'Fundraising ethics is about much more than sticking to the Code and avoiding "tainted" money' #Ethi

02 October 2019
LeadershipGovernance and ComplianceEthics
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Fundraising’s professional ethics extends a lot wider than you might think. From a different perspective, argues Rogare's Ian MacQuillin, not asking for a sufficiently high gift could be seen as unethical.

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

If I asked you to think of an example of something relating to ethics in fundraising, what would immediately pop into your head?

It’d probably be about whether to accept money form a ‘tainted’ source. This year with the Sackler/opioid controversy splashed all over the front pages and causing severe consternation for arts organisations that have accepted Sackler money in the past, perhaps that’s not surprising.

But there’s another reason you probably thought of acceptance/refusal of donations as your go-to ethical issue.

That’s because the questions of ‘tainted’ money – along with commission-based payment (which is prohibited by the codes in all English-speaking countries) – is one of the standard tropes used to highlight ethical dilemmas in fundraising.

What else might you have thought about? Perhaps it was a form of fundraising you would never use, which, because you find it personally distasteful, you consider to be unethical. Perhaps it was about religiously observing the Code of Fundraising Practice. Or perhaps your first thought about ethics in fundraising was making sure you do right by your donor.

For sure, all these things should be components of an extensive and sophisticated account of fundraising’s professional ethics. But they are often elevated above all other considerations such that you could be forgiven for thinking that the totality of fundraising ethics can be written down as a very short checklist:

  1. Stick to the code
  2. Do what donors want/keep donors happy
  3. Don’t accept tainted money

4.    Don’t pay commission (see point 1 in any case).

But there is far, far more to fundraising’s professional ethics than this.

Standards and ethics are not the same thing

The first challenge arises when we so regularly conflate ethics with professional standards, so that we think that all behaving ethically means is doing what the code prescribes and not doing what it proscribes.

However, the code cannot possibly prescribe or proscribe absolutely everything for every conceivable situation a fundraiser might encounter. There are many grey areas in the code of practice and there are many situations that are not covered by the code at all. The role of our professional ethics is then to help us navigate these grey or absent areas of the code of practice.

It would help us as we move forward as a profession to more clearly disarticulate standards from ethics, which become particularly confusing when we have ‘codes of ethical standards’.

Codes tell you what you must/must not do and are relatively simple to regulate against.

Ethics, however, provide frameworks for you to understand what you ought/ought not do, and cannot be ‘regulated’ in the same formal and structured way.

Codes are therefore about someone else telling you what you must/must not do; but ethics are about your own personal responsibilities.

So we come to the question of the exercise of those personal responsibilities.

Your personal ethical responsibilities

There is very little formal theorising about fundraising ethics – shockingly little in fact, especially compared to similar disciplines such as PR and marketing. Most of what there is makes donors the focus of fundraisers’ ethical duties, and this chimes really well with the professional practice of relationship/donor-centred fundraising.

But donors are not the only stakeholder to whom fundraisers owe ethical duties. What about your beneficiaries? The reason you’re raising money is to provide sufficient money to provide services to your beneficiaries. If you fail to do this, you could have acted unethically, depending on the reasons for your failure.

If, for example, you decide to stop using a particular form of effective and efficient fundraising because you personally didn’t like it (could be telephone, or street for example), or because you hadn’t got yourself sufficiently well-informed about it (such as consent vs legitimate interest), then any resulting fall in fundraising income, which could have been avoided if you had made different decisions, is arguably an ethical failure, not just a failure of professional practice.

Fundraising ethics from beneficiaries' perspective

So while we only tend to regard fundraising ethics as acting in the protection of donors’ interests, we should also be thinking about the ethics of acting in the beneficiaries’ interests, and seeking to get those two in a more appropriate balance. Considering things from the beneficiary’s perspective means that things that we currently don’t consider a matter of fundraising ethics might become so. These might include:

And finally, fundraising ethics is not simply a matter of what you feel to be right or wrong. Just because you feel it might be wrong and distasteful to accept money from a particular source, to employ a particular type of interruptive fundraising, or to use so-called ‘poverty porn’-type images, doesn’t therefore make those things ‘unethical’.

You can only arrive at such a decision using the theory, frameworks and decision-making toolkits that form a rich understanding of our professional ethics. And one of a fundraisers’ principle ethical duties is to ensure they have a good grasp of what those ethics are, and are not.

Next week: In the next instalment of this special IoF blog series on ethics, Cherian Koshy of Des Moines Performing Arts looks at whether fundraisers have a duty to beneficiaries and, if so, where does this duty come from?

Ian MacQuillin MInstF(Dip)
Ian MacQuillin MInstF(Dip)
Director of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank
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