Ian MacQuillin: It's not unethical to carry on fundraising during the pandemic

When we get past it, we'll still need arts and heritage institutions, we'll still want a better environment and we'll still want animals to be protected

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

The maths is simple. Because charities are going to collectively lose about £4bn during the current coronavirus pandemic, they are going to have to do a lot more asking for donations to make up the shortfall.

People are ready and willing to help, as Bluefrog’s latest focus group research shows, but they need someone to ask them for that help. That’s how it is with charitable donations in normal times; that’s how it will be during this, and other, emergencies. The adage remains true: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

And yet many, if not most, of fundraising’s most acute ethical challenges occur at the asking phase, often when fundraisers’ need to ask (to secure the resources to provide help to their beneficiaries) comes into conflict with the wishes of donors or the public to be asked in different ways, at different times, less often or just not at all.

Because “doing what is right for the donor” is the fundraising profession’s default ethical assumption, it can often appear that any fundraising that upsets donors is therefore unethical. That doesn’t mean that it actually is unethical; only that there is a widespread perception that it is.

So just by doing more asking we run the risk of encountering more allegations of unethical practice. This is exacerbated by the idea that because the public (who are our donors) are enduring such hardship, fundraisers should lay off them a bit, and it’s unethical to ask people to give to charity when they are at risk of dying from a contagious disease. These are charges that have been levelled – by other fundraisers – at legacy fundraising.

There have been other concerns that fundraising for “non-essential” causes – those that do not directly seek to respond to or alleviate the effects of the pandemic – could be seen as unethical.

It’s appropriate to consider these challenges; it’s something a mature profession should do. But how do you respond when your comms team is advising you to stop fundraising because “some people might object”?

As the US fundraiser Cherian Koshy has articulated, many of the calls for action in response to the pandemic elevate the short-term emergency over solutions to long-term problems and challenges. Many arguments for not doing fundraising during the pandemic similarly prioritise short-term need over long-term solutions.

So as well as striking a balancing between what donors want and what beneficiaries need, which is one way to resolve day-to-day ethical dilemmas in fundraising, we also need to consider a version of that equation that considers what donors and the public want now, and what all stakeholders – including donors and beneficiaries – will want and need in the future.

Because when we get through this pandemic, we’ll need and want to benefit from arts and heritage institutions. We’ll want a better environment. We’ll want to make sure the welfare of animals is protected. Causes such as these might not be essential or vital to the current pandemic. But that does not mean they are not important.

And if we agree that these causes are important and that animal welfare should be protected (this is just as important to all non-human animals now, as it will be once the emergency facing humans has passed), and that we want to visit museums and appreciate art, then these causes need to be funded. Which means charities need to carry on fundraising for them and should not be diverted by arguments claiming that people might object to that because life now is tough.

Sure, such arguments and public perceptions are things to be factored into risk assessments and wise NGOs will consider how best to respond to such allegations, should they ever arise. But in and of themselves they are not knock-back, irrefutable arguments to stop fundraising.

All the evidence and advice from previous recessions and economic downturns has been that charities should continue to ask for support and that, even if giving falls during economic hardship, it will quickly pick up once it is over. In previous downturns, those charities that continued to fundraise through them were in much better shape to take advantage of the resurgence of charitable giving than those that had scaled back their fundraising, a good reason not to furlough large swathes of fundraisers.

So keep calm and carry on fundraising.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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