It’s fair to say that fundraisers have had a bad rap in the past few years, with a succession of negative media headlines, political criticism and fines from the Information Commissioner’s Office. It's no wonder that some people who ask for money for good causes for a living tell me they now dodge the ‘what’s your job?’ question at parties.
With the help of the Institute of Fundraising as my invaluable research partner, I’ve spent the past three years interviewing and surveying over 1200 of the UK’s professional fundraisers, to find out who they are, what they do, why they chose this work and what makes them tick. Time and again the data highlights sharp differences between public perceptions of fundraising and what actually happens on the front line of raising the money that charities need to do their good work. Here are three key myths about fundraising that need exploding:
The myth of persuasion
Fundraising is not about talking someone into making a gift they do not wish to make. However good a fundraiser’s pitch, it is unlikely to change donors’ views, based on decades of lived experience and social conditioning, about the nature of problems and how best to solve them. Instead of persuasion, what works best is to identify people who are concerned or passionate about an issue, understand how they think about it, share with them the latest thinking and ideas about what can be done, then offer a funding proposal that reflects the donor’s frame of reference and is in line with the charity’s philosophy and strategy.
Successful fundraisers understand that tailoring the ask to the donor’s world view is the most likely route to a successful outcome, and that this is best described as a strategy of alignment, not of persuasion. Ideally, donors are genuine partners in achieving the charity’s mission rather than simply part of the fundraising process.
The insistence that fundraising is more about facilitation than solicitation, and is the precise opposite of begging, was a common theme in the interviews I conducted. As one extremely successful fundraiser explained, “You’re giving people the information and the evidence to enable them to do something that they want to do, you’re not standing over them and saying, ‘You must give!’”.
The myth of magic buttons
Many inexperienced people who want to raise funds assume there are simple buttons they can press that will unleash donations. Much energy has been expended in trying to identify which characteristics, behaviours and attitudes are causally correlated with inclination to give, trying to ascertain which gender, age, income levels and outlooks are the most likely to donate. Yet the truth is there are no magic buttons – all kinds of people are willing and able to support good causes, and a growing body of research demonstrates that the strongest causal link is between being asked and giving, underlining the common wisdom, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Conversely, the main reason people don’t give is because they have not been asked, or have been asked ineptly: at the wrong time, by the wrong person or for the wrong amount.
The myth of donor animosity
Much policy making and regulation around fundraising seems to be based on the premise that being asked to consider making a donation is an aggressive act and as such, potential donors need protection from fundraisers. Of course, as in any sphere, bad practice needs stamping out. But a default assumption that being asked is harmful and requires a belligerent response, ultimately causes most harm to the end beneficiaries when good work cannot be funded. Indeed, the person who’s aggrieved at being asked to support a medical research charity might the next day need the help of that same organisation for themselves or their loved ones.
The difference between being on the receiving end of good and bad asks is reflected in this quote from a wealthy donor: “When fundraising is done by less gifted people, they keep asking for one thing after another and it’s really quite eroding, but when it’s done well and I really feel that I am helping to do something special that I will look back on with pride, that’s a feeling of joy”.
It’s well known that giving feels good, but so can asking. The pleasures to be gained in a fundraising career were frequent themes in my research. Successful fundraisers often used words and phrases such as “being proud”, “feeling satisfied” and “getting a buzz” from doing what they see as fulfilling, socially useful work. One interviewee connected the joy he felt in his work to the joy he knew it created for the donor: “I love fundraising. The passion I feel about what I do is because I’m giving someone with a lot of money the opportunity to do the best thing they’ve done all year, or all decade – or ever!”.
That quote also reflects the key finding from my research. That philanthropists and fundraisers are largely cut from the same cloth - they share many similar motivations, drivers and pleasures. The ‘New Fundraisers’ have emerged in parallel with the better-known ‘New Philanthropists’, and need to be understood collectively, as part of broader shifts in how philanthropy is perceived and practiced at the start of the 21st century. A united front would reap rewards for both.
Dr. Beth Breeze, director, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent, and author of The New Fundraisers: Who organises charitable giving in contemporary society?
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