Canadians change their fundraising narrative for better engagement

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Canada recently launched what it calls “a new narrative” for Canadian fundraising and philanthropy, positioning fundraisers as the voices of the causes and issues that matter most to Canadians.

The narrative portrays fundraisers as the people who make an impact and effect change in society. It also helps fundraisers to better engage with people who object to modern professional fundraising.

Pictured: Stephen Thomas

Australian fundraisers heard about the initiative at FIA Conference 2020 in Brisbane. Ian MacQuillin, director of Rogare, the international fundraising think tank and the narrative’s author, delivered the session, which was hosted by Stephen Thomas, founder of the well-regarded Stephen Thomas Ltd, a marketing and fundraising agency in Toronto.

Pictured: Ian MacQuillin

MacQuillin, who presented via Zoom from the UK, said AFP Canada wanted a new narrative for its members because they “needed to get ahead of the game” after the 2015 Olive Cooke scandal in the UK. 

“Canadian fundraisers were worried that the media storm that had engulfed fundraising in the UK during the fundraising crisis following the suicide of Olive Cooke, and the tough regulatory change that followed, would soon be headed to Canada. They wanted to be prepared for it and to head off any of the UK’s worst excesses. They also wanted to have better conversations with their critics,” he told the audience.

“The value of fundraisers is often assessed in terms of the dollars they raise. But what AFP wanted to help people understand is that the real value of fundraising is the impact that fundraisers create on the world by bringing donors together with causes they’re passionate about,” added Thomas.

Coming up with a counter-ideology

When faced with objections to things such as overhead and salary costs, many fundraisers traditionally respond to these criticisms by trying to “educate people” with facts. MacQuillin says this is often a no-win situation.

“If people have a set of principled, ideological beliefs about how charities should operate; for example, that they should never spend more than a certain proportion of donations on administration, factual information isn’t going to shift them from that belief. People’s ideologies are not amenable to contradictory facts. If anything, they make people more entrenched in their beliefs,” he said.

Instead, MacQuillin suggested fundraisers needed a counter-ideology. “We should be asking this: what do we value about fundraising, and can we get other people to value these things too?”

 He suggested shifting the nature of the discourse could make for a different agenda.

 “If we are confident, we can change hearts and minds,” he said.

Fundraisers should state with belief, pride and passion why they do the things they do. Instead of regurgitating facts, MacQuillin suggests telling people that you “invest money in fundraising because that’s the best way to help your beneficiaries, and there’s no reason to apologise for that.”

MacQuillin spent two years working on the narrative, collaborating with a working group led by Jennifer Johnstone, a fundraising leader and AFP Canada board member from Vancouver. He applied concepts from ethics, public relations, political and critical theory to his work and wrote a white paper from his findings.

He ensured the narrative was unique to Canada, couched in a Canadian context, not something “shoehorned” in from learnings from the UK situation.

He reviewed several surveys of Canadian public attitudes to fundraising and analysed 15 years of media coverage of the sector in Canada. On the whole, he found the media coverage was much more balanced in Canada than it was in the UK.

He also discovered Canadian regulators and legislative bodies were more willing to come to the table and listen to fundraisers than their counterparts in the UK, even when they didn’t understand fundraising or were critical of it. 

“I think it will be easier to proactively reach out to Canadian fundraising’s stakeholders to build bridges whereas, in the UK, engagement is more often a firefighting exercise, trying to put out the flames of the latest attacks on charities and fundraising,” said MacQuillin.

Canada’s civic philosophy also made its media, public and regulators more amenable to fundraising, he said.

The narrative MacQuillin developed stems from “professionalist” ideas about how charities ought to function – a counter-argument to the “voluntarist” ideology that some people espouse such as all money should go to the cause and nothing should be spent on administration or staff. Also: that people will give without needing to be asked.

It’s also combined with a concept called “rights balancing fundraising ethics,” both of which are Rogare concepts.

Thomas and MacQuillin suggested it might be better to talk about the need for the sector to be professional to effect change, and that included having proper offices, and hiring and rewarding the best staff. 

“There’s no one way to change the world, provided the world is changing for the better,” said Thomas.

A moral imperative to ask for funds

“Importantly, charities can’t change the world unless they have the money to do it. Fundraisers have a moral imperative to ask people for support and must adopt efficient and effective ways to raise funds, and people should be told that,” said MacQuillin.

He talked about how people complained about charity marketing departments and being guilt-tripped into giving. One affirmative statement MacQuillin suggested for fundraisers to use when faced with this criticism is to say: “About 80 per cent of people give because they were asked. It’s great you made the decision yourself, but honestly, most don’t, and that’s why we have to do it.”

He said guilt was the last emotion most fundraisers wanted to evoke.  


“If people give based on guilt, there’s a good chance they won’t give again. And we need them to. One thing you could say to people is: ‘we’re sorry we’re making you feel guilty about giving. We don’t want to do that, but we need to ask on behalf of our beneficiaries. And we’re working on getting the balance right.’”

He suggested if challenged about their charity’s large office and overheads, fundraisers could say something like: “People often have the perception that the costs are twice higher than they are. We have to have large offices because we’re a big charity, we need space to fit us all in. And we’re a big charity because we’ve got big problems to solve and need big solutions. Volunteer organisations are terrific, and we need them too, but they may not be able to tackle some of our biggest social problems.”

Narrative advocates now at work

The narrative, white paper and key messages developed by Rogare are now being used by AFP Canada for its media and government relations programs.

AFP Canada has trained a cohort of advocates in the narrative to help them engage effectively around the country with their critics, media, donors, the public, legislators and regulators. Jennifer Johnstone has also trained a group of fundraisers at the BCSPCA (British Columbia Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in the narrative, and her work was well received.

Speaking from Toronto, Paula Attfield, chair of AFP Canada, said the narrative was now being put to good use.

“We’ve leaned on the narrative to provide interviews to the media in recent times, and as well we’re leaning on it to help us with our government lobby efforts during the time of COVID-19. As we know, the sector is facing challenges ahead, and here in Canada, we’ve been advocating our governments for additional funding to help charities and non-profits get through this difficult time. We’re gathering stories of impact to help our case for support,” she said.

“We’re also finding a subtle shift in the way we’re relying on the narrative. Interestingly, it’s not the media that’s currently questioning our work as fundraisers; it’s our boards and our senior management that’s looking at cutbacks to fundraising. Ian and a group of Canadian leaders have recently done a survey about this.

It’s our job, particularly in this new economic reality, to advocate for the profession to our internal audience – our boards and bosses. Some charities, particularly those who are non-COVID-19 related, are reticent to ask for money. One of the central tenants of the narrative is that asking is necessary. It’s our job now to continue to share that message with our sector leaders, the message that now is the time to ask. Fundraising is more important than ever, and non-profits fill the void that governments simply can’t,” she added.

Attfield said the working group was planning on convening all of their advocates again soon to discuss success, and how they can further use the narrative during these difficult times.

While MacQuillin says not everyone will buy into the new Canadian narrative, the goal is to reach as many influential and ordinary Canadians as possible, many of whom are not anti-fundraising.

MacQuillin thinks Australia could benefit from a similar story. But it was essential to understand the lucky country’s unique traditions and concepts and to write a narrative that has an Australian context. 

“What we developed for Canada may not work for Australia or another country. There are some similarities between Canada and Australia, like regulators who are willing to come to the table. However, you still have to study what you’re dealing with in your particular backyard,” he warned.

Head to Rogare’s website if you want to know more about the Canadian fundraising narrative.