Like millions around the globe I gasped as the spire of Notre-Dame fell in the early evening of 15 April. Less than 48 hours after the devastating fire £800 million and rising had been pledged in large and small gifts to the restoration effort – all without a case for support, a strategy or plan, or indeed without anyone obviously being asked to give.
Scrolling through online comments I found myself agreeing with pleas for similar extraordinary generosity to be directed to human catastrophes at home and around the world. I nodded in agreement that the destruction of less well known but equally iconic sites in Syria and Iraq matter just as much as Notre-Dame.
But these comments miss three hard truths about fundraising that we ignore at our peril.
First, donors, even very major donors, don’t weigh up causes rationally. They respond emotionally, instinctively, spontaneously. Calls for generosity on the scale of the outpouring to rebuild Notre-Dame are unlikely to materialise easily for Yemen, climate change, homelessness and many other vital causes.
Second, proximity matters. So rationally, I know the devastation wreaked to cultural sites in Syria or Iraq matter as much as Notre-Dame. But Notre-Dame is more familiar; I’ve been there, I recognise people like me on the news and feel their loss. It’s a visceral feeling of time and place. Direct experience creates a connection, whether we’re personally affected by a disease or condition, when we live in or visit a place or when we have a lived experience of a particular issue.
Third, ‘emergencies’ are especially powerful when they are an accident – earthquakes, floods, acts of God, like a fire. But just as important is that I can imagine the solution and the end result. I can imagine how to rebuild a cathedral enough to know it is possible. And it’s that possibility that inspires giving and extraordinary giving. Comparatively, I can’t imagine how to solve climate change.
All of this reminded me of a quote that underpinned my project on major donors for The Commission on the Donor Experience from Paul Schervish of Boston College: ‘The accepted wisdom that charities need donors in order to help them achieve their organisational mission, ought to be replaced by an understanding that donors choose to support charities in order to achieve their personal missions.’
Donors choose causes to support aligned with their own personal passions, experiences and values. And as we’ve seen in Paris where one philanthropist leads, others follow. Once Notre-Dame is rebuilt, it will no doubt follow the pattern set in medieval times and contain tributes to those who contributed. Just imagine the power of knowing that you have contributed and, for some, that this is what you will be remembered for.
So what does all this mean for fundraisers? Fundraising isn’t fair. There is no hierarchy of causes according to need, and if there was that wouldn’t be fair either.
As fundraisers it’s our job to make the problem we want to solve relevant to people who can help solve it. We have to raise our issue to be their issue. We have to connect them. And then we need to demonstrate we have a solution that people can imagine will actually solve the problem. And we must celebrate the power of philanthropy to change the world.
Note: This is a longer version of a thread I posted on Twitter on 17 April 2019