The Flaw in Rights Balancing Ethics.

May 15, 2017

Rogare’s new theory of professional ethics is predicated on inadequate moral guidance from normative ethics. But if, as Tom Brady argues, fundraisers don’t work in an ethical vacuum, then the whole theory is irrelevant.



Last September, Rogare published a “new normative theory of fundraising ethics” – ‘Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics’

As an attempt to rebuild public confidence in professional fundraisers, it should be compulsory reading for the leadership of the sector. It is also a useful framework for discussion of a neglected subject.

Coming in the wake of the public backlash (which it outlines) the white paper asserts that something must be wrong with our ethics models and cites a ‘gap’.

However, as its ultimate recommendation is replacing current ethical frameworks, the paper has to prove that the current frameworks are wrong.


The main symptom of the ‘gap’ is the ambiguity in the applied ethics in fundraising’s codes of practice, which is cited as a negative consequence of not having a sound normative ethics model for fundraising.

Rather than a negative, ambiguity is vital. Professional ethics do not exist in isolation. What might seem ambiguous in a hypothetical example will often be clear in real-life because there are other ethical factors at play. What is undue pressure for a political activist charity might not be for a social welfare organisation.

Cultural differences could mean that charities in one country conduct themselves differently than those in another, yet both are ethical. It comes down to values.


Our ethics are based on values. We are subject to a number of different values sets in our lives and our values will influence what we see as right or wrong – and also who we work for. Many of us will be strongly aligned to the values of the organisation that employs us, particularly where advocacy or social change is a goal. However, there is no such thing as a uniform set of values for charities.

If an organisation’s core values are different, so too will be its ethical standards. Most would consider the law as a benchmark for behaviour yet activists might consider it vital to break the law. Charities can be morally opposed (for and against abortion for example) yet stay ethical. The normative ethics will be localised and specific to the organisation.

A specialist in a function common across organisations has some values more in common with others in their field than with their employers. An ethical framework for that specialisation allows ethics to be applied within different work contexts. Professional codes set rules and provide guidance specific to the specialist function.

They are not applied in a vacuum. Codes inform decisions for the best outcome for the whole organisation. They can be adopted easily by different organisations with different sets of values. They are applied ethical standards.


Fundraising is one function of a charitable organisation. It represents a relationship between those who provide funds and those who will benefit from them. The fundraising function is usually limited to the link between the donor and the organisation – which then deals with the beneficiaries.

All charities have other functions too – be they clinical, corporate, administrative, financial or advocacy based. Responsibilities often cross over and there is potential for conflict.

Ethics for fundraising need to be based on what is unique to fundraising. They can then be applied alongside the ethics appropriate for the other functions as viewed through the lens of the organisation’s values.


The ethical standards quoted in the white paper are for a distinct group – those who are paid to fundraise. Professional fundraisers are rewarded commercially for asking people to give philanthropically which makes them different. Their financial performance incentives can make people question their motives. For their own good they need to be held to stricter standards.

The current codes do reflect this. They also have the flexibility to be applied to organisations with different values and considered alongside the professional ethics of others. They are deliberately not normative as professional fundraising can never exist in a vacuum.  


As the functions of fundraising never exist for their own means, other ethical frameworks must have higher standing in every case. The primary normative model will come from the organisation, not the practice.

A professional normative theory can help formulate applied ethical standards, when based on what is unique to fundraising, through hypothetical analysis.  

Kathleen Kelly’s relationship management principles, cited by the white paper as a fundraising normative theory, state that the role of fundraising is tied to the values of the donor and places great emphasis on that.

With the conflict inherent in a professional fundraiser’s role, the emphasis reminds us that our job is to manage the unpredictability of a potential donor’s values on behalf of our bosses.  

The white paper dismisses Kelly’s principles as unworkable for direct marketing, but raises an interesting point. Had direct marketing been conducted in accordance with Kelly’s framework, would they have caused public backlash?

Perhaps what it suggests is that our practice’s normative standards may be overly influenced by the other values of our organisations at the expense of our donors.

By not being constrained to the fundraising relationship, rights balancing ethics takes the emphasis away from the donor. At a time that the sector is suffering a donor backlash, this seems counterintuitive.


Perhaps the relevance of rights balancing ethics is wider than fundraising. It appears that some organisations that employ fundraisers are offending potential donors and bringing the sector into disrepute. Could it be because they are neglecting the rights of potential donors to be treated according to their values?  

A non-profit’s role is not just to meet the needs of its beneficiaries. It needs the support of others, which includes meeting donors’ needs. Organisations need people who share their values and are willing to support their work with money.

When seeking new donors, organisations should reach out in ways that complement their values. The only time people who have been asked to be left alone should be approached by solicitors is when one of the organisation’s core values is to confront. Otherwise there are other ways to find your donors.

Perhaps it is charitable sector leadership that requires a normative theory.

Charities are ethical when they balance the needs and rights of their beneficiaries, with the needs and rights of their donors.


Rogare’s white paper began by noting a gap in fundraising’s ethical standards. But the gap is not a lack of a normative theory for fundraising ethics. It must be related to the way we conduct ourselves. If our ethics are not broken, the way we apply them must be.

We must first understand who ‘we’ is, and I will examine that in the second part of this blog.   


Tom Brady is a strategic fundraising consultant who has worked with boards and high net worth donors in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. He is unashamedly a third-party provider


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