Ian MacQuillin: 'Donor dominance' is a test of best practice and ethics

That you need to keep a major donor onside is no reason to acquiesce to inappropriate demands or behaviour

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Your phone rings. It’s a major donor with whom your team has been cultivating a relationship for some time. After a few pleasantries, he gets to the point.

He feels one of the fundraising team is too "young" (read "immature") and isn’t a good fit with the baby boomer donor. For example, he doesn’t share a lot of the donor’s cultural knowledge – he thought Paul McCartney played lead guitar, not bass, in The Beatles, for crying out loud!

A few months later, the donor phones again. He wants to borrow your art gallery for the launch of a new fashion collection by a designer friend of his. He also wants you to arrange catering, but hasn’t offered to pay anything.

What do your professional ethics and knowledge of best practice tell you to do in both of these situations? Of course, they are hypothetical (sort of).

But things like this happen all the time in the relationships between donors and fundraisers, enough to suggest that, in some instances, donors abuse their power. That power is donors’ ability to make gifts – or withhold them. The abuse is in extracting from a non-profit organisation benefits (such as a free event) and concessions (such as having a staff member moved sideways) to which they are not entitled.

Maybe benefits and concessions can be justified by consequentialist reasoning: that hosting the event and replacing the "immature" fundraiser will help to build the relationship and lead to a bigger gift. Or it might open the door to future abuses of the power dynamic.

After all, donor-centred best practice says that the donor should be at the heart of everything you do: the donor is always right, isn’t s/he?

In this example, the donor is a white, male baby boomer who requires the removal of a white, male millennial from his account team. Would you feel quite so comfortable with this if the fundraiser with whom he had "maturity" issues were female or a person of colour?

Issues of potential power imbalances in donor-fundraiser relationships were brought to the fore last year, first, by the controversy surrounding the Presidents Cub dinner in the UK and, second, a survey commissioned by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the USA. This found that of the three-quarters of female fundraisers who had experienced sexual harassment at work, two-thirds said that at least one offender was a donor.

Yet the issue of "donor dominance" has been endemic but dormant for years, and it’s shocking that it’s taken so long for anyone to acknowledge the problem.

Has there been a sector-wide case of turning a blind eye so as not to endanger a revenue source? If so, what on earth led fundraising managers to acquiesce in something as serious as sexual harassment to protect their income?

This is a question that has been raised many times by the American fundraiser Heather Hill. Her hypothesis is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the ethics of fundraising: by emphasising the duties that fundraisers owe to donors in building relationships, it provides little guidance on what to do when donors act in ways that are clearly inappropriate.

Although the imperative to hit short-term targets must also surely play a role, I think Heather has a point and the sector needs to rethink its best practice and ethics to accommodate donor-dominance scenarios.

But it’s not just at the level of the Presidents Club scandal that we need to act. It starts with confronting ostensibly harmless requests to move a fundraiser sideways or cough up for a catered event.

Best practice has to provide guidance on how managers can have conversations with donors to find alternative solutions, rather than acquiesce in their demands. And ethics needs to show why these are the right conversations to have, because as a professional this fundraiser is the right person for the job, even if he is woefully ignorant about George Harrison’s musical virtuosity.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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