NEWS: New theory brings beneficiaries into ethical decision making in fundraising for first time

A white paper outlining a new theory of fundraising ethics is published today by the fundraising think tank, Rogare, at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

The new theory states that fundraisers owe duties to both their donors and their beneficiaries, because both stakeholders possess certain rights they hold against fundraisers.

However these rights sometimes come into conflict: ethical dilemmas in fundraising therefore occur when there is tension between what donors want fundraisers to do (ask less, in different ways or at different times, or not at all) and what beneficiaries need fundraisers to do (maximise income to provide services).

The new theory – called ‘Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics’ – makes the case that fundraising is ethical when it strikes an appropriate balance between the two: the best overall outcome being one that doesn’t cause significant harm to either stakeholder group. In a nutshell, it states:

Fundraising is ethical when it balances the duty of fundraisers to solicit support on behalf of their beneficiaries, with the right of donors not to be subjected to undue pressure to donate.

For example, a fundraising campaign that repeatedly solicits donors who had requested not to be contacted would be unbalanced, and therefore unethical, because they would not be protected from unreasonable intrusion into their privacy nor unreasonably persistent approaches (both prohibited by fundraising’s applied ethics contained in the Code of Practice). But regulation that prevents fundraisers from contacting vast swathes of people could also be unbalanced, because it could significantly harm beneficiaries, and if it did, would therefore also be unethical.

Rogare’s director, Ian MacQuillin, says:


“For such a fundamentally important topic, there has been surprisingly little theory development of fundraising ethics over the past 25 years.

“Fundraisers have a lot of applied ethics contained in their codes of practice, which tells them what they may or may not do. But there is very little in the way of ‘normative’ ethics that helps fundraisers understand why they ought or ought not do particular things, or provides a context for their ethical decision making frameworks.”

A review of the academic literature presented in the white paper identifies other candidates for a normative theory of fundraising ethics. These include:

  • ‘Trustism’ – fundraising is ethical when it maintains and protects public trust in fundraising
  • ‘Donorcentrism’ ­– fundraising is ethical when it gives priority to donors’ needs, wants, desires and wishes
  • ‘Service of Philanthropy’ – fundraising is ethical when it brings meaning to donors’ philanthropy.

MacQuillin adds: “What normative thinking there has been quite startlingly ignores beneficiaries and focuses almost exclusively on fundraisers’ duties to their donors. Surprising as it may seem, Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics brings beneficiaries into ethical decision making in fundraising for the first time.”

Next steps in the review of fundraising’s professional ethics

The white paper – Rights Stuff: Fundraising’s ethics gap and a new normative theory of fundraising ethics – is just the first part a full review of fundraising’s professional ethics that is expected to take at least a year.

Next steps in the review include a global survey of the existing ethical decision making processes fundraisers currently employ, and elaboration and development of the ideas presented in the white paper by the projects advisory group of academics and fundraisers with a background in philosophy.

The review will also include a new project that will apply Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics to the question of how beneficiaries are ‘framed’ in marketing materials. Rogare has already set up an exploratory meeting with Bond, the umbrella organisation for aid agencies, to scope out the terms of this project.

Derek Humphries, creative director at Rogare Associate Member DTV, who will help lead this project form the Rogare side, says:

Derek Humphries

“The framing debate has become unhelpfully adversarial. Fundraisers are accused of exploiting ‘beneficiaries’ – even that word has become contentious. Meanwhile fundraisers accuse policy folk of getting angry about fundraising images instead of angry about the injustice that good causes seek to address.

“Of course, here I simplify a range of passionate views. Passion is a good thing, a necessary thing, in our work. But we need level-headed clarity, not infighting. We need to reframe the debate. Rogare’s new theory helps by introducing the notion of balance in one’s duties to beneficiaries: raising money and challenging stereotypes.”

We are also in early discussions with another representative organisation about applying Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics to their particular field of fundraising.

AM logos May 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.