Invisible and Invalid: Female Domestic Abuse and High Value Philanthropy

When I think about what has motivated me to choose certain jobs or clients, I can distil it down to one simple principle.  How far will what I do help and elevate the outsider?   Major gift fundraising is always a challenge, but in the social justice arena the levers you can pull are even harder to reach.  Politically contentious, lacking in glamour, its messy humanity doesn’t fit neatly into a box with the donor’s name engraved on the lid.  You need to find a route in that isn’t necessarily about personal identification or fuelled by the positive association that can be so important to HNW philanthropists.  At worst, you may be doing something that is at odds with the individual’s fundamental value system – or as Paul Schervish calls it their ‘framework of consciousness’.  How do you get past that?   

This was a question that interested me in my Masters’ thesis.  I wanted to explore it in the context of what I think is arguably the toughest cause for which to raise HNW philanthropic gifts – female domestic abuse services.  I wanted to know why people who have benefited the most from a neoliberal system were not giving transformational gifts to help alleviate what we know is endemic female suffering and why, with more women active in philanthropy than ever before, the needle remains defiantly stuck.   

What came out of the in-depth conversations I had with major donors and fundraisers from within the domestic abuse sector was certainly illuminating and showed how both neoliberal and patriarchal norms interlock to form a hostile environment.  Like many of those who benefit from the support of social justice charities, the recovery of female victims of domestic abuse is rarely linear and cannot be shoe-horned into short-term, macho metrics.  

In a world where an individual’s value is judged by their ability to create wealth for themselves and others, where does this leave the woman in the refuge in the eyes of a wealthy philanthropist?  Is it not more comfortable to give to a young person’s scholarship fund, enabling them to be more effective, long-term contributors to the growth of GDP?  It is for this reason that I refer to the female victims of domestic abuse as ‘broken human capital’ and the findings of my research show they are not only invisible because of their gender but invalidated by their inability to be successful market-actors.   Most of all, the outcomes point to an urgent need for them to matter, without adherence to conditions.

Yet before this narrative can be re-framed under an ethic of care, it needs to be called out.  Every interviewee spoke at length about scarcity, which in the current economic climate, could be applied to any charitable cause.  However, the scarcities to which they referred were compound and extended beyond funding and human resource and into the realms of visibility, social capital and empathy, with these becoming three of the emerging themes.  Further themes of misogyny, shame and metrics arose from conversations about patriarchal control and the way in which it affects funding, media reporting and state intervention, with personal responsibility and othering evident from all participants.

Whilst these subjects are fascinating, the conversations I had about shame were, for me, the most compelling.  Feelings of discomfort were universally referenced by fundraisers, along with the difficulty of promoting the importance of domestic abuse services in a way that was palatable to donors.  There were widespread challenges around encouraging philanthropists to attend events and few people wanted to put their hands up and say, ‘this happened to me’. 

Does this reticence just apply to people with lived experience or is it a wider affliction?  As one eloquent interviewee put it, ‘I don’t think there’s anything more archetypical than an abused woman to somehow latch on to a part of our psyche that we’re ashamed of.  I think people are ashamed.  People connect with their shame when they, even in their mind’s eye, imagine a victim of an abusive relationship’.

As major gift fundraisers we deal not in metrics (although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise) but in emotions.  Yet we don’t fully appreciate the repercussions of shame as the ‘master emotion of everyday life’ (Scheff, 2003) and the potency of its reach.  People have, after all, thrown themselves off buildings rather than face their own shame and feelings of failure – look at every major financial crash in history.  How we frame a social justice cause like female domestic abuse in a way that attracts, rather than repels, pro-social behaviour is therefore critical if we wish to encourage more philanthropy in this field.   

It was notable that almost every donor interviewed said they found overt depictions of victimhood deeply uncomfortable and that their use by charities had either limited effect or were actively off-putting.  They spoke of wanting to ‘see the after picture’ and that stories of hope and empowerment were more effective ways to engage high-net-worth individuals. This is certainly borne out by wider research which shows that shame-inducing messaging creates a withdrawal or avoidance effect that connects with the visceral notion of ‘I am’ rather than ‘I do’.  Alternatively, messaging around guilt elicits a very different response, as donors are presented with an external situation they feel they can actively ameliorate.  The relationship between shame and high-net-worth giving would require further study, but the findings of my research suggest it may be easier to give somewhere more joyful or more remote than confront these feelings, further supporting the need for a re-framing of this cause.  

If women are fundamentally ashamed of their fear of male violence and men are fundamentally ashamed of their capacity to inflict it, you do not need lived experience to project shame onto the cause of female domestic abuse.  This is a dark place under which to get your cheque book out.  It’s time to bring it into the light. 

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