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Part 3: A 'Right to Ask' campaign is the right thing to do

Part 3: A 'Right to Ask' campaign is the right thing to do

The Guardian ran a pretty decent and balanced video news item recently entitled: ‘Why do people hate chuggers?’. Two-hundred-and-seventy-four people responded in what was a genuinely informative (though often ill-informed, as usual) comment stream (sorry, as a former officer* of my school debating society, I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘debate’).

Leaving aside the usual personal insults which some people feel they can chuck at street fundraisers at will, one response in particular is key, I think, to understanding the mindset of a lot of the opposition not just to F2F fundraising but to fundraising as a whole.

“Why do we hate them? Because we should have the freedom to walk around the main streets of our home towns without being accosted by some desert scarf wearing hippie douche bag.”

Although the poster of this comment doesn’t use the word, he is talking about his ‘right’ not to be “accosted” by a fundraiser. Or, put in less pejorative terms, his right not to be asked to make a donation to a charity by a street fundraiser.

We live in an increasingly rights-based society. Citizens claim rights for all sorts of things over and above those (such as freedom, life, health, education etc) enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They claim the right to a good night’s sleep; the right to smoke in public places, the right to blog anonymously and, my favourite, the right not to be offended.

In a fundraising context, we hear people invoke a moral right not to receive direct mail, not to be telephoned at home, and, of course, not to encounter a street fundraiser. These are expressions of rights to be free from certain types of fundraising methods.

You will also frequently encounter comments such as: “I choose what charities I want to give to” or “I plan my giving without needing to be asked.”

Such comments are expressions of a perceived right not to be asked to give at all. (And, of course, they are rarely true. Most people give in response to an ask from a paid fundraiser and few people give totally spontaneously to charity – if they did, there would be no need for a fundraising profession.)

Rights often compete. Some people might claim a right to be able to walk down their high street without being approached by a fundraiser. Yet the beneficiaries of the charity this fundraiser represents might also claim basic human rights of health, life freedom, education etc.

Rights entail duties. If someone has a right to a thing, that means someone else a duty to safeguard that right and/or ensure it is exercised. People in the UK have a right to free health care; the NHS has a duty to provide that.

If some people have a right to freedom, life, health, education etc, then someone has a duty to provide for and safeguard those rights. If charities have taken on that duty (or part of it), then fundraisers have a duty on behalf of their beneficiaries to ensure charities have the necessary financial resources do so. This confers upon them a right to ask members of the public for donations on behalf of their beneficiaries.

Some members of the public would, it seems, argue that their right not to be asked to support a charity outweighs the rights of a beneficiary to have a fundraiser ask the public to give on their behalf. I maintain that the converse is true: the rights of charity beneficiaries trump the rights of the general public.

But just because a charity fundraiser has a right to ask for a donation does not entail that a member of the public has a duty to give. Members of the public maintain a right to decline to donate in response to any fundraising ask – a right they exercise daily in response to many types of ask across many types of fundraising media. They also have a right to choose which charities to give to: in the confused talk about ‘rights’ that has already surrounded the Institute of Fundraising’s proposed Right to Ask campaign some people have argued that fundraisers do not have a right to ask because this conflicts with their right not to give. Nor does it mean that a fundraiser’s ‘moral’ right to ask trumps a ‘legal’ right not to be asked (such as membership of the Mail Preference Service).

The Institute’s Right to Ask is a fantastic initiative that I hope will get right to the heart of some of these issues. A Right to Ask campaign does not mean fundraisers are lobbying for carte blanche to contact whom they please when they want to. It is designed to encourage members of the public to think more deeply about why charities employ fundraisers and why they ask the public to give, and not to resort to invoking a form of a right to privacy that does not exist.

* I was elected by my peers to the office of the person responsible for putting the chairs away at the end of a meeting.

Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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