Why fundraisers are so ‘angry’

Howard Lake | 6 May 2013 | Blogs

Gosh aren’t fundraisers a defensive, angry bunch of insecure people, lashing out at anyone who has the temerity to criticise them for being too professional, spending too much on raising money, or using aggressive fundraising techniques. Or maybe they aren’t. Maybe what some people interpret as an unwillingness to face up to what they perceive as some home truths about fundraising is really a sign that many fundraisers are just fed up to the back teeth of the same naïve and simplistic objections continually being rehashed and presented as insightful debate.

Take philanthropist Gina Miller, who made the front cover of Third Sector recently with her views that there are to many “careerists” working for charities, there is too much focus on impact measurement (you can’t win, can you?), and that admin costs should be capped by legislation.

Gina Miller is then surprised by the uproar that her views have generated among charity workers: “If you’re doing a good job,” she asked rhetorically in her Third Sector interview, “why are you so angry?”


Right Gina. I’ll tell you.

We are not angry because we are being criticised. We are angry because the criticism you have leveled at the voluntary sector is ill-informed, simplistic, lazy, ignorant, unoriginal, and lacking sophistication.

But I’m not going to engage with and attempt to rebut those criticisms as this in not the point of this blog. What I want to is look at the nature of the criticism itself and the attitudes that critics hold about those voluntary sector workers who don’t agree with them.

Miller and critics like her have a rather perverse way of measuring how good their criticism is. The more uproar and opposition they generate, the more they feel they are right. After all, they seem to be reasoning, if they weren’t on the right track with their criticism, the targets of that criticism wouldn’t be reacting so aggressively.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Increasing levels of vociferousness in opposition to their points of view only go to show how right they were in the first place. They then wear this uproar like a badge of honor: “I’ve pissed off the voluntary sector and I’m proud of it.”

Julian Knight of the Independent is another of this ilk. Knight doesn’t like chuggers, which is his right. Of course, most people who don’t like face-to-face fundraisers don’t have a column in a national newspaper through which to vent these opinions. When Knight came out with one of his anti-chugger articles a couple of years ago, he proudly boasted how he’d received "furious" emails from charity PRs (I actually wrote him a polite email in which I provided more accurate information than he clearly had access to at the time and offered to meet him but I was ignored.)

Perhaps though, an alternative explanation for the angry responses and “furious emails” is that the criticism is, as I suggested above, just not very good. That we’ve heard it all before. That it’s just more of the same shibboleths repeated over and over again.

What is just as galling for the fundraising sector is that critics appear to get such an easy ride of it. Not once in her Third Sector interview was Gina Miller challenged on her arguments.  All you need do is criticise the voluntary sector and it’s a fast track to media coverage and a raised profile: the surest way for a local politician to get him or herself in the local media is to attack ‘chuggers’.

Third Sector’s finance reporter David Ainsworth argued in a blog last year that that charities fail to accept that there is anything wrong with face-to-face fundraising because they are so committed to it. Because we can see the benefits of F2F, we fail to see its shortcomings, which in this case was its potential for winding up certain members of the public (and parliament). Charities are therefore in denial about the problems caused by F2F and respond to criticism in a defensive manner, in much the same way as charities have responded to the criticisms made by Gina Miller.

Now, I deal with the public perception of F2F every day – it is my job after all. I’m not in denial about the public perception of F2F; and I am all too aware of its shortcomings as well as its benefits.

However, I am very rarely asked about its shortcomings. That may seem odd, considering the number of media interviews I do. The operative word here is ‘asked’. I said I’m not ‘asked’ about its shortcomings. But I am ‘told’ what they are, and then invited to disagree, if I dare (though I do have to be fair and point out that I have really noticed a change in the way the media approaches F2F over the past year).

Many of the objections put to the sector about F2F really don’t stand objective scrutiny. Either they concern things like costs, attrition, remuneration, stuff that applies to all fundraising and not just F2F. Or they are about personal dislike of the medium. Look at the stories about “aggressive” fundraising that have surfaced this year whereby ‘aggressive’ is conflated with ‘asking in a way that some people don’t like’.

And it’s the same objections, over and over and over again. The debate doesn’t move on. We never manage to progress to a sophisticated discussion about the pros and cons of F2F because we are forever mired in hackneyed swamp of ‘the chugger agency keeps the first 12 months of your donation’.

So we are not reacting defensively to criticisms of F2F, we are just ever so slightly fed up with the unsophisticated and simplistic assertions that are so often thrown at us.

And the same is true of Gina Miller’s arguments. The charity sector has not reacted with such vehemence because she has touched a raw nerve or hit the nail on the head. It has done so because her arguments are so poor, and that hers are just the latest round of similarly poor criticism.

Yet any suggestions by the fundraising sector that such arguments, or the way they are reported in the media, are not balanced or presenting an accurate picture are presented as us claiming that these stories should not by run at all, and that the sector media should only run positive, helpful stories that paint fundraising and charities in a good light.

On the contrary, we just want these issues covered better. We wanted them put into context. We want the issues properly examined. And we would like the claims of critics to be critically examined as well, to have them justify the assertions that a telephone call at an inconvenient time is, ipso facto, "aggressive", or that charity admin costs should be capped by law, and not just taken at face value, as they so often appear to be.

So, will the next person who fancies stepping up to the plate to take a pop at the voluntary sector please do us the courtesy of researching this topic and coming up with something novel and engaging. Something that will make us think: “Actually, you’ve got a good point there.” And not: “Not bloody admin costs again.”