OPINION: ‘The end of donor-centred fundraising and the last fundraiser’

Has the rise of donor-centred fundraising obscured fundraisers’ duties to their beneficiaries? But if fundraisers really do have duties to beneficiaries, from where do these duties derive? Cherian Koshy gets to grips with some knotty philosophical questions.

As the year 2000 loomed, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama boldly declared “The End of History”. His thesis – elaborated in his influential book The End of History and the Last Man – was that at the end of the Cold War, the economic and political liberalism of the West had won. The historical political struggle with communism was over and history had reached its goal: Western liberal democracy.  

So pivotal was this work that universities around the globe considered shutting political science departments.  

Shortly thereafter, Penelope Burk penned Donor Centered Fundraising. Working from six years of research, Burk identified “what donors want but seldom get from the charities they support”. A new era of donor-centred practices began that focused on why donors give. 

So pivotal was this work that organizations began defining themselves as donor-centred, job descriptions were revised to specify a need for donor-centred practices, books, articles, and metrics were all reformed to be donor-centred. The litmus test of fundraising became donorcentricity and an exclusive focus on teleological or utilitarian justifications of the donor.  

Francis Fukuyama famously announced the end of history because it had reached its inevitable conclusions. But history hasn’t ended. Did the advent of donor-centred fundraising also show that fundraising had reached its inevitable end point or is donor-centred fundraising, too, fundamentally wrong?

As the industry evolves, our technology, operations, our thinking itself begins with the assumption of donorcentricity. When we rated charities, we evaluated factors such as accountability and transparency and how little they spend (of donor’s dollars) to achieve their mission.  

We had reached ‘the end of fundraising’. Or so it seemed.

But Fukuyama was wrong: history hasn’t ‘ended’ and Western liberal democracy has not triumphed. What it if the whole donor-centred fundraising project is similarly wrong? What if it is fundamentally, ethically incorrect?  

Sixteen years after Donor Centered Fundraising was published, the most serious threat to fundraising is the imbalanced donorcentric thesis. While many of the principles of donor communications continue to be highly relevant and appropriate, and Burk is not to blame for presenting her research and ideas, the nonprofit community has failed to grapple with the ramifications of a purely utilitarian approach designed exclusively with a lens focused on donors. We have taken Burk’s thesis too far and into places it ought not go.

In fact, nearly all ethical discussions and codes focus on the relationship between the fundraiser and the donor, while precious little attention is spent discussing a charity’s beneficiaries.  

And therein lies the problem.  

So important is this issue that it requires reframing the charitable sector as a whole. Rather than donorcentricity, we need to adopt a balanced perspective, and the Rogare approach articulates a more helpful and nuanced view: 

“Fundraising is ethical when it balances fundraisers’ duty to ask for support, with their duties to donors such that a mutual optimal outcome is achieved and neither party is significantly disadvantaged.”

Has the idea of donor-centred fundraising been taken too far and in to places it was never meant to go?

Do fundraisers have a duty to their beneficiaries?  

In a previous blog on Critical Fundraising, I’ve discussed whether fundraisers have a duty to ask for a gift. The underlying presumption is that there is such a duty to the beneficiary, since it is upon their behalf that the fundraiser is asking for donations. This article will unpack that fundamental question of whether such an obligation to beneficiaries exists, and if so, where does it stem?

The Josephson Institute describes the three sources of duties: law, promise, and moral principle. A fundraiser’s duty to their beneficiaries meets all three tests.  

First, the law-based moral obligation is contractarian in nature. Typically, a citizen has both a legal and a moral obligation to follow the law. A fundraiser acts on behalf of a charity and that charity has a beneficiary that is missionally defined. A homeless shelter serves a local population, an arts organization serves their community, a service group supports an entity such as veterans, mothers, puppies etc. There are no fundraisers who work on behalf of a generic common good. As such the fundraiser has agreed, contracted as such, to work for a beneficiary group through a charity.  

Second, the fundraiser has a trust-based, promissory obligation to the beneficiary of the organization they work for in either a paid or unpaid role. It would be unethical for the fundraiser of a local arts organization to solicit or receive donations for the local food bank. For a barrister, their obligation to their client is paramount, just as a doctor’s obligation to their patient. These obligations trump their obligation to their employer. 

“The Josephson Institute describes the three sources of duties: law, promise, and moral principle. A fundraiser’s duty to their beneficiaries meets all three tests.”  

However, a client-centred or patient-centred ethical framework in those professions does not eliminate the need to balance against other obligations of the barrister or doctor, such as truth or medical conscience. A barrister is not obligated to lie on behalf of their client, nor is a medical doctor required to prescribe any medication requested by the patient. In the same way that it would be unethical for a barrister to work for both her client and the opposing party, a fundraiser would be violating their ethical duty if they served either their own interest or the interest of anyone other than the beneficiary for whom they are fundraising. This is evident in our codes, where a fundraiser’s sharing of donor information is typically considered unethical because it violates a promise.  

Third, the moral principle of a fundraiser’s duty to their beneficiary is based on a duty as an advocate. The fundraiser is appointed by the organization to advocate with the donor on behalf of the beneficiary. The beneficiary has agreed to permit the fundraiser to share their stories, their likeness, and most importantly their needs with those who are potentially willing to support them. By authorizing this use and serving as an advocate, the fundraiser has accepted the responsibility to care for the beneficiary. An institution’s programme participants might not have other advocates, but the existence of other advocates would not obviate this duty. 

This is also the basis for non-human beneficiaries conferring a moral principle obligation. While animals or the environment may not have a consent-based human exchange of advocacy, the fundraiser confers this obligation on themselves by performatively acting as an advocate in the exchange between the donor. When a fundraiser makes an ask or presents a case for support, they are trafficking in this moral principle and are therefore subject to its constraints.  

Is balance virtuous? Couldn’t we continue to be donor-centered? 

The tendency to place one entity in an imbalanced position is often a misunderstanding of ethical approaches, for example, the principles that the defendant ought to be zealously defended whatever the cost, or the patient’s autonomy must always be honoured. A more nuanced understanding of the ethical implications, however, requires us to balance competing interests. Absolutist approaches – or ‘principlism’ – create juxtapositions that are untenable, such as a doctor being required to treat a headache with morphine because a patient requests it.  

The presumption of a prima facie duty to the donor ignores real life competing duties that we all agree exists, such as: 

In so agreeing, we tacitly agree that there are limits on donorcentricity, and that we must, in fact, balance the duty to the donor with other competing duties, as Rogare’s Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics requires.

In the latest edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Tom Beauchamp and James Childress provide an expanded discussion of balancing judgements of ethical dilemmas that may be instructive.  

They begin (p5) with the premise that “principles, duties, and rights are not absolute or unconditional merely because they are universal”. As such, balancing obligations is an assessment of the relative weights or strengths of various obligations through deliberation and judgement. The authors continue by discussing various principles and rules in the balancing framework that are outside the scope of this article. They conclude, however, and there is little disagreement among ethicists about this, that moral dilemmas nearly always require balancing. 

Balancing is the “central activity of ethical framing and discussion” and nearly all ethical dilemmas require balancing.

Balancing is the central activity of ethical framing and discussion that we as fundraisers have wholly ignored in favour of code-following in the sector, to our own peril. Rather than grappling with irreducible conflict between norms, expectations, and obligations, and how to balance these, we settle for what has been codified, perhaps from a wrong or insufficient ethical framework, to determine a course of action. In his ‘Last Man’ thesis, Fukuyama describes this balancing act as isothymia, where we seek to be recognized merely as equals, rather than megalotyhmia where we seek to be greater than others.  

As the international community of fundraisers focuses on ethics during the month of October 2019, we can only hope that we collectively take up the mantle of grappling with the under-thought and under-discussed element of balancing our obligations to beneficiaries with our obligations to donors, so we recognize donors, through isothymia, as equal stakeholders, rather than, through megalthymia, elevate them to be greater than all other stakeholders.

  • Cherian Koshy CFRE is director of development at Des Moines Performing Arts and a member of Rogare’s ethics special interest group. A shorter version of this blog has also been published on the IoF website as part of the series curated by Rogare for #EthicsMonth.

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