Fundraisers' self-worth is damaged by the everyday ethical decisions they make, study says

Research by Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy found that those who felt proudest to be fundraisers were less likely to sustain damage to their moral identity

Fundraisers: ethical decisions 'harm their self-worth'
Fundraisers: ethical decisions 'harm their self-worth'

Fundraisers’ sense of professional self-worth is damaged by having to make the difficult ethical decisions they encounter every day in their jobs, according to new research.

A study carried out by Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy found that taking tough ethical decisions on a daily basis was taking its toll on fundraisers’ sense of feeling "moral".

More than 220 people participated in the research, which was led by Jen Shang, director of research at the CSP, and Sophie Kong, manager of the Plymouth Charity Lab, and carried out at the Institute of Fundraising’s national convention in London in July.

The research was carried out just over a year after the IoF launched its Proud To Be a Fundraiser campaign in April 2014 to celebrate fundraisers’ work and tackle any defensiveness about the profession.

The researchers found that the fundraisers who felt proudest of being a part of their profession suffered significantly less damage to their moral identity than their colleagues who said they had low levels of pride in their jobs.

Participants responded to a series of questions and tests designed to assess their implicit and explicit moral identities.

Explicit moral identity was defined as how people felt about themselves and how they expressed these feelings to the outside world. This was tested by asking fundraisers if they agreed with statements such as "being someone who is kind, caring and honest is an important part of who I am" and "I am actively involved in activities that communicate to others that I have these characteristics".

Implicit moral identity was tested by assessing how quickly participants responded to specific words that were flashed up on their work stations.

Each participant’s moral identity was assessed both before and after they responded to 15 ethical dilemmas a typical fundraiser might encounter. These dilemmas included considering whether to allow a major donor to buy an expensive meal for them and whether there should be a limit on the number of fundraising requests charities send out per month.

The researchers found that after tackling these dilemmas, fundraisers’ average implicit moral identity scores fell by more than the non-fundraisers who took part.

A statement from the CSP said this meant that fundraisers "felt worse than non-fundraisers after they had made an identical set of decisions, even though the results show they chose to answer in almost identical ways".

The study also considered whether fundraisers with a strong sense of professional identity were able to shield themselves from the negative effects of ethical decision-making.

It found that those fundraisers who high levels of professional pride saw their "internalised explicit moral identity" fall by less than those who had expressed lower levels of pride in their profession.

The CSP said: "This means that those with low professional pride need to pretend to themselves that being a moral person is not an important part of who they are after making the same decisions, while fundraisers with high professional pride do not have to engage in this kind of coping mechanism. Their professional pride protects their internalised moral identity."

Shang said: "This study suggests that how fundraisers feel about themselves and about their decisions is an interaction between their professional and moral sense of selves, and the kind of decisions they make every day.

"Our follow-up study will identify positive adaptation strategies that will enable fundraisers to feel proudest about being a fundraiser and most moral (implicitly) about being a person, while making the best moral decisions for their organisations."

The CSP said that people who took part in the study were being sent individualised reports tjat would advise them if they were as proud to be fundraisers as they previously thought.

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