going to truly understand our profession today, this kind of social and cultural historical analysis of the profession of yesterday is what we need – not just a collection of fundraising factors, arranged, as the saying goes, as "one damn thing after another".

Because if we don’t do this, who will write fundraising’s history? Or rather, who will have authored the sources that future researchers of fundraising’s history rely on? The answer is journalists.

Think about the fundraising crisis of 2015, about which no history has been written and no analysis of its putative causes has been attempted.

Most of us in fundraising know that neither the coroner nor Olive Cooke’s family blamed her death on the amount of fundraising direct marketing she received.

The mainstream news media however regularly and widely reported this was the cause of her death, so much that this is the standard narrative that some of the media still promotes. 

These media reports containing this narrative constitute the sources to which future researchers are most likely to turn – the same way that if we want to research fundraising in 1939, it’s contemporaneous press reports we go to.

So here’s the question for the fundraising profession: who do you want to author the history of fundraising? Us? Or a journalist from the Daily Mail?

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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