Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising ethics is approaching a fork in the road

Fundraisers are increasingly being asked to think about the impact of their work not just on donors or beneficiaries, but on society as a whole - and making that shift won't be easy

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

In a recent Third Sector article considering how fundraisers can address the climate emergency, Thames Hospice’s Sarah Bissel encapsulates the problem.

Ten years ago, she says, the main thing was to raise money in the most profitable way. Now fundraisers may have to make decisions that might make their fundraising less profitable.

To an extent, fundraisers have always faced this dilemma – they have always accepted that their ethics do not permit them to do anything just because it raises most money.

But ethical concerns were generally predicated on avoiding negative outcomes to donors, such as not making them feel guilty, or not putting them undue pressure to give.

What is different about the ethical dilemma introduced by the climate emergency is that it shifts the locus of duties incumbent on fundraisers from organisational stakeholders – principally donors and beneficiaries – to society as a whole. And society as a whole includes the beneficiaries of all charities, as well as people who are not beneficiaries of any charity.

This is a fundamental shift in our ethical thinking.

When it comes to fundraising ethics, we’ve always had a gap between applied (what we ought to do) and normative (why we ought to do it) ethics.

Either we try to do applied ethics on the fly without it being grounded in a normative idea and end up chasing our tails (as Great Ormond Street did with its U-turn on returning donations from the Presidents Club). Or we come up with a normative concept but don’t put in the work to develop applied ethics from it.

Once donor-centred fundraising became the default ethical position, few people seriously challenged its ethical primacy or thought about unintended consequences arising from an uncritical application of its practices.

We now have an emerging suite of new normative ethical principles in fundraising; as well as environmental concerns, the ideas put forward by community-centric fundraising are also encouraging an ethical shift.

Principle two of Community-Centric Fundraising posits that individual charity missions are not as important as the “collective community”.

This very strongly implies that the needs of the services users of any one charity are not as important as the needs of everyone in the community – an idea that chimes with the concerns raised by the climate emergency.

It’s easy to buy into these topline normative concepts. It’s less easy to apply them in practice.

Take the issue of returning donations over environmental concerns about the source, for example.

While the Chartered Institute of Fundraising's toolkit on environmental change provides some very practical advice, it doesn’t offer specific advice on returning donations.

It only tells fundraisers how to use existing acceptance/refusal guidance to make such decisions, and that guidance doesn’t appear to allow for donations to be refused in this context.

And how should fundraisers implement CCF principle two in this situation?

If you are tasked with raising money for a particular cause, what frameworks and factors will you consider in deciding whether to accept money that will help service users of your cause, or reject and direct it to a cause that will benefit the collective community?

This is not a rhetorical question aimed a proving a point – it’s a major ethical dilemma for any fundraiser in this position, and I am not sure what the answers are.

Fundraising ethics is approaching a fork it the road. One fork is a continuation of the road we’re on – focusing on outcomes for donors and beneficiaries.

The other fork leads to taking decisions based on societal outcomes. We seem to be turning the wheels of the fundraising ethics bus in that direction.

Taking this fork is akin to buying into the normative concept. But it won’t be a straight and smooth journey.

There will be twists and turns, cul-de-sacs, major roadworks and all sorts of other stuff disrupting our travel, not to mention shortcuts between the two paths.

So successfully navigating this path requires us to rethink our normative and applied ethics so we can redraw the ethical map of fundraising, and we’ve barely thought about how we might do that.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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