Advancing Philanthropy

Different Perspectives: Fundraising Excellence Must Be Guided by an Ethical Approach

trust ethics honesty conduct

Charities are founded on the principle of doing good. There are a myriad of causes, missions, and organizations, but underlying them all is a simple concept: that the work charities do will result in positive public benefit. The world is never going to be perfect, but it can be a better place because of the combined efforts of all those who work, volunteer, and support charities.

For charities in the U.K. and internationally, success in delivering charitable aims and objectives is only part of the story of how we are judged. What’s also important is how we are delivering that good. It’s a question that is being asked more than ever in a world expecting greater transparency across the board.

united kingdom flag Fundraising has been under the public and media spotlight in the U.K. for the last few years. While not all the headlines were fair and balanced, the substance of some of the stories was legitimate and merited real discussion and debate. It’s made us think more carefully, at all levels, about what we mean when we say “excellent fundraising” and what the values and ethics are that underpin our work. I use “discussion and debate” deliberately as there is rarely a last word on ethics—every specific situation is slightly different, and ongoing conversations are essential as the fundraising profession changes and responds to social attitudes and public expectations.

There are rules and regulations that fundraisers have to respect in every jurisdiction. In the U.K. we have the Code of Fundraising Practice, which sets the standards for fundraisers and fundraising organizations over and above those set out by law. We are also subject to legislation and guidance, for example, from regulators on data protection.

One Rule Doesn’t Fit All

While it’s important to have recognized standards for all to meet, a defined set of rules can never answer every question that arises, nor should it be able to. As an established profession, fundraisers sometimes have to make judgement calls based on a wider set of values and ethical principles, rather than just follow prescriptive rules.

This is why it is so important for fundraisers to be clear on what those ethical principles and values are for each organization they work for. There are principles we can set in advance—clear-cut examples, such as environmental organizations deciding not to accept money from any fossil fuel company. But there is only so much we can prepare for, and we can never set specific rules for every situation. For instance, would an addiction charity accept money from a retailer or hotel chain that sells alcohol, or a financial services company that invests in alcohol-related companies?

This isn’t just a hypothetical thought exercise; one of the hot ethical questions in the U.K. recently has been in relation to whether organizations should accept funding from the Sackler Trust, which is run by the Sackler family, members of which own the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the opioid Oxycontin. U.S. art photographer and activist Nan Goldin recently brought attention to the Sackler Trust when she declared she would refuse a prestigious retrospective of her work at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepted a large gift from the Trust.1

What’s clear is that the public’s expectation is understandably high, but not static. This makes it ever-more important that we are clear on our values and principles so we can make decisions as they’re needed. Our ethical approach cannot be determined by an opinion poll; it has to be rooted in doing the best for our respective causes in the long term.

The role of the Institute of Fundraising (IoF) as a professional membership body is to support our members with those ethical issues, helping them to navigate tricky decision making. Within that there are three areas that I see as being key to ensure an ethical approach is threaded throughout everything we do:

1.    From whom will we take money?

It is difficult for an organization to make the decision to refuse or return a donation. We know our causes need funding to fulfill our objectives, but there are situations where we have to consider whether the value of the donation is worth the cost in terms of a potential loss of public trust and confidence, reputational damage, or a conflict with our ethics, values and vision. They’re not always easy decisions, but they can be.2

When I ran the London Cycling Campaign, we were regularly approached by car manufacturers offering support. But we wanted a bicycle-friendly city, not one dominated by cars. Accepting such a donation would have damaged our reputation and our journey toward our objectives.

2.    How do we ensure a duty of care for people in vulnerable circumstances?

We all know that at any point in time people can need additional care and support to make informed decisions. This can be because of age or illness, or simply because a person is going through a difficult life situation. An ethical framework can help inform our approach in this area. For example, when we’re talking to a potential supporter, how do we ensure we are responding to the needs of the individual, rather than chasing a donation at any cost?

3.    Creating a more equal, diverse, and inclusive profession.

We believe that having an equal, diverse, and inclusive team is fundamental to delivering truly excellent fundraising. There’s not only a business case for this, but an ethical one, linked to trust, confidence, and representation.

Questions that people should be asking themselves might include how ethical it is to have a fundraising team predominantly reflecting one demographic when their donors or beneficiaries might be from a different one, or maybe one in relation to how female fundraisers are protected in the workplace, following evidence showing high levels of sexual harassment in the fundraising profession.

We believe that having an equal, diverse, and inclusive team is fundamental to delivering truly excellent fundraising.

The IoF has launched The Change Collective to drive change in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion, and updated guidance to our members, our member Code of Conduct and our complaints policy to help create inclusive workplaces.3

The key to all these points is to understand your own charity’s objectives and values, to understand the rules and regulations you have to comply with and the overarching ethical approach, and to continue to learn and adapt to society and the changing environment. As society changes and adapts, so must we.

4    To help you further, the IoF offers Acceptance, Refusal & Return—A Practical Guide To Dealing With Donations, which you can download free at
3    More information on these initiatives can be found on the IoF website:
•    The Change Collective:
•    Updated member guidance:
•    Code of Conduct:
•    Complaints Policy:

Peter LewisPeter Lewis is the chief executive at the Institute of Fundraising, the professional membership body for U.K. fundraising.

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01 Jun 2020 President's Perspective Blog
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