Ian MacQuillin: Would you opt in to being regulated if you don’t think of yourself as a ‘fundraiser’?

As the Fundraising Regulator reviews its code of practice we must consider the implications for decentralised and informal fundraising

Imagine you are setting up a crowdfunding appeal ‘in aid of’ of a charity (‘in aid of’ means the charity hasn’t asked you to do it but you’ve taken it upon yourself), using a crowdfunding platform. Should your activities fall under the remit of the Fundraising Regulator? 

In other words, should you adhere to the Code of Fundraising Practice? 

And if you do not, should you be accountable to the Fundraising Regulator, and what sanctions for any breaches of the code should you accept? 

Remember, you don’t work for a charity and you are not a member of the fundraising profession. You probably don’t even think of yourself as a ‘fundraiser’. 

Now suppose that you used AI to create the text and images you added to your fundraising page. But the content it generated contravenes the code of practice. Perhaps it uses language the “man on the Clapham omnibus” would consider constituted “undue pressure”. 

Are you accountable to the regulator for this breach of the code? Presumably not, as you didn’t write it. But if you are not responsible, then who is? The people who wrote the machine learning code? ChatGPT itself? Or does it circle back to you knowing enough about the code of fundraising practice to recognise when AI has got it wrong?

The Fundraising Regulator is currently running a consultation on changes to the Code of Fundraising Practice, which I urge all fundraisers to read and respond to. As well as revisions to specific rules already contained in the code, and a proposal to move to ‘principles-based rules’, the consultation also proposes expanding the code to areas and types of fundraising it doesn’t currently reach.

These include online fundraising platforms or crowdfunding, micro-donation and contactless donation apps, the use of cryptocurrency and NFTs, gaming and streaming, and artificial intelligence.

There is nothing at all wrong with this. Wherever and however fundraising is practised, it should be done according to accountable best practice standards.

But it raises two challenges.

First, it brings within the remit of the code people who may not consider themselves fundraisers.

Michael Davis, an American scholar of professional ethics, says the “central question” for all professions is how can their ‘special standards’ (best practices, ethics etc) be made morally binding on all members of the profession, particularly as professions usually operate voluntary self-regulation. Davis’ solution is that professionals have to opt-in to, and make a declaration of their intent to, adhere to those standards (check out Rogare’s paper ‘Less than my job’s worth – Is fundraising a profession? And does it matter if it isn’t? for a full exposition of Davis’ ideas).

That’s a difficult enough task in itself. But it’s exacerbated if the people we would like to declare that adherence to standards don’t think of themselves as ‘professional fundraisers’.

The solution may be to keep some of these expansionist aspirations outside the code in the form of advice and guidance (such as F-reg’s existing guidance on using crowdfunding platforms), only bringing them into the code once we are sure the people they are aimed at have opted-in to being self-regulated. 

We can do that through awareness campaigns about best practice in these newly regulated areas. These would work towards welcoming those people who don’t think of themselves as fundraisers into the profession by helping them do better, rather than threatening ‘outsiders’ with punishment when they get things wrong.

The second issue relates to the “democratisation” or “decentralisation” of fundraising, which means ways of fundraising and giving that do not necessarily go through a traditional charity model, often by “disintermediating” charities from the whole process.

One reason people opt for such decentralised approaches is that they do not want to be subject to and constrained by the rules and regulations that govern how non-profits operate; they want greater flexibility. The 1K Project – which facilitates the transfer of fixed US$1,000 grants from American donors to Ukrainian families – chose not to register as charity in the US for this very reason.

If that is the case – and they are making a deliberate decision to remain outside the regulatory requirements of formal charity – then Davis’ question remains, this time with knobs on: How do we get people who are not members of the fundraising profession to opt-in to its special standards, particularly if they have already made a conscious decision to opt-out of them?

A looming question that will need to be addressed, probably sooner rather than later, is what role does self-regulation play in a world where much fundraising is done outside the remit of organised professional fundraising?

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in