Ian MacQuillin: Donors have responsibilities to charities too

Donors are free to give to whichever organisation they please, but the donor/charity relationship is a two-way street

"It’s donors’ money, they don’t have to give it to charities – they have no duty to give – and so they don’t owe us anything; they can do what they want with their money."

Regarding who they give their money to – and whether they even give at all – that’s very probably true.

The definition of a donation is that it is voluntary, and so if the donation were required, it wouldn’t be voluntary and wouldn’t be a donation – it’d be more like a tax, or a levy, or a surcharge. And the people paying this levy wouldn’t be donors; they’d be levy-payers.

But perhaps it’s not quite so true when we think about how they give, once they have decided to whom they will voluntarily donate.

There’s been a recent discussion in an online forum for fundraisers about a foundation that required charities to disclose the percentage of admin costs on application forms, but asking for no further context. The point made was that without this context, the requirement was meaningless.

In the ensuing discussion, someone presented the argument I used in the first paragraph, adding that donors didn’t even have to be transparent about their decision making.

Contrary to the view that donors don’t owe charities anything, I think they owe us a lot.

Trusts are a special class of donor. The only reason they exist is to give money to charity. They’re not like individual donors or philanthropists who give away some of their money alongside all the other things they do as a spare time activity.

For foundations, it’s their job – and they and their staff are "professional donors".

As such, they have a duty to be as professional, transparent and accountable in how they do their job as any other professional in any other profession should be .

They should have codes of practice and ethics, and if they breach their standards and ethics, there should be a self-regulator who can hold them to account – stuff like this from the Association of Charitable Foundations, though I think this is aspirational guidance not a regulatory code of practice.

One of those standards – in my view ­– would be full cost recovery in all grants made.

Another would be not to use arbitrary metrics in assessing grant applications, such as admin costs devoid of any context.

The US fundraising consultant Vu Le holds foundations accountable for their, as he calls it, "crappy funding practices", and he's right to do so.

Trusts and foundations ought not be wasting charities’ time and money through unaccountable, complex and opaque funding requirements. It's an ethical imperative on their part to make it easier for us.

But what of individual philanthropists? Is it OK for them to do whatever they want, however they want, with their money, simply because it is their money? And does that include how much they give and to whom they give it – is that at their complete discretion?

There are already some schools of thought that challenge this view.

The Effective Altruism movement says donors should only give to those organisations that will deliver the greatest impact with their give.

Community-centric fundraising argues that donors need to reassess their own power and privilege when considering who the give to.

If these views are right – and I’m not sure they are – then the type of relationships that fundraisers have with philanthropists needs to evolve. But they need to evolve anyway.

A high-profile American philanthropist recently wrote a book in which she detailed the many failings in the relationships she has with fundraisers – all of which were the fault of the fundraisers.

And yet if you read the book, it seems quite clear that the relationships were made quite difficult by how philanthropists directed those relationships and the expectations they put on fundraisers.

And so just as charities and fundraisers have duties to donors – which are fairly well and comprehensively articulated – so donors and philanthropists have concomitant duties to the organisations they give their money to.

Just as fundraisers sign up to charters and promises about how they treat their donors; maybe philanthropists could consider their own promise about how they will treat charities.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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