The even bigger picture of fundraising ethics #EthicsMonth

16 October 2019
Governance and ComplianceEthics
Standard Content

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

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

There’s a temptation to view ethics in fundraising as being ‘in the moment’ – that ethics is about deciding what is the right thing to do when confronted by a particular challenging situation in day-to-day practice. 

In other words, the role of ethics in fundraising is to help you decide what to do in any given ethical dilemma.

But we are less good at working out how to act ethically at a policy or sectoral level, nor of thinking about ethical behaviour when it relates to more than just day-to-day practice.

Many ethical dilemmas in fundraising occur because there is tension between what fundraisers need to do for their beneficiaries (to ask donors for money to provide services – because remember, the research repeatedly tells us that people won’t donate unless they are asked to), and what those being asked want fundraisers to do – ask less, at different times, in different ways, or simply not to ask at all.

Traditionally, fundraising ethics has evolved to protect donors from doing the things they don’t want fundraisers to do, and then standards and the regulation of those standards follows this route too, which is a good reason why, as I argued in the first blog of this series, we need to disarticulate ethics from standards/regulation.

The 'donor-centric rule of thumb'

Our applied ethics in these practical situations seeks to protect donors, and probably in those day-to-day situations, what really is the best thing to do. I call this the ‘donor-centric rule of thumb’. As an example, suppose you are faced with a situation whereby you might put pressure (but of course, not ‘undue’ pressure – which is prohibited by the code) on a donor, perhaps make them feel guilty, and you knew that this might make them feel bad. Should you do it?

Perhaps all things considered – these things being how it might impact on their future giving, their trust in your organisation, etc – you ought not?

The donor-centric rule of thumb suggests erring on the side of donors in these one-to-one situations, because the benefits that derive from subjecting this one donor to pressure (a single gift) might not outweigh the disbenefits, particularly if you cannot reliably guess how this one donor will react.

But at the policy level?

However, that doesn’t then mean if we are considering what to do for a whole bunch of donors, that we can simply aggregate all these individual instances to arrive at the right thing to do, much less convert this into a policy or standard that you can then enforce with regulation.

So take the issue of consent (in relation to GDPR, not PECR). From the perspective of individual donors, they only want to be contacted on their terms. If a donor says they don’t want to be contacted, you shouldn’t contact them, which is a matter of law. But that doesn’t then imply that you should therefore go and ask all the donors who haven’t asked not to be contacted for their consent to do so in the future, just because you think it is the ‘right’ (i.e. ethical) thing for your donors.

As we’ve seen, charities that have done this have lost a lot of income and are now facing some very difficult decisions.

At the sectoral/policy level, the donor-centric rule of thumb breaks down, partly because at this level we should be basing decisions on sound theory and evidence and not a) guess work or b) personal gut feel about what is ‘ethical’.

At the policy level we absolutely need to balance duties to donors with duties to beneficiaries. If donors can be legally contacted without having consented to that contact, then so be it.

Insights from marketing ethics

There are other areas of fundraising ethics outside of day-to-day applied dilemmas that receive scant attention. To consider those we can look at some of the issues that marketing ethics has identified as potentially unethical marketing practice.

Marketing of harmful products – such as tobacco, alcohol and gambling. This raises questions about whether charities should ever accept money from tobacco companies, even if it doesn’t contradict their cause. But is also raises questions about whether charities ought to raise money through selling lottery tickets.

Deceptive pricing/hidden costs – when the advertised price is not the full price and there are other hidden costs, such as paying extra to choose and airline seat and check your baggage. Though not a direct analogy, is the claim that ‘all your donation goes to the cause’ a case of deceptive pricing in fundraising?

Predatory marketing – this happens when one company adopts marketing practices – such as deliberately underpricing its products – to force a competitor out of the marketplace. Have you ever heard of a charity deliberately trying to drive out another from the doing the type of fundraising that is particularly lucrative to the first charity? I have.

Ethics and policy making

So to conclude this blog, ethics in fundraising is not simply for fundraisers to decide what they would do in particular applied ethical dilemmas. It is also to help us make better policy and to tackle the bigger picture ethical issues we might currently not even think of as ethical issues.

Next week: What happens when donors exert too much power and undue influence in their relationships with fundraisers. Rogare board chair Heather Hill explores this difficult issue, in the next instalment of this special IoF blog series on ethics.

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