Beneficiaries – a neglected topic of fundraisers’ conversations?

Scottish Fundraising Conference 2016

Guest Bloggers | 17 August 2016

One of my sharpest memories from the first Institute of Fundraising Convention I attended in the late 90s was a plenary debate with some of the leading figures in UK fundraising.

The motion was, ‘This house believes a fundraiser’s sole duty is to their donors’. After much eloquent and impassioned argument on either side, the motion was carried. And many of you reading this may feel exactly the same way, as we all like to think ourselves truly donor-centred. But as someone almost completely fresh to the field of fundraising at the time, it was a statement that seemed very odd.

“Yes, of course it is important that we treat our donors excellently,” I thought, “but what about our beneficiaries? Are they not the real reason why we do our job?”

After all – charities do not exist simply because people wish to give away money. They exist because people passionately wish to help someone, or something, or to accomplish a purpose.

But charities’ relationships, or perceived relationships, with beneficiaries, have always been problematic. Against the passionate wish to help, there has always lurked the potential accusation of condescension – a failure on the part of the helper to see the person being helped as possessing equal dignity.

That’s typified most recognisably for us in the lingering image of the Victorian ‘do-gooder’, accused of seeking to help the disadvantaged purely as a means of assuaging their own middle- or upper-class guilt. Nowadays it surfaces in the contemporary debates around ‘poverty porn’, where charities are accused of presenting a misleading picture of their beneficiaries’ circumstances in mass marketing appeals, purely to drive increased donations.

See this quote from the introduction to Daniel Siegel’s book, Charity and Condescension:

“Condescension originally denoted an act whereby an authority figure temporarily abdicated the privileges of his or her position for the benefit of a dependent.

“In this way, condescension was traditionally used as an argument for paternalism, a model of government in which the legitimacy of empowered groups rested on the ability and disposition of those groups to provide for the less fortunate.

“When over the course of the nineteenth century paternalist views were eroded and marginalized by the growth of liberalism, condescension came to seem dissonant. It cut against the core liberal principle of contractual relation, which supposes a nominal equality between free social agents.”

That liberal principle of ‘a nominal equality between free social agents’ fits the relationship between charity and donor much better than it does the idea of the relationship between charity and beneficiary. Perhaps that’s one reason why we as fundraisers find the former relationship so much easier to focus on.

And it’s one of the reasons why charities have found all sorts of different ways to refer to their beneficiaries – here’s a snapshot from the 2008 Charity Commission report, ‘A Balancing Act’:

 Beneficiaries chart

So why do I think it important now to bring beneficiaries back into our thinking and conversations as fundraisers?

Most obviously, it’s because the resources charities have available to help beneficiaries are under unprecedented pressure and threat. Rising demand for services, combined with more restrictive fundraising legislation than ever before, puts charities in the double-bind of an increased need for income with a decreasing ability to raise it. We need to be better at standing up for our beneficiaries than ever before.

Sadly, that restrictive fundraising legislation has come about largely because of the view that charities are primarily accountable, not to those who need their help, but to those that give them money - in other words, the view that a fundraiser’s sole duty is to their donors.

This view of sole accountability to donors is not one that is shared at Rogare – the fundraising think tank at the University of Plymouth for which I’m an Advisory Panel member. We’re working on developing a new framework for fundraising ethics, which will seek to balance the duty fundraisers owe to donors and other stakeholders with the duty we hold to our beneficiaries, the ultimate recipients of the money we raise.

And I’ll be talking more about that research in my opening plenary session on October 4 at the 2016 Scottish Conference in Glasgow.

In the meantime I’d like your help. How is the relationship you have as a fundraiser with the beneficiaries of your charity? Do you find it easy to have contact with them? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with the way your beneficiaries are portrayed in your charity’s literature?

Take this brief and anonymous survey and let me know. I’ll be presenting the results in my session, and I look forward to seeing you then!

Adrian Salmon, Vice President, GG+A Europe

Adrian has worked in fundraising for 20 years and is an acknowledged expert on individual giving across several charity sectors. He also serves on the Advisory Panel of Rogare, the new practitioner-focused fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

At the 2016 Scottish Fundraising Conference, Adrian will be delivering the opening plenary on Tuesday 4 October where he will talk about the relationship between fundraisers and beneficiaries, as well as a session on the Tuesday afternoon looking at what the latest benchmarks can tell us about the current health of online fundraising.”   


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