Can you have too much of an ethical focus on donors?

Heather Hill

Guest Bloggers | 23 October 2019

Our primary stakeholder in fundraising ethics is usually donors. But what happens when a balance of power in donor-fundraiser relationships becomes distorted? In the latest instalment of our blog series on fundraising ethics, Heather Hill looks at this sensitive issue.

This article forms part of a series of blogs on fundraising ethics curated by Rogare which will be published throughout the month of October. 

When it comes to fundraising ethics, there is, as noted in the first blog in this series, a tendency to reduce the ‘rules’ down to a shorthand list:

1. Stick to the code

2. Do what donors want

3. Don’t accept tainted money

4. Don’t pay commission (which is covered by point 1, anyway).

The first two items are the most frequently cited (recent news about Sackler, Epstein, et al aside). Not only is this a very simplistic way of thinking about ethics, it puts all the emphasis on the donor. Codes focus on how the donor is treated (no undue pressure, etc.), how the organisation is represented to the donors, how the donor’s gift is used. And, obviously, doing what donors want is about putting the donors and their needs first.

What happens, however, when a donor feels the need to have five extra premium seats at a benefit gala provided for no cost? Or a need to have a direct influence in program direction? Or a need to express in detail the sexual acts that come to mind when seeing a development officer?

What does the code say about these things? Where is the line drawn between donor-centricity and donor dominance?

There is a slippery slope with donor-centric framing of donor relationships. Certainly, donors should be thanked appropriately and know how their gifts were used. It also makes sense that communications and even solicitations be informed by donors’ interests and preferences. The problems begin to emerge, however, when a donor has an interest slightly outside of the articulated mission of the organisation or wishes to further self-interests.

If a major donor wants a few extra tickets to the annual benefit concert, maintaining the donor’s goodwill and appreciation is worth the lost revenue to the organisation, isn’t it? And, surely, if they’re willing to fund a new program, the organisation should accept the gift. What’s the harm, given that the cost is being covered? That lead donor and board member might get a bit handsy with the fundraiser assigned to work with him, but he ‘means well’ and does so much good with his giving that there’s no need to rock the boat, right?

MANY FUNDRAISERS HAVE EXPERIENCED DONOR DOMINANCE

I’ve been exploring this in the research I’ve been doing with Rogare on donor dominance, trying to ascertain whether or not the examples given above are isolated incidents, anomalies within fundraisers’ experience, or if this manifestation of power imbalance between donors and organisations is a broader, even systemic issue. With nearly 75% of fundraisers who responded, representing fourteen countries, saying that they have either directly or indirectly been affected by donor dominance, it appears to be more widespread than the lack of conversations about this would suggest.

Perhaps that donor dominance is not spoken about or addressed in ethics sessions is, in fact, another manifestation of the power imbalance. Is a gap in our ethics code regarding how fundraisers respond to donor behaviour, which disrupts an organisation’s ability to carry out its mission and allows conditions in which donor dominance can flourish, becoming the hidden cost of fundraising?

And what are the larger costs to charities when the news that such behaviour is tolerated breaks out via media coverage of a scandal and public trust is eroded? Are we prepared to think critically about ethics and how to address donor behaviour that puts our beneficiaries and our sector at risk?

‘Meaning well’ can no longer be equated with doing well.

Heather Hill is assistant vice president at KEES/Alford Executive Search, board chair of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank, and a member of Rogare’s ethics special interest group.

Next week: For the first four weeks of this special IoF blog series on ethics, we’ve looked at the ethical issues and challenges these throw up for understanding fundraising ethics. But what do we need to be able to respond to these ethical challenge. Next week Andrew Watt looks at the ethical values that underpin ethical behaviour.

As part of our series of ‘In Conversation’ short films, Heather Hill was joined by Isobel Michael (Co-Chair, IoF Task Group on Sexual Harassment in Fundraising) and Ruby Bayley-Pratt (Fundraising Policy and Research Manager, British Red Cross) to talk about the issues the fundraising sector faces around donor dominance, and how that imbalance of power can lead to sexual harassment and abuse. Watch the video here.

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