Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising ethics isn't easy

It's not meant to be - there are few black-and-white answers to its dilemmas

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

While working through one of the ethical dilemmas I set in my fundraising ethics classes recently, one of the participants said: "This isn’t easy."

No, ethics is not easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t call them ethical dilemmas. Ethics has been studied for two-and-a-half millennia, yet we still can’t reach agreement on some of the most fundamental questions. Lock a bunch of philosophy undergraduates in their classroom on the first day of their course in September, ask them if it’s ever acceptable to tell lies and they’ll still be there at Christmas.

There are many reasons we find ethical dilemmas in fundraising hard. One is that fundraising ethics isn’t taught to new entrants to the profession in any formal way (then again, very little is). And as for established practitioners, they’ll rarely attend ethics sessions at conferences. Instead, you’ll find them packed to the rafters in sessions on, say, storytelling, or the currently in vogue (quite rightly so) behavioural science.

I was waiting for an ethics session to start at the Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference in San Francisco in 2017. There were about 20 people in the room. I turned to the fundraiser sitting behind me. "You can tell this is an ethics session by how few people are here," I said. "Oh," she replied, "is this ethics? I’m in the wrong room."

The main reason fundraisers attend conferences is to supplement their practical knowledge. As teaching events, conferences don’t provide many sessions on critical-thinking topics such as ethics because that’s not what their customers want. One conference organiser told me this year that ethics sessions "just don’t get bums on seats".

Fundraisers who are overworked, underpaid, overstressed and underinformed (in the sense that fundraising has a "knowledge crisis") want certainty: they want to fill knowledge gaps with "five new tips you can apply immediately", which is what they are often sent to conferences to acquire.

But ethics doesn’t give you that degree of certainty.

Ethics is not science. It’s not a formula into which you can plug a few variables, run the calculation, and get the "right" answer.

What ethics does is to provide a theory-based process to making a choice in an ethical dilemma, and then better, or less well, justify that choice. You might have a very good ethical justification for what you did. Someone might have an even better ethical critique of your actions.

This lack of ethical certainty is evident in the controversy surrounding Diabetes UK’s recent decision to embark on a corporate partnership with Britvic, a manufacturer of soft drinks, which the charity has long lambasted as a major factor in developing diabetes.

Whether this deal is ethical – in other words, the right thing – depends on a number of factors: how much help is provided, whether trust is damaged and how badly, how the company responds to the partnership, whether it conflicts with existing values, and so on.

But without considering these factors, there is no simple yes/no answer to the question of whether the Diabetes UK-Britvic partnership is ethical, and different people will get different answers depending on how they weight the different factors. Diabetes UK has justified its decision based on some of the relevant factors. Some will find this convincing; others less so.

Similarly, there’s no black-or-white answer to a question such as "what kind of fundraising practices are unethical?", a question I’ve been asked at a conference session. Ethics is a palette with myriad shades of grey.

To provide meaningful answers to questions about fundraising ethics, the challenge for those setting the profession’s learning agenda is to market those questions in such a way that they attract bums on seats.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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