Why Media Attacks on Fundraising Really Are Ideological
nonprofit management tips

“Fundraising often comes under what feels like attack from the media. Anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to what has happened in the U.K. during the past two years will be aware of the levels of vehemence this can reach.

“It happens in the United States, as well. Media and social media articles about street fundraisers, or ‘chuggers,’ are very similar in tone to their British counterparts,” according to Ian MacQuillin, director of Rogare, the Fundraising Think Tank at the University of Plymouth’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy in the U.K. “The American media seems to have an obsession with the ‘overhead myth,’ which reached its zenith with the investigation into the Wounded Warrior Project last year.”

In his session “Why Media Attacks on Fundraising Really Are ‘Ideological’ and How We Can Deal With Them” during the AFP International Fundraising Conference, MacQuillin explained the primary issue in his mind.

When nonprofit officials try to respond to such attacks, they often talk to the media about the facts they believe the media have misunderstood so the record could be put straight: This is how much is spent on administration, this is how much charity CEOs get paid compared with company CEOs, etc.

However, he pointed out the media attacks on fundraising have never been about facts. They have always been about values. “It’s no good pointing out to the media that a CEO could get more in the commercial sector (a fact), because the media (and many members of the public) simply don’t believe that nonprofit CEOs ought to get paid at this level under any circumstance (a value). This is an ideological position, which means that to respond effectively, nonprofits executives need a values-driven ideological stance of their own.”

MacQuillin used critical discourse analysis to identify what the media’s anti-fundraising attitudes really are, which of course reflect the values of the public. “This ideology says charities ought to operate with a spirit of Corinthian voluntarism — although it’s more complex than this — and must not be too ‘professional.’ That’s why a nonprofit counter-ideology that aims at being more ‘business-like’ is likely to rub the media the wrong way,” he said.

He drew on his doctoral research to understand the ideological reasons people have for not wanting to give to charity to create a typology of what he termed anti-donors. “This helps you create your own ideological counter-narrative that talks to donors and the media about your values,” he said, “rather than just trying to argue against the values they think you ought to have.”