The Essence of Fundraising Ethics at Year-End

October 11, 2016 Pamela Barden

With just weeks remaining in 2016, many fundraisers will adopt the stance, “Ask early, ask often, and ask boldly.” My mailbox and inbox are already filled with requests. Right now, the focus is on Thanksgiving. I’ve personally received five packages of greeting cards and more calendars than there are walls in my house. It’s the time of year when we really crank up the volume (quantity and intensity) of our fundraising messages, knowing that how the year ends will greatly impact 2017.

Lets face it, year-end not only impacts our ability to fulfill our mission, but it also impacts whether or not we will be gainfully employed come 2017. Even though we all believe “it’s all about the mission,” a small voice inside can pipe up every now and then to remind us it’s also about our own futures. If that small voice gets too loud and forceful, it can be tempting to set aside an ethical belief or two to get the job done (and to keep the job).

Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the University of Plymouth Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy (U.K.), recently released a white paper, “Rights Stuff: Fundraising’s Ethics Gap and a New Theory of Fundraising Ethics” (v1.1). It’s not an easy read, but it’s worthwhile for every fundraiser to spend some time reading it, regardless of which country you call home. After all, attacks on fundraising and disrespect for the fundraising profession are not limited to the U.K. Just change some names and specifics, and most of us have felt the pain of being painted by a very large “fundraisers are evil!” brush.

The white paper states, “For a subject that is so vitally important to the fundraising profession and something that ought to form its very bedrock, fundraising ethics has received very little attention.” Yes, we have our codes of ethics, but when was the last time you read it? Rather than just checking off the little box that says you agree, I challenge us all to take time and remember what we have agreed to.

On a positive note, some nonprofits have taken recent bad press seriously, responding with a deliberate effort to tell donors what transparency means to them. The Leaven has taken to email, print, Facebook, and their website to openly talk about their transparency commitment. Other nonprofits are sharing their 990 and other financial documents instead of making donors and potential donors beg for them.

In the white paper, Rogare introduces the Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics, an “attempt to reintroduce the beneficiary to the ethical picture. Under Rights Balancing ethics, fundraising is ethical when it balances the duty of fundraisers to solicit support with the rights of donors not to be subjected to undue pressure to give. Fundraising is unethical when it does not strike this balance.” This is an evolving topic with Rogare, and one every fundraiser should care about.

“Rights balancing” includes being honest in expressing need and the potential impact of a gift. In fundraising, as in life (IMO), the end does not justify the means. Let’s stop acting like raising the dollar is all that matters. Raising the dollar is very, very important – but we must never step over the ethical line to achieve that end.

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