Communicating importance of fundraising ethics

Andrew Watt
Andrew Watt

Andrew Watt

In order to be sustaining and to have impact, fundraising must be ethical.

Without public trust and confidence in fundraising and its practitioners, the public simply wouldn’t give. Certainly there is no lack of past controversies to highlight this necessity.

Despite that, I believe that the profession does a good job of being ethical and following appropriate standards. Controversies are highlighted in the press and elsewhere precisely because they are not the norm.

There is a much greater focus on ethics, and how to practice ethically, than ever before.

What we haven’t done well as a profession is communicate our focus on ethics, both internally and externally, to our donors and our colleagues, as well as the general public.

I’m still surprised when speaking with a member of the general media, a major donor or even someone in the philanthropic field, who isn’t aware that organizations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy and others actually exist.

Or that there are detailed codes of ethics that spell out what is and isn’t ethical.

The responsibility for this falls on us, on professional organizations like AFP, and we are expanding our communications and outreach efforts to educate the public more effectively.

But it is also a responsibility of each individual practitioner, because each donor meeting, each piece of mail, each phone call, each board and staff retreat, is an opportunity to spread that message, one step at a time.

We need to talk about ethics because we have to remember that ethics are not for us alone in the philanthropic equation. Ethical behavior cannot exist in a vacuum.

Codes of fundraising practice may be written for practitioners, but they are for everyone to know and understand, including boards, donors, the media and the public at large.

Ethical principles exist to help fundraisers create an environment where ethical behavior is accepted, encouraged and strengthened. The more we communicate, the more everyone will understand what fundraisers, as well as donors and others, should and should not do.

So what can we do?

First, introduce supporters to the Donor Bill of Rights. Frame ethics in a very positive light for your donors: These are the rights you have and should demand.

Spelling out what donors should be asking for is an important way to build trust and start the ethics conversation.

Second, have your organization’s website link to the code of ethics that you follow. Mention to your donors that you and your staff abide by a code of ethics and ask if they’d like to receive a copy.

Even if they say no, at least now they know you have one. Have a copy of your code or the Donor Bill of Rights on the back of your thank-you letters.

Third, relate a story to your donors about when your organization clarified or corrected an ethical issue: “You’re not the only one with a question about that issue, and this is what we did….”

People tend to respect an organization that admits a mistake, rectifies the issue and moves on.

Fourth, make a point about talking an ethical issue with your staff and board at each meeting. You’re not out to inundate colleagues and leaders with a speech on ethics, simply discuss one point.

Bring up an ethical issue you’ve been addressing (keeping specific names and other privacy information out) and talk about why the charity did what it did. Ask for opinions. Make ethics real.

Fifth, be proactive and mention your ethics process and safeguards when appropriate.

Write about ethics in newsletters and in articles. Include a bit about ethics in speeches. Thank-you letters can mention that gifts will be used in accordance with your organization’s ethics policy, and provide links if donors have any questions.

Again, you’re not trying to overwhelm donors, but you want to assure them, little by little.

If you think these steps are straight-forward and simple, you’re right.

Communicating about ethics doesn’t have to be a complicated process. We simply have to get over our reticence to bring up the issue. The more we do it, the easier it will get.

Of course, fundraising codes of practice do not, in and of themselves, ensure ethical behavior. But they do help create an atmosphere where everyone understands that ethical behavior is paramount. That is the environment that fundraisers need to create.

One step at a time, one conversation at a time, talk about what your organization is doing to ensure ethical behavior and safeguard public trust and confidence. Because it’s a conversation we can’t afford to have with just ourselves.

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