Should academics provide fundraisers with practical tips? I don’t think so

Third Sector columnist Cathy Pharoah reignited an old debate when she told a Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy conference last week that there was a gulf between how fundraisers and academics think about philanthropy. Pharoah is co-director of the centre, which is part of Cass Business School.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, resigned from the centre’s advisory body in December because he claimed it did not produce research that was of practical use for fundraisers. 

“Of course there’s a gulf, and so there should be,” David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations, told the audience. “Academics are not there to provide instant fundraising advice.”

During a group discussion of the topic, the academics in the room seemed to agree with Emerson. “We have to get our papers into serious academic journals; that’s our job,” one said. “And some topics just don’t break down easily into simple chunks that you could talk about in the pub.”

Another bold academic ventured: “We all have brains and we don’t use them enough. If a paper looks difficult to read, just spend time getting to grips with it.” 

But the fundraisers in the room thought differently. “We find a lot of the difficult academic papers hard to deal with,” one said. This is almost certainly why a new report by another philanthropy academic, Beth Breeze, called How Donors Choose Charities, was a big hit at the conference. It was academic, based on interviews with charity donors, but it was packed with accessible, easy-to-read anecdotes. 

But I’m not convinced that more academics should adopt this halfway house approach. They’re right to say that universities are not designed to provide practical tips, even if – as some fundraisers argue – it could help them to justify the government funding they receive. 

Fundraisers and academics are different animals, and quite rightly have different roles. It should be an added bonus, not the norm, when these roles happen to coincide.

One Response to “Should academics provide fundraisers with practical tips? I don’t think so”

  1. Wally Harbert

    Every system of public administration has its downside. During my early career public services were run by government or local government and, occasionally, by grant aided charities. I thought that worked well but it was decided to outsource public services to create competition in the belief that this would be more effective and cheaper.

    As Martin indicates, the result is a free-for-all in which organisations are pitched against one another. Moreover, dissatisfied consumers are liable to receive a standard product instead of one designed specifically for them and are uncertain whether failures are the fault of commissioners or contractors. The consumer’s position is weakened while that of the commissioner is strengthened.

    Once they accept the Queen’s shilling, charities can be held responsible for public service failures. What is more, their voice can be muffled. In these circumstances there is every reason for them to refrain from competing for contracts and return to their original role of filling gaps and campaigning for better services.

    Sometimes, the only way forward is to go back to first principles.

    P.S. I have fond memories of the Birmingham Settlement. I was a resident there nearly 60 years ago.


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