Anna Taylor: Learning the ethical balancing act

Fundraisers must ensure that their charities' ethical standards are not compromised when choosing a corporate partner, says our columnist

Anna Taylor
Anna Taylor

Raising money from compnies is one of the areas of fundraising most likely to throw up ethical dilemmas for charities. There can be big money on the table if you are discussing a charity of the year link-up or charity partnership. But can this justify working with a company that has a dubious ethical track record?

It is generally advisable to avoid approaching companies that have working practices that conflict directly with your charity's cause. For example, companies that use child labour, sell weapons or pollute environments in developing countries are unlikely to be appropriate partners for an international development charity. Even in less questionable sectors, you might find companies have discriminatory or exploitative employment practices, are engaged in bribery or have taken advantage of poor and relatively powerless communities. Searching on websites such as Corporatecritic.org or typing company names alongside words such as 'scandal', 'discrimination' or 'controversy' into Google can help you uncover uncomfortable truths. It is important to do this before entering deep discussions about a potential partnership with a company.

It is relatively easy to produce an ethical fundraising policy that says you will avoid approaching certain sectors, or companies that have acted irresponsibly in the recent past. It is more difficult, however, to turn down a major donation from a controversial company if this is offered as the result of a personal contact rather than a strategically planned approach. Might it be possible to change their ethical practices from the inside? Has the company already reformed the way in which it does business - even if its reputation is still poor? That donation could change many lives: can you justify turning it down?

There are significant risks in accepting support from companies widely held to have used questionable practices. You might alienate other donors, charity activists and even members of your own staff. However, turning down a substantial sum will deny the people you are trying to help. It's important to think through the pros and cons.

If you, or the powers that be, decide that the benefits outweigh the risks, it is essential to exercise caution and select carefully the potential areas for collaboration. It might be prudent to steer clear of doing anything too high-profile with the company. It might also be safer to target the company's corporate social responsibility and employee fundraising budgets rather than sponsorship or PR funding pots - which are likely to come with more strings attached.

Fundraisers must ensure that their charities' ethical standards are not compromised and that senior decision-makers are properly briefed on the issues. The reputations of your charity, sector and profession depend upon it.

Anna Taylor is a freelance fundraiser, writer and researcher and a former UK director of Child in Need India

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