Why donor codes of conduct must become ubiquitous

Rogare has recently published a code of conduct for donors. Although published as part of our work on gender issues in fundraising, Ian MacQuillin argues that such codes have wider relevance.

Rogare has published a donor code of conduct. This sets out certain attitudes and behaviours we believe charities have a right to expect from the people who give to them, stipulating particular behaviours they must commit not to do – such as discriminate against fundraisers.

We published this code of conduct in the context of our recent work on gender issues in fundraising. Our Blueprint to dismantle patriarchal structures in fundraising contains a section by Jessica Rose on donor-perpetrated sexual harassment, which made such codes a key recommendation – because research has shown the majority of female/women fundraisers have been subject to sexual harassment by donors.

The need for donor codes of conduct as a preventive to donor-perpetrated sexual harassment is pressing and important in its own right. But that is not the only reason such codes are needed, and you can see form the six stipulations contained in our code (which you can download here) that these don’t all relate specifically to sexual (or other types of) harassment. Other stipulations require donors to agree not to use the power they have to their own advantage or to divert an NPO from its core mission (mission drift), and to treat fundraisers with professional respect.

The reason donor codes of conduct are needed is because donor-fundraiser relationships contain an inherent power differential: donors hold more power (they have the power to grant or withhold a gift) than fundraisers, and wherever power differentials exist, there is the potential for this power to be exploited and/or abused. Donors can, therefore, make demands of fundraisers in return for their gift. At Rogare, Heather Hill has looked at how this power differential can all to easily lead to different types of ‘donor dominance’.

It’s not just that donors have power. It’s also that a) we keep uncritically offering power to them, and b) some of them want more of it.

Our standard approach to fundraising practice and ethics is to always put the needs and interests of donors first, to the extent that some thought leaders in fundraising regard fundraisers to be agents of donors, representing their interests to charities (rather than representing the interests of charities to donors).

About five years ago, a major American philanthropist wrote a book in which she called for a ‘revolution’ in the way fundraisers initiated, built and maintained relationships with donors. If enacted, this revolution would have put even more power into donors’ hands. More than that, it would have blurred the professional/personal boundaries between fundraisers and donors to the point that ensuing relationships would become highly dysfunctional and co-dependent. I explain why I believe this is problematic in this critique on Critical Fundraising (scroll down to the section called ‘You ask me for a contribution – Ethics of donor-fundraiser relationships’).

The more power in relationships that donors have, take, request, and demand – or are given – the more potential there is for an abuse of that power to take place, and the more they need to be held accountable for the power they have how they exercise it.

What we are talking about here is the ‘professionalisation’ of philanthropy, with practices, ethics and systems of self-regulation designed to ensure that philanthropy operates fairly for all stakeholders.

Donors should have nothing to fear from such a self-regulatory approach to their philanthropy, of which donor codes of conduct, such as Rogare’s, would be only a part.

We explain in the Blueprint why intended recipients are being asked to sign the code – because a small number of the peers behave in ways that are unacceptable – and that just by asking them to abide by the code raises awareness of the matter. We say to donors that we hope they will agree the six stipulations are reasonable ones.

The more power in relationships that donors have, take, request, and demand – or are given – the more potential there is for an abuse of that power to take place, and the more they need to be held accountable for the power they have how they exercise it.

We also point out that as fundraisers, we already have duties to donors that are described in our codes of practice. This new donor code of conduct is simply asking for donors to treat fundraisers with the same courtesies as fundraisers accord to donors. Many in fundraising have worked on writing ‘fundraiser bills of rights’ (see this example by Amelia Garza and Jennifer T Holmes). As these confer certain rights on fundraisers, that means there are concomitant duties to uphold and protect those rights. Rogare’s donor code of conduct stipulates the duties donors have to uphold the rights of fundraisers.

Nothing about this is vindictive. This is not an attempt to bash the rich or criticise rich people for their philanthropy. This is not an attack on philanthropy against which a defence needs to be mounted. It is simply recognising that if donors do have power – which they do – then there need to be checks and balances on how they exercise their power – in whichever way this manifests – through their philanthropy and charitable giving.

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