Fundraising Ethics: My Definition

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    I’m not enough of a philosopher or debater to extend the discussion of ethics much beyond the development arena, so I’ll address the concept in that context; and, even though it sounds as if I’m making statements of fact, I acknowledge that these are my opinions and that not everyone would agree with me.

    The definition/application of ethics has little to do with “accepted norms.” Many actions/activities become generally “accepted” by society, but acceptance or common practice doesn’t equal ethical practice.

    Honesty is, of course, an element of ethical behavior, but they are not equivalent concepts. I can imagine circumstances where being dishonest would not be unethical — i.e., complimenting my wife on her appearance in a new dress that I hate.

    Ethics for fundraising counsel, as I learned the concept, has to do with ensuring that our behavior keeps in mind the best interests of the NPO and of the donor, with the understanding that what we do under contract — and what we advise the client to do is not to benefit ourselves, but the donor, the client and those the client serves.

    An ethical system (as in the code that AFP and others have promulgated) defines itself not as “regulating/controlling” certain behaviors, but in precluding behaviors that could have undesired (unethical) outcomes.

    Under a code of ethics, we are precluded from thinking, in hindsight, that since everything came out o.k. and no one was hurt, that the action/activity must have been ethical.

    People (my clients, at least) should be able to say that, “Hank Lewis subscribes to the XYZ Code of Ethics, therefore we can rest assured that there are certain things he’d never do, certain circumstances that can never occur, that certain questions will never be raised, and that we can be comfortable….

    Of course, it would help if my (prospective) clients were aware of the existence of such a code, and that I subscribed to it. Sad thing is that most people — most NPOs — haven’t a clue.

    So, bottom line, I, like you, do what I do and refrain from doing other things that wouldn’t feel right. That AFP wrote it down on paper only helps me put it into words. And, honestly, some of what’s in the code I had not considered before being exposed to it. My reaction, on hearing those concepts and (in some cases) having them explained to me, was to say, “Of course, that makes great sense.”

    I don’t find an ethical code to be in the category of telling-me-what-to-do-or-how-to-do-it. It just reminds me of the kind of impact on others that (hopefully) I would want to avoid anyway.

    I guess an ethical code has to do with consideration for how our actions will — or could — impact others.

    For a number of years I taught a (2 hour) class in Fundraising Ethics as part of a certificate program in fundraising management. The hardest task for me was in not just coming out and telling the participants what actions/activities are acceptable or unacceptable. My role, as I saw it, was to pose “hypotheticals” to get them to discuss how they’d react.

    But, as it turned out, no matter what the question, the class always split in their opinions/reactions/thoughts – and that split was usually along income/cultural lines.
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    Have a comment or a question about starting, evaluating or expanding your fundraising program? With over 30 years of counseling in major gifts, capital campaigns, bequest programs and the planning studies to precede these three, I’ll be pleased to answer your questions. Contact me at AskHank@Major-Capital-Giving.com
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