Advancing Philanthropy

Ethical Relationships: Ethical Considerations for Storytelling and Fundraising

woman sitting on a couch reading a book

Prevalent misconceptions about the impact of operating support make fundraising hard enough. Even if your organization miraculously has all the administrative costs covered, creating enthusiasm year after year for your annual needs can be daunting. These regular stressors can cause significant strain on the creative minds who are attempting to refresh their brand in an increasingly competitive landscape.

The temptation to overemphasize, sensationalize, or flat out misrepresent institutional needs is real for fundraising and charity marketing teams.

When we hear the word “ethics,” some might think of a complex list of rules with legal implications. In some spaces, ethics have gotten a bad rap as an extensive list of don’ts that squelch creativity. While I’m sure this truth doesn’t apply to any readers of this special issue of Advancing Philanthropy dedicated to ethics, surely we know “someone” who has experienced the nagging, quiet shame of wondering if that email, blog post, or newsletter pushed the limits of truth just a little too far. Was our “positive framing” a little too positive? Did that infographic truly capture all that the data told us?

In reality, ethics is much more than legalese, and it is certainly the responsibility of more than just your organization’s human resources department or C-suite. Ethics are the everyday ways we ensure the alignment of our messaging with the values of our organization.

Ethical Storytelling

In fundraising, ethical considerations make our world go round—even when we may not realize it. The way we encourage a direct report to create urgency in a social media post, the way we manage our donor walls, and even how we manage our major donor relationships are all considerations in ethical storytelling. Many of us have probably been in those meetings where you hear the joke, “We can make the data say anything.”

Even though the assumption is that people won’t go too far, we must be unceasingly curious about how our framing aligns with the truth. In order to properly narrate our cause rather than get a quick win, we must be especially concerned with what “truth” really is. Each day, we must ask ourselves, several times a day, is the house truly on fire?

Ethics and storytelling impact everyone in the development office. Both seasoned fundraisers and new hires in advancement will regularly face the implications of dishonest marketing and storytelling. The pressure to make a goal or reach a bottom line can cause us to over-emphasize a crisis.

With the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge faintly in our rearview mirror, leaders can place undue burden on staff to sensationalize a project so it will “go viral,” which in turn can cause unnecessary pressure on staff and donors. Deviation from a well-established brand voice can convolute your message and confuse potential supporters. If you find your office always operating in panic mode, it might be worthwhile to consider how planning—or lack thereof—is fueling your fires.

Maintaining Brand Voice When Crisis Is on the Horizon

Organizations work incredibly hard to identify, establish, and then maintain the right brand voice. To achieve the perfect balance, some choose to outsource this process to a marketing firm just to ensure that they strike the right tone and can refresh when needed. This hard work can be easily disrupted when a potential crisis emerges.

Constantly, or even consistently, operating in crisis mode can be tempting, even as it impedes your ability to communicate genuinely and authentically to your audiences. Our work is indeed urgent, and we want to ignite action as often as we possibly can. If we look at brand maintenance from an ethics perspective, we give ourselves permission to let our values dictate the way we behave or communicate rather than uncontrollable outside factors.

Of course, that doesn’t mean occasional panic won’t set in. The passion that drives us to do the work we do dictates a certain level of enthusiasm and dogmatism. But when a crisis is on the horizon, instead of throwing away all we know about what works, we can stick to our unique case for support, as it should be a guiding light, no matter the state of emergency.

Occasionally, trying out a more casual tone, jumping on a trending topic, or taking a calculated risk makes perfect sense. But generally, too much deviation may mean it is time for a brand refresh and planning session.

“Without being driven by your plan, falling into the ‘everything is urgent’ trap is inevitable,” according to Liz Loreti, corporate relationship manager at Camp Twin Lakes in Atlanta, Georgia. “Pause and do a pulse check: Can this wait? Is there another initiative that we can build in support? Once you see your communications calendar take shape, see if this need flows with your other messaging.”

Values-based planning is key for strategic and consistent communication. Prospects are being bombarded with countless opportunities to give. People love the familiar. Distinguishing which of those opportunities is best aligned with their current capacity and willingness to give can be easier when your messaging is well-planned and conscientious.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf: Values-Based Cultivation

A fundraiser’s commitment to be good stewards of donor resources is undermined when we fail to plan or are dishonest about our organization’s needs. When it comes to communications, ethical considerations go far beyond print and digital media. Planning for our everyday interactions with donors, whether annual or major, all reflect the level at which we are values-driven.

If something gives you pause before posting, chances are it needs to be tweaked.

—Liz Loreti, corporate relationship manager at Camp Twin Lakes, Atlanta, Georgia

New and seasoned donors alike want to feel that their contribution is being put to good use, and our honest communication is critical to achieving that goal. Segmentation and prospecting should drive our operational planning, not just an organization’s signature event calendar. If an emergency arises within that plan, identifying the right donors to respond will be clear.

And then there is the oft-unspoken question: Is it okay to have a “back-pocket donor” for emergencies? Chances are, if you’ve got a donor-in-waiting for actual or self-inflicted emergencies, it likely means you are not thoughtfully stewarding and engaging them in the first place. This habit among major gift fundraisers points to the ethical considerations of prospect management.

Hopefully you know your donors well enough to know what works for them and who gets excited by certain things.

—Christian Murphy, director of strategic philanthropy, Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta

To be a great steward of donor resources and relationships, avoid even accidental reliance on one or two individuals to save the day for your event or fiscal year. What’s more, we must also ask ourselves if we have demonstrated the impact of our most recent ask.

As Liz Loreti explained, “If it seems like you are constantly in a panic to fund your next thing without showing the good work your donors and the organization have done, then your ask falls flat. You can’t expect people to continue giving and giving without showing them the great things being accomplished.”

On the other hand, overemphasizing the wins can also have a negative impact on brand voice and donor enthusiasm. But how do you express urgency without coming off negative?

From a major gifts perspective, a donor who you can count on [in an emergency] is great, but it could be a sign that they have not been provided with an opportunity they can really get excited about.

—Reshunda Mahone, vice president of institutional advancement, Virginia State University

Former Morehouse College President John S. Wilson refers to this as “sounding the trumpet versus playing the violin.” Too often we tell the story about our organization’s wins, but, as Christian Murphy, director of strategic philanthropy for Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta said, “We should be comfortable looking for ways that donors can save the day and improve something for us.”

Let’s Make This Go Viral—Combating Employee Fatigue

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to know what will strike a perfect chord with supporters and encourage them to share a message about giving. It’s about as unpredictable as forecasting a tornado a year ahead of storm season. Instead, fundraisers must use traditional methods that echo the sentiments of those who support us the most. Leaders also have an ethical responsibility to help their staff set and achieve ambitious, but attainable, goals.

Want to see a fundraiser cringe? Tell them how you want them to make your next campaign “go viral” like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The pressure to meet unrealistic expectations is one of the many reasons for the high turnover rate, especially among younger fundraisers. It is not simply about working hard, but being in an environment where leadership helps facilitate learning and growth. Further, receiving a flood of visibility might actually be counterproductive to an organization’s efforts, especially if the organization does not have the bandwidth to navigate the influx.

“Although the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did prove successful, philanthropic organizations rarely have the resources to gamble with unpredictable outcomes,” said Jihan Lang, director, donor relations at Spelman College. “Should the organization enjoy some viral success, they are then often challenged with sustainability as the novelty diminishes. Alternatively, I encourage my team to strategize around inspirational opportunities that can spark an emotion and stimulate positive actions, therefore effecting real change.”

The reality is that there will always be a new fiscal year or need that requires consistent brand maintenance and planning to help a fundraising team succeed.

Honest messaging should be a value that supports your unique brand voice and helps your audience feel a continuous connection. Instead of being the voice that screams “the sky is falling” every quarter, your voice should center on your mission and values. While emergencies are inevitable, poor planning is the enemy of success. Leaders can consider ways to thoughtfully incorporate trends and pop culture without exhausting their staff. Maintenance of your brand voice and being driven by your values are not just best practices, they are also good ethics.

Sidebar: Is the House Really on Fire?

  • Over-exaggerated fires can lead to donor and staff fatigue.
  • Consistent fires point to inadequate planning.
  • Panic programming can disrupt a well-established organizational voice.

Melissa Rebecca BrogdonMelissa Rebecca Brogdon is the founder of Campbell Solutions, LLC, a consultancy that executes fundraising strategies for mission-driven organizations. Most recently, Melissa served as the director of development and communications at Emmaus House in Atlanta, Georgia. Melissa is a proud alumna of Spelman College and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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01 Jun 2020 President's Perspective Blog
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