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  • Writer's pictureAndrew

What DOES ethical fundraising even mean?

This Blog was inspired by @RubyBayleyPratt's excellent post with the same title. It's really insightful especially on how fundraising ethics plays into the bigger picture of global issues that may be outside the direct scope of our charity's work.

Fundraising ethics is big news at the moment. From the Sackler controversy, to the Notre Dame fire appeal (previous blog here), to Mark Rylance's decision to resign as an Associate Artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company over BP's sponsorship, the subject is under the spotlight.

Ruby, specifically, raises the vital question of what our donors might think about the sources of our funding. It's a book-worthy topic… but here is my very sketchy first response to the question she raises - (sadly) most people aren't that bothered.

Obviously all our perspective are partial. Mine is principally of the culture sector and, as I talk to visitors, people who make on entry donations, buy exhibition tickets and give larger gifts my experience is that that vast, vast majority of people aren't that troubled by the sources of our funding.

I often find that hard to believe. But then I remember that as someone who works in the sector and is on the edge of the fundraising and charity Twitterverse the picture I get in that particular echo-chamber bears very little resemblance to the amount of time and emotional energy most people give to thinking about this subject.

Beyond the anecdotal there does seem to be some evidence to support this.

At Oxfam, whose sex abuse scandal was, on almost any measure, far worse than any "dodgy donor" issue, public donations seem to have fallen by no more than 3-5% as a result (though, being Oxfoam that's quite a lot of money). During BP's sponsorship Tate experienced record visitor numbers again and again. I have heard no rumours or suggestions that RSC ticket sales have fallen significantly because of BP's sponsorship - even after the Rylance resignation.

At National Museums Liverpool I was very involved in our exhibition of Terracotta Warriors. Inevitably, and understandably, some stakeholders had ethical concerns about working with the Chinese Government. But the issue seemed to be very far from the minds of our sponsors, visitors and the city more widely.

Of course the fact that audiences, customers or beneficiaries don't feel strongly about particular sources of corporate, trust or individual donations doesn't make them OK; we really must not do our ethics by majority vote!

But equally a relatively small group of people on social media being very vocal that taking sponsorship from Company X is terrible doesn’t make it wrong; equally we can't allow ethics to be decided by the people who shout loudest.

So what's the answer? Honestly I don't think there is a single answer. A well thought out fundraising ethics approach will depend on the location of the charity, the kind of work you are doing, it's level of public profile and other factors. That's not to say that ethics is entirely relative; but it is to recognise we operate in an environment which simply does not have social concensus about a lot of very important ethical issues, so we have to be prepared accordingly.

Decisions about fundraising ethics are always complicated. We can, and should, ask our donors and other stakeholders what they think of our funding and be as clear as we can about our sources of income.

From my own experience, in most organisations, following the preferences of our donors for our fundraising ethics would result in less, rather than more restrictive fundraising practice. I'm not totally convinced that would be a good thing.

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