Professional ethics are the basis of who we are.

Jess Winchester’s article in Newz Viewz June edition asks excellent questions about Fundraising ethics. Jess highlights what is happening in the UK where the Government is imposing restrictive regulations on charities and suggests “this is the perfect time to discuss and question what we do; to develop if not a set of fundraising ethics then certainly set of expectations that shapes our behaviour”.

 

Jess focussed very much on what we, as fundraisers, owe to our donors as the basis of our need to update our ethics. This is much more insightful than is first apparent. By tying our ethics to the obligations that a fundraiser has to a donor, we get to the crux of what makes a fundraising professional.

 

Don’t think the UK’s challenges are far from home either. Late last year FINZ members were asked to provide feedback on a submission to MBIE regarding proposed new legislation. The changes were part of a Government reaction to increased public pressure regarding how they are communicated with by charities. It’s already here.

 

Are we doing something wrong if Governments feel compelled to step in? Or are we just misunderstood? How should professional fundraisers in New Zealand respond to ensure we do not find ourselves as ‘under siege’ as our UK cousins?

 

Ethics are at the heart of who we are. So who are FINZ members? One defining characteristic is that we are all in the community and charity sector. We work for vastly different organisations but they all exist for a charitable purpose. Our website says “FINZ is the membership organisation of fundraisers and leaders, trustees and managers in the community and charity sector.” 

 

However, the FINZ constitution states our mission as “a membership organisation which promotes excellence and ethical practice in fundraising to the direct benefit of Charities and not for profit organisations operating in New Zealand.” The code of Ethical Standards and Conduct further states “FINZ is the professional body that represents professional fundraising in New Zealand… FINZ members champion and promote fundraising as a profession.”

 

 

The website version is a relatively recent change and I am not sure that the difference is appreciated. Originally and constitutionally, FINZ was not an organisation for charities, nor an organisation for volunteers, nor for the thousands of ‘amateurs’ who successfully conduct fundraising everyday in New Zealand (although they will have benefitted from a close association). FINZ is supposed to be an organisation for those paid to fundraise for charities and non-profits. This is important.

 

What makes us different, and what is the basis of us being treated as a separate profession, is that we are paid to generate voluntary income for those for whom we work. In other words, we are rewarded according to how well other people give voluntarily. This is unique in the sector. Nobody else has to walk this ethical tightrope. It distinguishes us as a group. It is why FINZ’s overseas associations are with fundraising bodies and why it is a signatory to the International Fundraising Standards set in the 1990s.

 

Those Standards address the conflict of interest that is inherent in professional fundraisers’ employment. The organisations that employ us do so because they need more money than they could get without us. That money is charitable, that is, given by donors without an expectation of personal reward. However a fundraiser is paid according to performance – our masters need a return on their investment. Therefore, someone paid to fundraise could be put in a position where they are inadvertently encouraged to take actions that put their own interests before a donor’s, thus impacting the donor’s relationship with the charity.

 

This is the basis of the rule against percentage-based remuneration for FINZ members (but the principles behind it go deeper, banning any form of compensation based on percentage, commission or finders fee by its signatories).

 

Professional rules such as these can put fundraisers in conflict with their charities. A charitable organisation will tend to prioritise its need to serve its beneficiaries higher than protecting a fundraiser’s career. If a fundraiser recommends against an activity on ethical grounds, Boards will expect clear guidelines and precedence, especially if the activity is a ‘money spinner’. Professional organisations such as FINZ protect fundraisers during such conflicts. 

 

It also helps professional credibility. Charities need the knowledge and skills of fundraisers. They benefit from a professional group that understands how to interact with donors legally and ethically. They need input when making planning decisions. They also need an independent way to know that their fundraiser knows their stuff.

 

A professional fundraiser should be thought of as a resource for helping boards and management to bring donors into their organisations and keep them there. As such charities must be prepared to acknowledge that the ethical practice of fundraising comes with rules that the fundraiser will stand up for – even against his/her employer.

 

 

Therefore, FINZ can only be effective for the profession if it represents fundraisers over charities. There is no threat implied in this. It is in professional fundraisers’ best interests for the charitable and community sector to thrive. Just as Chartered Accountants are considered experts in the financial environment (and many CEOs in the commercial sector began in accountancy), FINZ fundraisers can be the experts in what makes the charitable sector unique. It may make for a better sector.

 

I’ll take Jess’ challenge further. I don’t believe an ethics revision is an option. This is our tipping point. We don’t need to follow the UK into restrictive regulation, but we will if we don’t seize back the professionalism that we aspired to in the 1990s. We need to revisit the fundamentals on which we are built, if only to make sure we are not straying. We need to identify what some of us are doing to erode public confidence. And, if necessary, we need to reassert what professional fundraisers are and what they should refuse to do.

 

Join the discussion. A few of us are starting an independent open website as a venue for professional conversation. We’d love to know what you think about our fundraising ethics. www.thefundraisingask.com

 

 

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