Stop trying to 'educate' critics, says Rogare's Ian MacQuillin

The director of the think tank says charities need better engagement, but are stuck in the mindset that people don't have the right information to form opinions

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

The sector needs to stop trying to "educate" the media and others who criticise fundraising by assuming they are wrong and charities are right, according to Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare.

Speaking at the launch of Rogare’s new white paper on fundraising ethics in London yesterday, MacQuillin said that too many people in the sector assumed that if the sector’s critics knew the truth they would change their opinions and agree with the sector.

"For the past 25 years the way we’ve tried to educate people who criticise fundraising is to make the assumption that they are wrong and we are right," he said. "The assumption was that, if they only knew what we knew, they would change their opinions and listen to us.

"But of course that’s not the case, because people actually have ideological and principled objections to certain things that facts don’t change."

He gave the example of people who disagreed with a charity chief executive earning a six-figure salary and said it was "utterly irrelevant" to try to persuade such people that the chief executive in question performed well at their job and received less than they would in the private sector, because such objections were ideological.

What was needed in response, MacQuillin said, was an ideological defence that should not involve trying to educate people.

"What we need is much better engagement, but we are stuck in this mindset in charities that people don’t have the right information to form decisions," he said. This, he added, was the approach that had been taken by the Understanding Charities Group, an initiative run by CharityComms and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to tackle negative coverage of the sector.

The NCVO recently unveiled a text it had developed by talking to focus groups to help charities explain how they work and why they do what they do.

MacQuillin said this approach was known as "information deficit theory" and was tested by the scientific community in the 1980s and 1990s when it was receiving criticism about its work around, for example, GM crops.

Since then, he said, this theory of communication had lost favour and been superseded by a more effective "public engagement" approach in which the scientific community tries to "co-create meaning with other stakeholders".

He said the voluntary sector should adopt this approach, engaging in genuine dialogue with the public to find out what they really understand about charities and using that information to "negotiate co-created meaning".

MacQuillin said that if the Institute of Fundraising had taken a public engagement approach last year, it would not have given up its standards committee so easily to the new Fundraising Regulator. Instead, he said, the body would have set up a shadow standards committee that would have written its own code of practice and liaised with standards professionals to help it overcome any challenges.

"Making fundraisers a minority on their own standards committee is not co-creation", he said. Here he was referring to the composition of the Fundraising Regulator’s standards committee, which was established this summer. Two of the six people on the committee are fundraisers.

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