The life and death of one woman has put the spotlight on charity's ethics


Picture this. An elderly woman – let’s call her Betty - receives an appeal letter from your charity. She reads it and your powerful story brings her to tears. It is Christmas and she’s had a lot of mail, although not so much from family and friends as she would like. She looks at the pile of five or six other fundraising appeals – they seem never-ending - and wonders how she can even begin to help them all.


Betty adds a note in shaky writing to the donation coupon she intends to return with a cheque. “I am so distressed”, she writes, “I will make a donation again but please don’t send any more of these letters – they upset me too much.”


I wish Betty was a fictional character but it’s just her name I‘ve made up. Her note arrived on my desk in January, together with a typed letter from her daughter who explained Betty’s feelings a little more forcefully. It made me question what we do as fundraisers and prompted me to investigate the discussions around ethics that so far have passed me by. You see, I don’t think Betty is unique – we often receive notes and calls from donors telling us they are no longer able to give and feel swamped by repeated requests from the multiple charities they support. And I suspect all of us have donors who feel the same way.


Over the other side of the world, British fundraising is in real strife because some charities have not listened to their donors. The industry is now facing the biggest legislative challenge in its history with new regulations that some say, by restricting donor communications only to those who deliberately opt-in, have the potential to decrease annual income by up to 30%. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in the UK from May 2018 and charities have been scrambling to prepare since the beginning of this year.


You may ask what the GDPR has to do with ethics, but this shakeup of the Data Protection Act for the first time in 25 years. The life of and death of one woman has put the spotlight on charity’s ethics.


Olive Cooke’s tragic suicide in 2015 was, in part, attributed by the media to the overwhelming number of charity appeals she received. An investigation of its members by the UK’s Fundraising Standards Board (now the Fundraising Regulator) found Olive was receiving around eight or nine letters every week and at Christmas up to 10 a day. Her family describe an elderly woman who was incredibly kind and generous and believed in the importance of charity and the community. Many of the charities Olive supported sold and shared her details with other charities – she was exchanged for pieces of silver.


My letter from Betty reminded me so much of Olive, I turned to the FINZ code of conduct for guidance. On the face of it we’d done nothing wrong – we’d sent an emotive compelling appeal to a supporter who had previously donated and was interested in our work. We’d moved her to tears, a fact that perhaps indicated we’d told our story exceptionally well. Yet she’d asked us to leave her alone. In the rush to raise funds, had we forgotten our donor?


Google “ethical fundraising” and you will find Codes of Fundraising Practice from every country filled with instruction: be honest, transparent, accountable and respectful; do not bring your profession into disrepute. These codes of conduct tell us what we should or should not be doing but do not look at the why behind the directive. And they rarely cover the majority of tricky situations we can encounter on a daily basis. It is for these reasons a growing number of fundraisers say our profession needs a revised set of ethics to inform the way we work with our donors, beneficiaries and employers.


Ian MacQuillan from UK fundraising think tank Rogare, says what is or isn’t ethical is far from obvious. He wants to see the development of professional ethics to provide fundraisers with the rationale for their conduct and the ability to apply it to different scenarios they face. ‘Rights balancing fundraising ethics’ would balance the duty of the fundraiser to raise funds for beneficiaries with the rights of the donors not to be subjected to undue pressure to give.


The problem is, whilst this approach tries to take into account the rights of our donors and our right to ask, it’s all very subjective. After all, your idea of undue pressure could be very different to mine but perhaps more importantly, very different to your donors’. Consider the last appeal letter you wrote, can you be sure that the response you received was because it was well crafted and emotive or because your donors felt they had no choice but to give?


No-one says being a fundraiser is easy, but perhaps more so than any other profession, we can experience a conflict of ethics every single day. Between the high targets, often unrealistic expectations of our employers and the need to protect but passionately tell the story of our beneficiaries, it is no wonder that despite our best intentions we can forget what it means to be a donor.


There is, of course, another camp of fundraisers who argue our practices, our policies and our codes of conduct aren’t broken. We have no dramas here in New Zealand and for the most part the media spotlight only serves to highlight the good work that our charities do. To them and to you I would suggest this is the perfect time to discuss and question what we do; to develop if not a set of fundraising ethics then certainly a set of expectations that shapes our behaviour to make us the best fundraisers we can possibly be. And let’s face it, we owe it to our donors.


Further reading: Rogare have put together a handy collection of blogs on this topic in one place.


Read about Olive Cooke's story










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