The Role of Ethics; the Refereeing of Fundraising

Ian MacQuillin, Director Rogare

What wisdom can be learned from the warning sirens in the UK?

The role performed by ethics is not unlike the role performed by a football referee - it keeps the game running according to the rules, but you're not really aware of it until something goes wrong, and then all you can hear is blast after blast of the ref's whistle alerting you to another bit of wrongdoing.

Another thing about ethics is that you never seem to think you need it until something has gone wrong, usually quite badly wrong, and you need to fix it. But by that time, it's often too late to do much more than a stick a few ethical sticking plasters on the wound without getting to the ethical cause of the ailment.

This is what happened last summer in the United Kingdom, when the people who 'referee' fundraising (including the media) swapped their pea-whistle for an air raid warning siren.

Once poor Olive Cooke's suicide was linked by the media to the amount of fundraising requests she was receiving, that siren never seemed to be off. Mrs Cooke was Britain's oldest and longest selling poppy seller and a supporter of numerous charities. But she had also battled depression for most of her life. The Coroner never once made any link between fundraising activities and her death.

And yet her suicide became the catalyst for a raft of ethical and regulatory change in the UK that fundraisers seemingly had no answer to.

Often when allegations of unethical practice are leveled, the fundraising profession looks like it literally has no idea how to respond.

The problem, I believe, is because of the type of ethics that exists in the fundraising profession looks like it literally has no idea how to respond.

The problem, I believe, is because of the type of ethics that exists in the fundraising profession. Fundraisers are very good at devising codes of practice that contain lists of things they may or may not do. There are such codes in pretty much all English-speaking countries, and the FINZ codes are a particularly good example.

It's in these codes where the profession's 'applied' ethics reside. Here's a couple of examples from the FINZ codes. Fundraisers must not:

  • continue to seek a donation where a donor requests that they stop and fundraisers must end a conversation in a polite and respectful manner as soon as they are asked to
  • personally undertake nor be involved in any way, in a fundraising activity where remuneration is based in part or in whole on a percentage of the financial results of the solicitation

This is fairly typical of what's to be found in most codes.

But what the fundraising profession is less good at is the theoretical underpinning to all this applied ethics: the stuff that tells us not just what we may or may not do, but why we may or may not do it.

The normative ethics, and there just isn't a decent theory of normative fundraising ethics around. There was a spate of thinking on this subjectgenerated by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and Indiana University in the mid-90s. But there's been almost nothing since.

When fundraising is called into question ethically, allegations are usually being made about the applied ethical standards, so changes are demanded to these. That's what happened in the UK in 2015. But if you don't know why you have the standards in the first place - what is the ethical 'point' of them - then you are going to find it very hard to know what to change to make them ethically 'better'.

So what do we think is the point of these ethical codes?

Many, I reckon, would say it is to 'protect' donors. There is plenty in the codes of practice that describes fundraisers' various responsibilities and duties to their donors, such as to treat donors in certain ways (how they thank them, for instance), or not subjecting them to 'undue influence' when trying to persuade them to give.

But what about fundraisers' duties to their beneficiaries? Particularly their overriding ethical duty to beneficiaries: to ensure their charity has enough money to provide the services beneficiaries rely on?

Beneficiaries are largely absent from ethical thinking in fundraising. I've never seen in a code of practice anything to the effect that 'a fundraiser's role is to sustainably maximise income to enable service users lives to eb bettered'.

But before fundraising ethics has focused so much on 'protecting' donors and putting them centre stage - including through the process of 'donorcentrism', which is itself a normative theory of fundraising ethics - when change is demanded by the likes of government and the media, it so naturally gravitates towards enhancing the donor protection aspect. After all, that's what the codes so overwhelmingly focus on, and haven't those same codes just been proved to be deficient by whatever ethical crisis we may happen to be in the midst of?

The problem with this is that it pushes the beneficiary even further to the margins.

This is what's happened in the UK. There we have a situation where the government has imposed a system - the Fundraising Preference Service - under which fundraisers will be unable to ask large cohorts of their donors for money, potentially threatening beneficiaries' services as a result. And this is regarded as ethical!

For the past eight or so months, Rogare, the fundraising think tank I run at Plymouth University in the UK, has been working on a new theory of normative fundraising ethics that we hope will bring the beneficiary back into the picture by requiring fundraisers to balance their duties to their donors with those to their beneficiaries.

In a nutshell, this normative theory can therefore be summarised as:

Ethical fundraising balances the duty of fundraisers to ask, on behalf of their beneficiaries, for support, with the right of the public not to be put under undue pressure to donate.

This makes ethical issues much more dependent on context, with the resolution to any ethical dilemma based on what is the best balance of outcomes for donors and beneficiaries. The Fundraising Preference Service has this balance very clearly, and very spectacularly, wrong.

The British experience last year should tell us that if something suddenly goes catastrophically wrong, and ethical change is demanded from outside, that probably won't give you enough time or intelectual space to successfully oppose knee-jerk recommendations or devise and implement the changes that are genuinely needed.

Fundraising in New Zealand, and globally, should prepare for its own 'summer of discontent', even if it never happens. 

Now is the time for the fundraising profession the world over to start rebuilding its professional ethics. Starting from the perspective of the most important person of all: the beneficiary.

Ian MacQuillin is the director or Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy in the UK.

The Role of Ethics; the Refereeing of Fundraising



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