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Nonprofit Heroes: Ian MacQuillin, fundraising thinker and champion

Welcome to our Nonprofit Heroes series, where the Donorfy team interviews industry experts, successful proven fundraisers, and nonprofit heroes with stories and tips to inspire your charity to use technology to your advantage and do good, better.

Today we're featuring Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare. We asked Ian a few questions about how he got into the charity sector, what it's like working for fundraisers rather than as one, and what he would to improve fundraising.

Let’s start with some background information – who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Ian MacQuillin and I am the director of the fundraising think tank Rogare (Latin for ‘to ask’) at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University. I’ve been in fundraising since 2001 as journalist, PR consultant and head of comms at the PFRA. Before that I was a journalist for 18 years, editing various titles in different subjects, including cricket, the police service and the music industry.

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What was your first job?

My first job was a Saturday job as a sales assistant at a Mod shop in Carnaby Street in 1983 but my first real job was as a staff writer at the What Video group in 1988 – my first job as a journalist.

How did you get into the charity sector?

I was looking to move on from editing The Waste Manager magazine and I saw an advert in the Guardian for editor of Professional Fundraising. I thought that was a job that I could do and a subject I could really get into – and I was right on both counts.

You're often heard standing up for the fundraising profession! How did that come about?

Because fundraisers wouldn’t do it, basically. As the editor of a trade or B2B magazine, you will both stand up for and criticise your sector when both are warranted. I did that in all the different sectors I edited magazines for. As the editor of the sector mag, you have some respect so people listen to you.

But you tend to favour your sector because it is your sector. I noticed that fundraisers rarely responded to criticism of their own profession and that almost by default I became one of the people outside of or on the periphery of fundraising who was doing it for them.

But I also do it because I care very much about fundraising. And also because some of the arguments put out against fundraising are so very poor that it offends my sense of critical thinking so I just feel obliged to point out the paucity of those arguments.

But just because I am often seen to be standing up for fundraising doesn’t mean that I am not critical of it. I hope that when I am critical of the profession, then people will listen and take that on board, because the more supportive you are of something, the more they take note when your are critical.

Like us you have worked for the fundraising profession, but not (as far as I know) as a professional fundraiser as such. Do you think that's an advantage when it comes to understanding the challenges faced by fundraisers?

Although I do (attempt to) raise money, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘professional’ fundraiser. I’m not sure whether that’s an advantage when it comes to ‘understanding’ the challenges, as I am sure most practitioners are aware of the overarching challenges they face only too well.

And obviously, a trust fundraiser knows far more about the challenges of being a trust fundraiser than I do. I think perhaps that it allows me to take a more disinterested view of certain issues and to put them in a wider context, such as the ethics of regulation, without it being claimed I have a vested interest in doing so (although that still doesn’t stop certain people making ad hominem arguments to that effect).

Do you think you would see things differently if you were a practitioner?

Yes and no. I am a firm friend and supporter of fundraising and I think I see many things the way many fundraisers do, and vice versa (but then again, many fundraisers also disagree with how I see things).  I think that the main difference were I a practitioner is that I would probably have a whole different approach to things.

There is no formal entry route to fundraising and no formal body of knowledge people have to acquire before they become fundraisers or to continue practicing as a fundraiser.

So if I were a fundraiser, I would probably have ‘fallen into it’ like some many do, and perhaps then I’d be more focused on my own patch of fundraising rather than having the interest in the bigger issue challenges that I do.

Fundraising has its fair share of challenges (or opportunities) on a number of fronts at the moment - public perception, data protection, regulation to name a few. Dodge this if you like (!) but do you see a link between the rise of populism and the public's perception of fundraising?

That’s a really interesting question. I think what drives the objections to fundraising that seemed to have reached quite a vehement head over the last two years is an ideology about how charities ‘ought’ to act.

I reckon many people believe charities ought to have this Corinthian ideal of voluntarism, which is why they get upset when charities spend money on fundraising, because this is too professional. So I don’t actually think it’s connected to a rise in populism, but something else – a retreat to an imagined ideal of what charity ought to be.

It could be that this kind of conservatism is also what’s driving the rise of populism, but that’s a bit outside my area of expertise.

If you could change one thing to improve anything in fundraising, what (or who) would you change, and how?

How fundraisers acquire their professional knowledge. As I said earlier, there’s no formal route to get this knowledge and fundraisers tend to learn by going to conferences and ‘copying the case study’.

And because most haven’t learnt the theory at university or by doing a professional qualification (as you would for marketing) they don't always have enough knowledge to challenge what they are being told.

So while there needs to be these formal methods of acquiring knowledge, fundraisers also need to demand the theory and evidence behind what they are being told.

Tell me a bit about Rogare.

Rogare was a concept I came up with about five years ago as a way to get some deeper and more sophisticated levels of critical thinking in the fundraising profession. Three years ago, Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang gave me a great opportunity to establish Rogare with them at Plymouth.

Rogare is the bridge that links the professional and academic branches of fundraising and, to mix metaphors, the engine that turns academic ideas into professional practice.

Our aim is to find new solutions to the challenges fundraising faces by looking in places we haven’t looked before, such as social psychology (which we did for our review of relationship fundraising), moral philosophy (ditto our ethics review), public relations, cultural anthropology, and others.

Professional fundraising in the UK has long been following well-understood models such as individual giving, Trust bids, Major Donor fundraising, Legacies and so on. Do you think fundraising will look like that for years to come or do you see completely different paradigms emerging?

The basics will always be the same. People will be able to give big gifts or little gifts. They’ll give once in a while or every month. They’ll give money now or they’ll save it up for a bequest. And the most fundamental factor of all is that they will make these gifts because someone has asked them to do so. These things won’t change.

I think if there is a paradigm shift coming, it is in who asks and whether the person asking can actually get access to the potential donor to make the ask.

People will have more control over their privacy, while digital channels will enable all sorts of people to ask them for support, if the potential donor gives them permission to, such as crowdfunding campaigns that allow people to give directly to the beneficiary, so cutting out the ‘middleman’ charity.

Combined with ideological perceptions about how charities ‘ought’ to act, giving like this might be seen as more ‘pure’ than employing fundraisers, so this is a challenge that ought to be on charities’ threat radars.

Do any tech innovations come to mind that have made your life easier and saved you time or money?

As I’m not a fundraiser, nothing springs to mind. Also, I’m not the best person to ask about this. I still use a paper diary, and I wouldn’t change it.

A few quickfire questions:

  • Your Desert Island disc, if you had to choose one?

Please Please Me – The Beatles. I love everything about The Beatles (with the possible exception of Revolution 9). But I most love their early stuff when they still had the romanticism of the Cavern and Hamburg about them. I will never tire of this song.

  • PC or a Mac?

Mac. Anyone who answers PC needs to take a long, hard look at their life.

  • The most used app on your smartphone?

Twitter. I scroll through Twitter every morning to find out what blogs and research papers the Americans, Aussies and Kiwis have been talking about after I clocked off the previous evening.

Finally - do you have a nonprofit hero or heroine? If so, who and why?

There are a number of people I could have chosen and apologies to those I didn’t (particularly Amanda Shepard), but I am going to go for Adrian Salmon, a vice president at Grenzebach Glier and Associates and former manager of Leeds University’s Footsteps Fund.

He challenges the old and new: he’s not beholden to tradition and the way things have always been done, but he’s not seduced by neophilia and innovation either. He demands to see the theory and evidence behind what people claim they know about fundraising. Adrian is the kind of critical thinker that this sector needs more of.

Thanks Ian for being our nonprofit hero!

If you’d like to nominate an industry expert or nonprofit hero, contact us or tweet us @Donorfy. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter so you don’t miss the next interview.