Beneficiary v donor: who is the most important?

Howard Lake | 14 February 2007 | Blogs

My Dad called me at about 10.30 yesterday morning and asked me if I was ‘still interested in chuggers’?
I told him it’s what I live for.
Dad then told me that there was a phone in on Radio 5 Live about them. So I turned on the radio and listened to 10 minutes of callers complaining about chuggers ‘accosting’ them; people saying that people should give to charity when they choose to, instead of being ’emotionally blackmailed’; of volunteer tin rattlers implying they were morally superior to paid street fundraisers (and the presenter agreeing and therefore implying that it’s better to collect a few quid rather than several hundred) etc, etc.
After 10 minutes I could take it no longer and switched off.
I have to admit I was having a few uncharitable thoughts about the callers – about their lack of understanding about how charity works, about their own attitudes to giving, and about how stupid some of their views were (one volunteer fundraiser for a rather big charity said if you gave to him rather than responded to head office fundraising then the money would have a more direct link to the cause because it wouldn’t go towards running the head office).
But if a substantial number of people (not statistically robust of course, but anecdotally interesting) are venting their mistaken and misinformed opinions on fundraising, then whose fault is that? If people are misinformed, then it is because someone is not giving them the right information or communicating the right message.
To be fair to anyone who is trying to send out the right information/message (and it’s a moot point whether anyone is) there is a huge mindset among the British public to overturn.
Charities sit at one apex of a triangle that has donors and beneficiaries at the other apexes. Donors give the money that pay for the services that charities provide to their beneficiary groups. Or you could reformulate this and say that a wrong in the world impels some people to form a group to right that wrong and they ask other people to fund their activitites. But whether charitable activity is donor-, charity-, or beneficiary-driven, it is clearly a three-way situation and, arguably, the beneficiary is the most important part of that equation.
No actually, let’s forsake the argument and say that the beneficiary is THE most important part, because the beneficiary group is the entire and sole reason the charity exists in the first place. If nobody needed help, there would be no charities and there would be no need to give to charity. Beneficiaries are the ones in need: it is for them that we do what we do; it is for them that people give money to charity.
But the British public doesn’t view charitable activity as a trilateral relationship; they see a simple bilateral relationship between themselves as donors (or consumers) and charities, which are there to provide a service, or product. The service is that it allows Britons to be charitable and because this is a donor-driven noble and ‘voluntary’ action, charities, like Oliver Twist, should not ask for more.
You can only make sense of the view that people should only give to charity when they want to without being asked to – or ‘blackmailed’ – by a fundraiser, if you understand that people holding this view see themselves as the most important part of the donor-charity-(invisible) beneficiary triangle.
However, were you to accept that the needs of the beneficiary group were more important than your right not to be asked to help that beneficiary group, then you would not object in principle to being asked to help, though you might sometimes object to the way the asking was carried out.
Now, while a lot of the objections to chuggers, and other types of fundraising, are phrased as if they were an objection to the method, reading between the lines or listening to the tone of voice reveals that it’s actually the principle of fundraising itself that many people find most objectionable. They just don’t like to be asked, full stop.
So why does this attitude exist? Undoubtedly, it’s extremely deep seated in a society that interprets the ‘voluntary’ in voluntary sector as referring to giving up your time to help, rather than being funded by voluntary contributions. I wouldn’t even dream of attempting a socio-religio-historical analysis of the origins of these attitudes.
But what I do know is that the fundraising sector has done and is doing sod all to combat them. In fact, fundraisers have been complicit in sustaining them.
With the IoF’s Donors Charter, the fundraising sector codified the idea of donor-as-consumer and prioritised the importance of the donor in the charity-donor-beneficiary relationship while marginalising the importance of the beneficiary into virtual non-existence.
The Fundraising Standards Board continues this trend, promoting the self-importance of the donor and the expense of the beneficiary and taking great pride in showing how easy it is to complain about fundraising. Don’t get me wrong, despite the fact that I don’t believe the need for regulation (self- or statutory) was ever demonstrated, now that it is here, it has to work and work well.
But there is more to the FSB than making it easy for donors-as-consumers to complain about a product they don’t like. So why is it that this is the area of the FSB’s work that has been picked up by the media following its launch this week?
The notion of donor-as-consumer reduces the method fundraising to the status of a product, while at the same time visionary relationship fundraisers are trying to promote the concept of giving as so much more than that – as a way of life or a life experience. Asking someone to help other people is a question that makes people think about what they are actually contributing to society. Fundraisers ask people to help make society better; they do not ‘sell’ them a charity product.
But if you treat people like consumers then they will act like consumers. Being asked to help other people is a difficult ‘product’ to be faced with, especially if you want to say no. No wonder there are so many people calling Radio 5 to say how much they don’t like the product. (Take a look at Adrian Salmon’s excellent recent response to my earlier post – A Big Tick for Face-to-face Fundraising – for similar view.)
So what’s to be done? Buggered if I know. But whatever we do will have to start with fundraisers abandoning the idea that donors are consumers – they are not. Donors do not actually consume anything provided by the charities; rather they are stakeholders who invest in charities’ services to beneficiary groups.
The people who do consume what the charity produces are the beneficiary groups. They are the ones who need ‘consumer protection’. When we in the fundraising sector have got it straight in our minds that the beneficiary is the most important part of this relationship, then we can start taking the message to the general public that charities exist to help their beneficiaries, not to help the public fulfil its minimum requirement to be charitable.