Ethical fundraising: seven critical questions for the board and Chair

The 2015 fundraising scandals, the Presidents Society revelations and the data protection fines have shown up the ethical risks in charities’ fundraising operations. They've highlighted the need for fundraisers, management and trustee boards to be more proactive in ensuring fundraising is always ethical.

Ethical failures are as likely to come from institutional pressures and a poor culture as from personal failings, so it starts with the board and charity leadership to create and lead a values-led and ethical culture.

The Chair and board set a tone that cascades through the organisation. People learn more about ethical expectations from the behaviour of colleagues and line managers – “the way we do things around here” – than from contracts, codes and training sessions, important as they are.

In nurturing an ethical, values-led culture, Chairs and boards might ask themselves some testing questions to reassure themselves they are not compromising their values:

Have the trustees agreed a realistic income figure for the year?

The pressure on fundraisers can start from the board room – stretch targets are fine and challenge is healthy, but are you imposing an over-optimistic fundraising budget to fund over-ambitious expenditure plans? Have you signed off a budget more in hope than expectation?

If fundraising targets seem unattainable, it may create unreasonable pressure to hit targets and push fundraisers to ask too much of their donors or contractors.

Do staff and volunteers know your values – have you your own fundraising code to refer to?

Having a code is a first sign of a good culture, but it must then be communicated and shared with staff.  And taken seriously. Does this code provide enough of a framework to protect all donors from harassment and unwanted appeals, and especially vulnerable donors? Do you make sure everyone in fundraising knows the regulator’s Code of Fundraising Practice?

Are the agencies you use aware of it?

The fundraising scandals of 2015 focused in part on fundraising agencies and contractors who were accused of using unethical selling methods and were not properly supervised or monitored. Ultimately they are always your responsibility. It should be part of the regular dialogue with suppliers. Make sure you know it’s happening, and that the charity takes it very seriously.

Are there mechanisms to report unethical practices and behaviour?

A code is there to protect donors, but also to empower staff and volunteers to challenge behaviour, and what is asked of them, if they feel uncomfortable or concerned. If you’re a reasonably large charity, have you internal systems to report troubling issues and incidents? Do people know who to speak to beyond their immediate manager?  Is there a speak up/whistle-blowing line? Or an employee assistance programme to give you advice?  In smaller charities, do you know who is designated as someone to raise concerns with? For all charities, are you confident staff and volunteers raising concerns would get a good hearing, feel protected and not fear it would jeopardise their career?

Do you share your code with your donors and the public?

 Donors should know about your compliance policies and your monitoring, and have access to a redress system within the charity to address any concerns and complaints. Publish it on your website and in your annual report too.

Do you know enough about your donors’ experience?

As part of board assurance, you should see data on the profile of your donors (is there a significant number of older perhaps vulnerable givers; how many are on modest incomes?), and the frequency of contact. If you are a big enough fundraiser to do direct donor research, you can assess more detailed reactions to your different fundraising points of contact. It’s also valuable to know how much trust and confidence your donors have in you; expectations change, especially after a run of scandals: you need to keep track.

Finally, is you charity a happy place?

It’s important. Disengaged staff are more likely to be tempted to ethical lapses or ignore things they should not. A culture is usually easy to read – it may be evident in how well the board works. If you run formal staff satisfaction surveys, you should include questions about ethics and speaking up. And follow up.

Many of these questions are about assessing not just the charity’s vulnerabilities but the culture you work in. Hopefully the answers will have reassured you. But if not, it’s time to challenge the status quo and give a little more board time to fundraising ethics.