The Fundraising Ethics Gap
As a kid I vividly remember Grandma Craver shaking her head, and sometimes her fist, at the radio as it blared forth the ravings of an on-air evangelist whom she particularly despised.
She would turn away from the radio and sternly warn me, “Roger, just you remember. Everyone who talks about heaven ain’t going there.”
And so this morning memories of Grandma Craver came flooding back when I received notice of a new white paper on fundraising ethics just released by Rogare, the fundraising think tank of the University of Plymouth Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.
As I clicked to download the paper I mentally paraphrased Grandma Craver’s admonition: “Every fundraiser who talks about ethics ain’t necessarily ethical.”
Not because fundraisers are crooks, or morally flawed, but because as a profession we don’t have a very workable set of ethical standards capable of guiding us on what we should or shouldn’t do; and certainly not on why we should engage in certain practices and avoid others.
Ian MacQuillan, the director of Rogare, has produced this paper that will prove frustrating, illustrative and inspiring — all at once — titled: Rights Stuff: Fundraising’s Ethics Gap and a New Theory of Fundraising Ethics v1.1. I recommend you download it and read it carefully when you have some quiet moments for contemplation.
Triggered in part by the mess that UK fundraisers and UK regulators, spurred on by a hyperbolic media, have gotten themselves into, Rights Stuff outlines the state of codified fundraising ethics around the world today and argues persuasively that it’s incomplete and inadequate.
It also proposes a process for moving forward, toward closing the “ethics gap” and providing fundraisers, donors, beneficiaries, regulators, the media and the public with a more workable set of standards.
Currently, “fundraising ethics” is a hodge-podge of trade association codes of conduct, donor bills of rights, and practice guides (thou shall do this; thou shall not do that).
Ian and his panel of advisors at Rogare argue (I think persuasively) that the reforms fundraisers and regulators are attempting to put in place in the UK are more likely than not to fail and, in fact, may lead to repeating past mistakes.
I’m sure many will quickly dismiss the issue of “fundraising ethics” as something best relegated to lofty seminar rooms or to a quick chat or rant somewhere around the fifth pint at some conference bar. Don’t be so dismissive.
We ignore the serious attention and development of universal ethical standards at our own peril. Restoring the trust of the public, our donors, our beneficiaries, the politicians and regulators depends on our getting serious, thoughtful and practical. Reducing skepticism, criticism and outright hostility will come only from proving that a coherent set of professional ethics underpins those activities that currently attract so much criticism.
Today, most of the ethical codes of practice prioritize the fundraisers’ duty to their donors and to maintaining public trust. None, according to this study, “explicitly refers to any duty that fundraisers may have to their beneficiaries and service users.”
And herein is the central principle or tenet of what Rogare calls a “new normative theory of fundraising ethics: the need to bring the beneficiary into the ethical decision-making process”.
Rogare calls it “Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics” because “it balances the duty of fundraisers to solicit support on behalf of their beneficiaries, with the right of the donor not to be subject to undue pressure to donate.”
I can’t do the complexity of fundraising ethics issues (and the significant pros and cons used to argue for different approaches) justice in this short post.
Let me simply urge every Agitator reader concerned with ethics to take the time to work your way through this thoughtful paper.
No matter what philosophical pole you’re coming from and no matter how firm you are in your beliefs, you’ll find something here to challenge your current mindset.
Big on donorcentrism? Find out what ethical issues surround putting donors first. Focused on public trust? See what ethical dilemmas that causes? And the same with focus on Relationship Management and Service of Philanthropy.
And how much pressure on donors is unethical? What about instilling donor guilt? Or urging a donor to abandon another cause in favor of yours? Is your highest duty to the donor, to the beneficiary, or to your organization?
I can guarantee that if you read this paper carefully and thoughtfully you’ll understand why we fundraisers have a lot of work to do before we can call ourselves truly ethical.
P.S. One of the ethical questions we all deal with is just how aggressively we should approach donors. Related to this is the high frequency of solicitations in direct response — ‘the more appeals the merrier’ approach.
On Wednesday, September 21st at noon Eastern The Agitator will host the second in the three-part series of webinars on the use of behavioral science in fundraising. In this session, Increasing the Number of Your Donors’ Gifts Per Year without carpet bombing them, DonorVoice principal Josh Whichard brings his 15 years of nonprofit direct marketing experience to bear on how to create an effective multi-gift program. A program that fits mid-way between single gift asks and requests for monthly giving.
Registration is free to Agitator readers. You can sign up here.