Subscribing to a code of fundraising ethics would help fundraisers challenge the public perception that certain fundraising methods are unethical, according to Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare.
In a session about fundraising ethics at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands, MacQuillin argued that the fundraising sector needed to agree on and follow a code of fundraising ethics and that doing so could help fundraisers to defend their practices against journalists or politicians who claimed their practices were unethical.
Rogare began developing a "foundational theory of normative ethics" for fundraising in April and announced it in June in the wake of the death of Olive Cooke.
MacQuillin said the think tank had been unsuccessful at influencing the public debate about fundraising in recent months and it might have achieved more if it had started working on the project a year earlier.
"Fundraising in the UK is in a huge ethical quandary at the moment," he said. "This project was not launched in response to that. We need to create a culture in fundraising of criticising everything and not taking people’s word for anything. I want to transform the way fundraisers use theory and evidence."
MacQuillin said that ethical fundraising involved balancing the duty of fundraisers to ask for support with the right of the public not to be put under undue pressure to donate.
He said the beneficiary had not been considered by UK regulators such as the Fundraising Standards Board this summer. "The beneficiary is invisible to regulators in the UK," he said. "The FRSB never considered them when it regulated fundraising."
He added: "This is not a means by which to justify any fundraising just because it raises more money. It is an attempt to strike a genuine balance – the needs of the beneficiary have been absent from much of the recent public debate about fundraising and we want to address that."
But one audience member told MacQuillin she felt the sector was so "mixed up" that she was sceptical it would ever be possible to develop a normative theory of fundraising ethics.
She asked whether he foresaw different charities establishing their own theories of fundraising ethics and attracting employees who subscribed to those ethics. MacQuillin said he believed this was already happening.
Delegates at the session were asked to reflect on the fundraising practices they considered unethical. Ideas included not using money for the purpose for which it was donated, "guilt-tripping" donors into giving money, aggressive or intrusive fundraising and targeting vulnerable people.
MacQuillin said that fundraising ethics could be applied to the debate about the Fundraising Preference Service, which was proposed by Sir Stuart Etherington’s review into fundraising self-regulation. He said: "The risk of not establishing the Fundraising Preference Service is that some people are inconvenienced by receiving too many fundraising requests and some people will feel some kind of guilt about having to decline some, perhaps most, of those requests.
"However, the risk of establishing the Fundraising Preference Service is that charities will not be able to raise the money they need to provide services for their beneficiaries, and those lives will be seriously inconvenienced."