Making sense of criticisms of donor-centred fundraising

Donor-centred fundraising is not used to being criticised. But it’s going to have get comfortable with it and respond to those criticisms better than it has been doing. Ian MacQuillin tries to disentangle some of the issues

Criticisms and debates about donor-centred fundraising have again been taking place on social media. The spur to this is Community-Centric Fundraising. But the conversation has been confused, partly because terms have not been defined and different sides are talking about different things and are talking past each other: critiques of donor-centred ethics are being met with defences of donor-centred practices.

So in this blog I’m going to define terms and try to demarcate what the criticisms are and what they are not, and also hopefully suggest some tools and frameworks that will help with navigating this issue, and some further reading suggestions.

The blog has the following structure:

  1. The first thing is to disentangle is donor-centred practice (also referred to as ‘donorcentricity’) and donor-centred ethics (Donorcentrism).
  2. It then looks at balancing duties to donors with duties to beneficiaries.
  3. An ethical-decision making short cut – the Donorcentric Rule of Thumb – is then described.
  4. But simply aggregating all cases of what donors want can lead to poor ethical policy making because doing so can cause harm to beneficiaries. The case of consent vs legitimate interest is used to illustrate this.
  5. The challenges to donor-centred fundraising is presented next, before winding up with…
  6. Takeaways and further reading.

1 Disentangling ethics and best practice

Donor-centred practice/donorcentricity is the type of stuff recommended and/or practised by the likes of Mark Phillips, Ken Burnett, Tom Ahern, Jen Love and John Lepp, and Penelope Burk (and of course many others):

  • thanking donors promptly
  • showing them respect
  • communicating appropriately
  • matching their interests to your cause
  • using the gift for the purpose it was given
  • demonstrating the impact of the gift. 

Donorcentricity is also researched and developed theoretically by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang, who demonstrate through philanthropic psychology how aligning donors’ moral identities with the values and identities of the organisations they support leads to more satisfied donors giving more money.

A couple of years ago, Mark Williams, of Australian agency Donorcentricity, asked me to come up with a definition of donor-centred fundraising practice, based on ideas developed in Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising. This is the result:

“An approach to fundraising whereby nonprofit organisations genuinely strive to understand their donors and meet their needs – usually, but not exclusively, through relational marketing approaches and the use of two-way communications – in order to maximise sustainable voluntary income.”

Donorcentrism (donor-centred ethics) is not the same as donor-centred practice. Donorcentrism is a theory or lens of fundraising ethics that considers the ethicality of an act, practice or policy in terms of whether it prioritises and/or promotes and/or protects the donors’ rights and/or needs and/or and interests.

Some fundraisers seem to want to derogate Donorcentrism as an ethical idea. They say it is a false dichotomy and no fundraiser would ever elevate the interest of donors above their beneficiaries and to suggest that they would is plainly stupid.

And yet consider these quotes from some of fundraising’s biggest luminaries, some of them from a series of articles published in the academic literature commissioned by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the mid-1990s specifically to build the foundation of fundraising’s professional ethics:

“An ethical belief in the importance of the donor” that “recognis[es] that the donor comes first…always putting the donor first in regard to when to ask, how to ask and what to ask for”.

“Development professionals have a special duty to donors, a duty to act in the best interest of the donor, a duty to act as an advocate for the donor…fairness requires that duty to donors take precedence over duty to the organization.”

“Fundraising is justified when it is used as a responsible invitation guiding contributors to make the kind of gift that will meet their own [i.e. donors’] special needs and add greater meaning to their [donors’] lives.”

“The overriding ethical consideration [for fundraisers] is…the value-laden decisions that donors and volunteers make to further causes they are passionate about.”

And in the US in the 1990s, the standards of the National Committee on Planned Giving placed the welfare of the donor above every other interest, including those of the charity.

These ideas are now embedded in fundraising’s ethical discourse, and codes of practice and self-regulatory systems are devised and written in order to codify and formalise the promotion and protection of donors’ rights and interests. Following the 2015 ‘Fundraising Crisis’, the UK’s Direct Marketing Association produced a paper that stated that donors were the “most important people in the entire charity process” – so more important than charity beneficiaries.

The problem, as Cherian Koshy has said, is that the idea of donor-centred fundraising has been taken out of practice and into ethics – a place that it should never have gone. It has gone from doing something because it works at raising most money, to doing something because it is ‘right’ for donors.

And so to better understand the current debates, we have to work out which type of ‘donor-centred’ is being critiqued: is it practice (saying thank you, communicating the impact of the gift); or is it ethics (prioritising donors’ interests to the extent that they cause harm, such as through donor dominance, white saviourism to others)?

There is no contradiction in practising donor-centred fundraising and not subscribing to Donorcentrist ethics. You can respect donors and deliver all the recommended donor-centred best practice without making donors your primary ethical stakeholder, and balance their interests against the interests of other stakeholders – principally beneficiaries.

2 Rights-Balancing Fundraising Ethics 

This is the concept of fundraising ethics we have developed at Rogare. It states:

Fundraising is ethical when it balances the duty of fundraisers to ask for support (on behalf of their beneficiaries), with the relevant rights of donors, such that a mutually beneficial outcome is achieved and neither stakeholder is significantly harmed.

This is a deliberate attempt to bring beneficiaries into formal ethical decision-making as a counterweight to the embedded ideas about the ethical primacy of donors.

Duties to donors include all the best practices recommended by donorcentricity. They also included all the negative non-interferences rights stipulated by codes of practice (all the things you must not do) such as not subject them to “undue” pressure, or “unreasonably” intrude into their privacy, both of which are prohibited by the Fundraising Regulator’s code of practice. But this implies that some pressure is ‘due’ (i.e. permissible) and some intrusion into privacy would be ‘reasonable’.

We need ethics to helps us work out what is due or reasonable, because the code doesn’t tell us.

Donorcentrist ethics would probably uphold donors’ negative non-interference rights and set the bar very high. It might say that almost no pressure (such as using guilt as an emotion) is permissible, because it is not right (i.e. unethical) to make people feel guilty just to get them to give to charity.

But the primary duty that fundraisers have to their beneficiaries is to raise money to provide the services they rely upon. And to do that, fundraisers may need to infringe certain of these non-interference rights. Perhaps using guilt in some situation is the right thing to do, maybe during an emergency appeal, in which the cumulative good to beneficiaries would outweigh the relatively small harm to each individual donor (they felt guilty).

Such calculations need to be made in ethical dilemmas all time – if they didn’t need to be made, it wouldn’t be much of a dilemma.

But how to do it?

3 Donorcentric Rule of Thumb 

We don’t want to have to go right back to first principles ethical theory every time we need to make an ethical decision. What we need are heuristics and rules of thumb we can use as shortcuts. I suggest something I call the Donorcentric Rule of Thumb, which I first outlined in a blog on SOFII in 2019.

This says that in most practical ethical dilemmas in fundraising, the rule of thumb will probably be for fundraisers to do what they think the donor would want. Following this rule will prevent harm to the donor (such as feelings of guilt and other negative emotions, or intrusion into their privacy), protect sustainable income, and maintain public trust (the person asked is not likely to complain on social media about being subjected to undue pressure). But potential harm to beneficiaries as a result of not asking for a donation from any particular individual is likely to be minimal, assuming there is any harm at all – it is, after all, just a single donation that has been forgone.

But it is just a rule of thumb. It doesn’t mean that it will always be the case (the rule cannot make an ethical decision for you; only you can do that by understanding all the issues and making an informed choice), and there may be occasions where what the donor wants is not the right thing to do, perhaps regarding gift acceptance or refusal. And it certainly doesn’t mean that all the instances of using the rule of thumb can be aggregated into ethical policy.

Many failures of Donorcentrist ethics don’t in fact happen at the level of practice, but at the level of policy. 

Here’s an example.

4 Donorcentrist ethics as policy

Following the panic around the implementation of GDPR and the Fundraising Crisis, many charities chose to only contact donors by mail if they had given their consent to be so contacted, even though under GDPR they didn’t need their consent as they could have done so using so-called ‘legitimate interest’.

Many of the charities who did this said they did it because it was right for donors. They made it an ethical choice – doing the right thing by donors because this is what donors would want.

And we know what happened. Charities lost donors and money. Some of these were very significant losses that constituted potential serious harm to beneficiaries. Even though each individual donor might not want (if asked) to be contacted without their consent, actually asking them for that consent constituted serious potential harm to beneficiaries. It shows that the Donorcentric Rule of Thumb cannot (necessarily) be extrapolated to make ethical policy.

Some fundraisers don’t think the consent vs legitimate interest episode is a matter of fundraising ethics at all. They’ll see it simply as uniformed policy making. But what was it that lay behind that poor policy making? It was a belief that the donor is the primary ethical stakeholder ­­– the “most important person in the whole charity process” – and it led to a spectacular failure of Donorcentrist ethics that cost charities countless donors and tens of millions of pounds. 

5 Enter Community-Centric Fundraising

The idea of donor-centred fundraising is dominant in professional practice. Far fewer fundraisers practice it, but that is a different story. It’s never had to face up to prolonged and serious critique or criticism and as a result practitioners have never really had to engage in critical reflection on their practice. That was until Community-Centric Fundraising appeared on the scene.

Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) is not direct criticism of donor-centred fundraising practice; it is a critique of the context in which donor-centred fundraising and philanthropy operates, that context being one of colonialism and white privilege, and that that the way donor-centred fundraising operates within this context may be problematic – for example, it might lead to white saviourism or it might ‘other’ charity beneficiaries. Further, if our ethics always prioritises the needs of donors – “a duty to act in the best interest of the donor, a duty to act as an advocate for the donor” – then that is highly problematic because it is reinforcing the status quo that CCF is challenging.

CCF does not say fundraisers should not conduct donorcentric best practices, such as thanking donors, or using the gift as they intend, but it challenges whether how doing so (the language used to thank donors, for example) might have unintended negative consequences.

But many fundraisers have rejoindered by arguing that there is evidence that donor-centred fundraising works (and they are right, there is) but that there is no evidence that CCF works as an approach to fundraising. But that is failing to see the argument for words. The ‘it works’ defence is valid if the CCF charge against it is ‘it doesn’t work’ or ‘our approach works better’. But it isn’t. The CCF charge is that the ethical context (and the ethics) of donor-centred practice need to be rethought.

Fundraisers making the ‘it works’ defence against CCF are committing what’s called in philosophy the is/ought fallacy, which says just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean that it ought to be that way. Just because you can do donor-centred fundraising (because it works – based on a set of facts), doesn’t mean you ought to do it if it is causing harm elsewhere (which is a claim that is contingent on a different set of facts), harm that you can’t see, perhaps because you haven’t looked for it.

All donor-centred fundraisers really ought to be re-examining their practices in light of the CCF critique. No-one says you shouldn’t say thank you to a donor, but you should think about how you are saying it and in what contexts, and whether that is causing harm you can’t see.

6 Takeaways

  • Donor-centred practice is not the same as donor-centred ethics. They are different things and it is important to separate and disentangle them.
  • Donor-centred practice is saying thank you, respecting donors, showing them the impact of their gift and all that.
  • Donor-centred ethics is doing what is in the best interests or donors, always or most of the time.
  • Criticism of donor-centred ethics is not (necessarily) criticism of donor-centred practice.
  • You can practice donor-centred fundraising (thanking donors, showing respect etc) and yet not subscribe to Donorcentrist ethics – because you don’t prioritise donors’ needs, rights or interests in ethical decision making, but balance those against the needs of other equal stakeholders – principally the beneficiary.
  • In day-to-day ethical dilemmas in fundraising, fall back on the Donorcentric Rule of Thumb.
  • But many failures of donor-centred ethics occur at the policy level, such as the consent vs legitimate interest fiasco. You can’t just aggregate all the times you’ve used the Donorcentric Rule of Thumb to make ethical policy.
  • Community-Centric Fundraising is a critique of the social context in which donor-centred fundraising operates, not a direct criticism of its practices, and so should be understood and engaged with in those terms.

Further reading

Rogare has spent a great deal of time and effort exploring these issues:

  • You can find more about different normative theories of fundraising ethics here, including Rights-Balancing Fundraising Ethics.
  • Our work on donor dominance, led by Heather Hill, is here.
  • We’ve also published a discussion paper that looks in detail at the CCF critique of donor-centred fundraising, explores common ground with donor-centred fundraising, and suggests ways donor-centred fundraising could reinvent itself in light of the CCF critique.

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