Fundraising ethics

Published by Ian MacQuillin on

Think of some things that you would consider unethical for a fundraiser to do.

imagesYou probably came up with stuff such as putting pressure on donors, making them feel guilty, targeting vulnerable people, using shock advertising that doesn’t respect the dignity of beneficiaries, and not spending money on the purpose the donor intended. You might even have considered some specific forms of fundraising to be unethical, such as telephone or street face-to-face.

That probably wasn’t too much of an intellectual challenge.

Now think of why they are unethical.

That is not such an easy question.

Take the question of guilt in fundraising. Most people would probably assume that it would be ‘unethical’ to make donors feel guilty? But why would it? Guilt serves a role in regulating behaviour, a regulatory role that actually keeps people on the moral straight and narrow – you feel ‘guilty’ when you think you have done something wrong. If giving to charity is an ethical thing to do, and people to feel guilty about not giving, why would it be wrong to play on that feeling of guilt to prompt them to donate?

Guilt is just another emotion. Fundraisers continually aim to elicit emotional responses from donors – be those emotions anger, pity, empathy, compassion. If those emotions are acceptable, what’s so wrong with guilt?

And take pressure? Assuming you can even arrive at a consistent definition of ‘pressure’ in a fundraising solicitation, why would it be wrong to exert pressure on a donor to give? Presumably you have to put some kind of ‘pressure’ on donors – the type of pressure that the UK’s Institute of Fundraising until recently described as “reasonable persuasion”. A shocking image, emotive copywriting, peer pressure at a celebrity auction – all these are ‘pressure’ of some kind.

Please note that I am not saying that it is ethical to pressurize donors and make them feel guilty; I am asking why it should be unethical? The two are not the same thing and the answers are not self-evident.

The reason they are not self-evident (though I suspect many fundraisers will think they are) is because of the way fundraising’s professional ethics are structured.

What we have in fundraising is a lot of applied ethics – mostly contained in the various codes of practice – which tells fundraisers what they ought to do and not do.

But what fundraisers don’t have is a body of normative ethics that underpin their applied ethics. Normative ethics tells you why you ought to do certain things and not do certain other things. Normative ethics supplies the rationale for how ethics is applied in different situations and scenarios.

And we really need it, because without such a normative theory, we tend to make up our applied ethics on the hoof, often in response to media and political pressure, resulting in what are often pretty arbitrary ethical directives. For example, in the UK, it is now unethical to call on a house that displays a ‘no cold callers’ notice on the door, but it might be ethically acceptable to call at a house with a sticker that states that the house is part of a so-called ‘No Cold Calling Zone’. Go figure.

It is said that many of the proposals to reform fundraising in the UK following the suicide of Olive Cooke (such as the Fundraising Preference Service) are needed to deal with ‘unethical’ behaviour.

But there are two problems. First, it tries to solve what is a question of professional ethics by slapping a regulatory sticking plaster on the ethical wound. Second, that sticking plaster is bound to peel off at some point because it is not supported by any kind of normative ethical thinking that makes a compelling case why those practices are unethical in the first place.

rightandwrongdecisionsSo what would normative fundraising ethics look like and how would it help us arrive at better regulatory provisions?
Go back to the questions of guilt and pressure. I think many fundraisers would say this was unethical because they have duties to make their donors feel good and not make them feel bad. But fundraisers don’t only have duties to their donors; they also have duties to their beneficiaries: principally to ensure the charity has sufficient funds to be able to provide services that improve those beneficiaries’ lives.

And sometimes, the duty to beneficiaries to raise as much money as needed might conflict with what the donor wants – to be asked less (or not at all), or not asked in particular ways.

But just because some people don’t like the way fundraising is carried out does not make that type of fundraising ‘unethical’. The ethically correct outcome is rarely decided by public vote. To establish what is ethically correct in any situation, we need to apply a normative decision making framework – something that informs the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’.

The theory we are working on at Rogare is one that we call ‘rights balancing ethical fundraising’.

This states that ethical fundraising attempts to balance the duty of fundraisers to raise money on behalf of their beneficiaries with the rights of donors not to be subjected to undue pressure to give.

Applying this to the cases of ‘guilt’ (and ‘pressure’), we might decided that certain levels of guilt are acceptable in certain cases, but not in others, depending on the consequences they deliver to donors, beneficiaries and public trust. Every time there is a question about what fundraisers should do in a particular situation, we can apply this rubric, balance competing demands, and arrive at an ethical decision that can be justified to all parties.

If we don’t do this, we run the risk of reforming fundraising’s professional ethics to favour the interests of those with the loudest voice. Some members of the public, politicians and journalists may feel more comfortable with this more ‘ethical’ fundraising. But I bet a lot of beneficiaries won’t.

Ian MacQuillin

Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University in the UK.


Jack Flanagan · November 16, 2015 at 16:37

Too often fundraisers confuse that which though excruciatingly precise verbiage can pass legal muster with that which passes ethical muster.

Michael J. Rosen · November 16, 2015 at 23:13

There are a number of challenges that hamper the nonprofit sector’s enhancement of ethical practice:

— Nonprofit managers and fundraising professionals tend to think they are inherently ethical and, therefore, they don’t engage in mindful practice, and they don’t engage in sound ethical decision-making.

— Many nonprofit managers and fundraising professionals do not understand the value of being ethical. They don’t understand the impact that ethical practice has on fundraising.

— Many nonprofit managers and fundraising professionals have the desire to be highly ethical but they do not have the skills to consistently make ethical decisions.

— There are cultural differences that impact ethics. While some ethical principles are universal, others are regional. This makes the discussion of ethical practice more complex and, sometimes, confusing.

— Senior leadership at nonprofit organizations are often not in alignment with their fundraising professionals when it comes to ethics. At many organizations, the emphasis is on bringing in money without much concern for how.

Yes, we need a far better understanding of normative ethics. However, we also need to address the full range of issues related to fundraising ethics,

For information about the value of ethics and to discover an effective ethical decision-making model, please read: http://mlinnovations.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Ethical_Decision_Making_Article.28164930.pdf

Jagan · January 1, 2016 at 15:22

Very good article.

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