OPINION: Fundraising practice and ethics are drifting out of alignment

Ian MacQuillin explores the implications of new insights from behavioural science on fundraising’s professional ethics. 

Opening Instinctiv’s Science of Response conference in May, the company’s managing partner Emily Gore quoted one director of fundraising as saying such a conference was well overdue. And he was right (and in the audience).

Fundraising often lags behind developments in commerce, other professional fields and other academic disciplines. And when our sector does finally come to embrace these ideas, perhaps five, 10 or even 20 years later, it often does so at a rather superficial level, devising its collective professional view of the subject based on the metaphorical equivalent of reading the executive summary but not the whole report (and then disseminating that through the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, so the whole issue is distilled into a simple soundbite such as ‘people give through emotion, not reason’).

There is nothing new in behavioural insights: although two of the most influential books – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge  – were published within the last six years, they of course draw on research and ideas going back much further than that. But conferences such as the Science of Response – and I also have to say, the work that the fundraising think tank Rogare intends to do at Plymouth University – will help to ensure that now these ideas are gaining traction in fundraising, they will do so in a comprehensive, in-depth manner.

Faced with this influx of behavioral insights, are fundraisers ethically equipped to know which one to use in which circumstances?

The conference speakers presented such a wealth of insights, research findings and titbits – many in the audience were scribbling these down furiously – that you could almost feel professional practice transforming there and then in the room.

Some of these were that people are more likely to:

  • donate if you can prime their sense of reciprocity by giving them a small gift first
  • act if other people like them are also acting (this is called social proof)
  • give to an appeal if they can see the appeal is close to its target (usually with 15 per cent of its target)
  • give to charity if they feel they (or the person they are giving to) have(has) had to go through some sort of exertion, pain or ‘martyrdom’
  • donate money if you first introduce the idea that they could also give time by volunteering.

All of these – and the multitude of other insights I haven’t listed here – have very practical applications. Some also have ethical implications. So it’s not just a question of how could we use behavioural insights in our fundraising; it’s also a question of ought we use them. Or more precisely, in what circumstances ought we use them?

Suppose you know that people are more likely to sign up to a Direct Debit on their doorstep if their neighbours have already done so (social proof). Should you therefore tell them that this is the case, even if it is not true? Suppose lots of people in the next street have signed up, but none in the road you’re currently door-knocking. Are these people still ‘neighbours’? What about people in the adjacent postcode?

Suppose you know that if you tell someone on the phone that the last person you spoke to made a donation of £25, this has a significant likelihood of getting the new prospective donor to exceed that gift. Should you do that, even if it was the person three calls ago who gave the 25 quid?

In advertising terms, would such appeals be legal, decent, honest and truthful?

I was chatting a few weeks ago about the fact that people are more likely to give, and more likely to give more, as you get close to the appeal target. I pointed out that was only useful if you actually were close to the target and the fundraiser I was discussing this with replied that you would adjust the figures so that it looked like the target was almost reached. She said you could cut the appeal into various segments where each segment was, lo and behold, almost reached and you needed just a final push to get it over the line.

Is it ethical to use such creative accounting to ensure that every prospective donor is part of a mini-appeal (that doesn’t actually exist) that is always just short of its target?

Now that they are about to be faced with this sudden influx, almost a plethora, of behavioural insights, are fundraisers ethically equipped to know which ones to use in which circumstances, or is there a likelihood that some of these insights will be used inappropriately and unethically, with the ends justifying the means?

Does fundraising need its own ethics committee?

Perhaps fundraising needs an ethics committee – some sort of body that can assess and advise on such issues (assessing ethical implications will be a key component of the projects Rogare undertakes).

The are two fundamental approaches to ethics – deontology and consequentialism.

Deontology is duty-based ethics – very simply, is this the right thing to do, as a matter of principle, irrespective of the consequences? An example of duty-based ethics is Kant’s injunction against lying.

Consequentialism explores whether some action is ethical based on the effect it has (for example, Utilitarianism aims to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number).

I would argue that arbitrarily segmenting an appeal so that donors were always presented with a target that was just within reach would be unethical from a deontological position. But the consequentialist approach is very important too, and cannot be dismissed out of hand, because segmenting the appeal this way would deliver more income for the charity and therefore improve services to beneficiaries. However, I’ll leave it to the reader to consider what would happen if the Daily Mail ran a story about how a particular charity had been ‘manipulating’ people into donating by ‘fabricating’ its appeal target – a potential consquence of such an approach.

Understanding the difference between between deontololgy and consequentialism is important: about 10 years ago, a major cancer charity tied itself in ethical knots trying to defend its refusal of a donation by repeatedly switching between deontological and consequentialist justifications of its decision.

Consider what would happen if the Daily Mail ran a story about how a particular charity had been ‘manipulating’ people into donating by ‘fabricating’ its appeal target

So, a fundraising ethics committee would be able to give broad-brush advice on how to apply ethical theory to fundraising.

The question of reciprocity highlighted at the conference is an interesting ethical case. This came from Michael Sanders’ work with the Behavioural Insights Team that found giving a small packet of sweets to employees at a city firm increased the chances of them giving a day’s salary to charity.

Yet this is already out of step with professional best practice, at least in terms of direct mail, as the Institute of Fundraising Code of Practice prohibits such gifts in mail packs if the enclosure is intended to cause “financial guilt or…embarrassment” and does not “enhance the emotional engagement to the cause”.

So one of the key behavioural insights (contained in a government-funded report and presented regularly at conferences) is on ‘dubious’ ethical ground. Of course, a charity could argue that a gift of sweets in a mailing was intended to prime a sense of reciprocity in the recipient rather than induce “financial guilt”. But that distinction is an interesting question in its own right, and I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the FRSB board were adjudicating on any complaint where this was the charity’s defence, especially since in any adjudication, “emphasis will be given to the perception of the recipient [of the mailing]”, and the term ‘financial guilt’ isn’t actually defined in the code or its guidance.

My point with this specific example is that it’s the deontological ethical guidance that is not aligned with the consequentalist recommended practice, not the other way round, and the profession’s ethics and best practice are likely to drift further out of alignment unless something like a fundraising ethics committee can assess cases such as this and provide advice on how ethical principles should be applied in practice.

Emily Gore said at the conference that she felt fundraising was now at a tipping point for acceptance of behavioural insights into professional practice. If that’s so, and I suspect she is right, we must ensure that any insights we do press into service are used appropriately and ethically.

In the year of being proud to be a fundraiser, we must also ensure we are proud of continuing to fundraise in the right way.

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