Ian MacQuillin: We need more thought on fundraising ethics

Far from overthinking this subject, not enough time has been spent on theory development in this important area

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

You’d be surprised how little has been written about fundraising ethics. I’ve got a book on marketing ethics that has 90 chapters. These are a selection of 90 papers from academic journals that the book’s editors considered the best, and far from exhaust the topic. Yet if you scraped together every article ever written by an academic or "pracademic" on fundraising ethics, you’d be lucky to reach half that number.

The lack of an academic foundation for the development of fundraising ethics affects how this subject develops in professional practice, where ethics is often seen as a nice-to-have-but-not-essential subject. A conference session on ethics will be sparsely attended while the session next door on, say, storytelling, is standing room only.

There’s an undercurrent in fundraising that dismisses academic insight as "overthinking" and, frankly, a bit of a waste of time – fundraisers should get on with their day jobs rather than getting bogged down with this stuff.

But you can’t overthink something until you’ve thought about it at least a bit and it’s in the academy where, for many professions, a lot of this thinking – or theory development – happens. If you don’t have some theory underpinning your applied practice, there’s always a chance your practice is missing something.

This is true with our ethics, on which, as I have said, there’s been hardly any thinking.

Next week, delegates from umbrella bodies around the world will convene in London for the International Fundraising Summit, where they will agree a "revised and refreshed" International Statement of Ethical Principles in Fundraising. Devised by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the USA, the International Statement forms the bedrock of ethical practice for its 24 national signatories, including the UK.

I’m not sure what the plans to refresh the statement amount to, but at last year’s summit in San Francisco the existing version was updated to ensure it was still "relevant for the global profession".

Nevertheless, it contains some glaring inconsistencies.

One of these is the requirement that all fundraisers be "strictly answerable" to their donors, beneficiaries and employers. If "answerable" means "accountable" rather than merely being transparent, then that’s possible only when the interests of all three stakeholders align. However, if your donors want you to do one thing but your employer wants you to do something that conflicts with your donors’ wishes (or vice versa), you can’t be answerable – let alone strictly answerable – to both. You’ll have to choose one stakeholder for your primary accountability and risk acting unethically toward the other.

The International Statement also requires fundraisers to solicit without the use of "pressure, harassment, intimidation or coercion". No one can have any objection to the last three. But pressure? None at all?

The Fundraising Regulator’s code of practice in the UK prohibits only the use of "undue pressure", which strongly implies that some pressure is "due", or permissible. British fundraisers are thus subject to mutually exclusive ethical codes – one that forbids them using any pressure at all and one that allows them to use pressure that is "due".

Across the globe the International Statement makes the use of pressure – of any kind – in fundraising unethical, irrespective of what that pressure is, how it is applied, and to whom it’s applied. (I’m not arguing that it is ethical to exert pressure in fundraising, only that it can’t be said that it is necessarily unethical in all contexts.)

We’ve arrived at this situation because not enough thinking (or theory development) has been put into building our professional ethics. We instead assume that the statement "using pressure in fundraising is unethical" is true and never think to challenge it, partly because influential people have told us we don’t need to and ought not to waste our time on it.

Ethics can’t be done without a lot of thinking. In fact, if you unquestioningly accept your professional ethics without thinking about whether they’re the right ethics, you could well be acting unethically.

Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University

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