Do fundraisers have a duty to their beneficiaries? #EthicsMonth

09 October 2019
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What, if any, duties do fundraisers owe to their beneficiaries? And if they do, where does such a duty come from? Cherian Koshy considers this as part of a series for Ethics Month.

This article forms part of a series of blogs on fundraising ethics curated by Rogare which will be published throughout the month of October. 

Sixteen years after Penelope Burk’s book Donor Centered Fundraising was published, the most serious threat to fundraising is the imbalanced donor-centered thesis. While many of the principles of donor communications continue to be highly relevant and appropriate, and Burk is in no way to blame for presenting her research, the not-for-profit- community has failed to grapple with the ramifications of an exclusive focus on donors. We have taken Burk’s thesis too far and into places it ought not go.

In fact, nearly all ethical discussions and codes focus on the relationship between the fundraiser and the donor, while precious little attention is spent discussing a charity’s beneficiaries.

And therein lies the problem. We have inadvertently based our ethical decision making and even our codes on something that was not designed for this purpose, and others in this series will spend considerably more attention on the areas where an exclusive, heightened, and imbalanced approach to donors has pernicious effects (see Heather Hill’s blog to be published on 23 October).

So important is this issue that it requires reframing the charitable sector as a whole. Rather than donor-centricity, we need to adopt a balanced perspective. The Rogare approach articulates a more helpful and nuanced view:

Fundraising is ethical when it balances fundraisers’ duty to ask for support, with their duties to donors, such that a mutual optimal outcome is achieved and neither party is significantly disadvantaged.

Where do duites to beneficiaries come from?

In a separate article, I’ve discussed whether fundraisers have a duty to ask for a gift. The underlying presumption is that there is a duty to the beneficiary, since it is upon their behalf that the fundraiser is asking for donations. This article will unpack that fundamental question of whether such an obligation to beneficiaries exists, and if so, where does it stem?

A fundraiser acts on behalf of a charity and that charity has a beneficiary that is defined by its mission. A homeless shelter serves a local population, an arts organisation serves their community, a service group supports an entity such as veterans, mothers, or puppies etc. As such the fundraiser has agreed, contracted as such, to work for a beneficiary group through a charity.

For a barrister, their obligation to their client is paramount just as a doctor’s obligation to their patient is. These obligations trump their obligation to their employer. However, a client-centered or patient-centered ethical framework in those professions does not eliminate the need to balance against other obligations of the barrister or doctor, such as truth or medical conscience.

A barrister is not obligated to lie on behalf of their client, nor is a medical doctor required to prescribe any medication requested by the patient. In the same way, as it would be unethical for a barrister to work for both her client and the opposing party, a fundraiser would be violating their ethical duty if they served either their own interest or the interest of anyone other than the beneficiary for whom they are fundraising. This is evident in our codes where a fundraiser’s sharing of donor information is typically considered unethical because it violates a promise.

Rebalancing duties to donors and beneficiaries

The tendency to place one entity in an imbalanced position is often a misunderstanding of ethical approaches – for example, the defendant ought to be zealously defended whatever the cost, or the patient’s autonomy must always be honoured. A more nuanced understanding of the ethical implications, however, requires us to balance competing interests.

The imbalanced donor-centered ethical framework ignores real life competing duties that we all agree exists, e.g. we ought not permit a donor to direct a gift for their own benefit. In so agreeing, we also tacitly agree that there are limits on donor-centricity and that we must in fact balance the duty to the donor with other competing duties.

As the international community of fundraisers focuses on ethics during the month, we can only hope that we collectively take up the mantle of grappling with the underthought and underdiscussed element of balancing our obligations to beneficiaries with our obligations to donors.

Next week: In the third instalment of our special series on fundraising ethics, Ian MacQuillin looks at how practical ethics relates to policy-making, and what extra insights we can glean from marketing ethics.

A longer exposition of Cherian's arguments he presents here can be found on Critical Fundraising Blog

Cherian Koshy CFRE
Cherian Koshy CFRE
Director of Development at Des Moines Performing Arts and a member of Rogare’s ethics special interest group
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