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A New Narrative for Canadian Fundraising

August 15, 2017

By Scott Decksheimer

During the recent Canadian Leadership Retreat, Ian MacQuillin, director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University, presented a paper prepared for AFP about developing a new way to talk about fundraising.

The paper, “A New Narrative for Canadian Fundraising,” was developed out of concern that the recent crisis in the UK regarding fundraising, which spotlighted the risk of our profession being unable to defend itself and its activities to the media and the public, could occur here in Canada.  

As chair of the board of directors of AFP Canada, I wanted to provide a couple of excerpts from the paper that highlight some of the issues that we heard from Ian and then discussed among ourselves.

The challenge

Canada is not immune to charitable issues and negative news stories. The Alberta Charitable Fund Raising Act was a direct result of tactics used by some fundraising organizations that fell well short of industry best practices. Federally, a bill to limit the salaries of charity executives was developed in direct response to an MP learning of the salary of a CEO, and simply believing that it was too high, without considering the overall context of compensation in the broad spectrum of the charitable sector. Another Member of Parliament introduced a private members bill asking for the yearend for tax-creditable donations to be changed from December to February, without recognizing the impact on the high number of donations made to charities during the holiday season. In each of these instances, the sector, and the fundraising profession lacked messaging, or the ability to adequately reframe the question to respond constructively and collaboratively. Even when legislators are trying to help charities, their lack of understanding and consultation has been challenging.

The opportunity

Canadian fundraising has an opportunity to learn from events in the UK, and how the UK has responded to similar challenges. This doesn’t mean copying how the UK has done things. In fact, it means doing things differently, taking a different approach, and building a positive narrative that confidently proclaims what fundraising stands for, rather than seeks to be defensive and apologise for the things people criticise fundraising for.

As so many criticisms of fundraising are ‘ideological’ in nature, they are unlikely to be defeated by a fact-based defence, which is the approach that is usually taken in dealing with a hostile media and other hostile stakeholders. Because the narrative that is critical of fundraising is ideological, the fundraising sector needs to develop its own ideological counter-narrative.

Ian makes some great observations in his paper. We need to have messaging that can change the narrative about fundraising as a “necessarily evil,” to one that highlights the important work of nonprofits and charities across Canada and around the world. That communications work cannot be ceded to anyone but ourselves, and we have to be trained and ready to use our messaging to respond to negative events and educate the public about the importance of fundraising.

Ian’s presentation engendered a lot of great discussion about all of these issues and how AFP Canada can respond and take a leadership role in this area. The board will be further exploring the issues in the near future and looking at how we might fund additional efforts to create new communications and messages for the profession.

I’ll end with another excerpt from his paper:

Canadian fundraising has the opportunity to move to the forefront of innovation in stakeholder engagement in fundraising thereby positioning Canadian fundraisers as genuine world leaders. Not only do we have an incredibly exciting opportunity to shore up and secure our profession against any future hostile media stories, we also have an opportunity to show the rest of the world how it’s done. With success, other countries will be able to follow Canada’s lead and adapt the groundbreaking Canadian fundraising narrative for their own countries.

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