ethical fundraising

October is the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Ethics Month, so let’s talk about something most of our organizations have been doing even more frequently during the pandemic (or crisis, or election, or natural disaster, etc.) and why it’s an ethical issue: making decisions for our donors by neglecting to ask for donations!

Many of us have heard a colleague or board member say that it would be rude to ask right now at some point during the pandemic. Maybe we’ve even said it or thought it ourselves. It turns out, though, that ethical fundraising is not only okay this year, but it’s our obligation.

Claire Axelrad just wrote a great article recently on how we as a sector have been leaving money on the table during the pandemic. That’s the first reason it’s an issue not to engage in ethical fundraising: if we make decisions based on our own discomfort or poor understanding of best practice and it means we’re less able to meet the need our organization was founded to meet. If our organization’s beneficiaries suffer because of our inaction, that’s unethical.

There’s another reason. Our donors have agency, and when we decide for them, we take away that agency. It is not our right to make a decision for them.

Yes, it’s entirely possible when we send that direct mail appeal or email, or put up that post on social media, that the person we send it to is currently out of a job, or is sick or caring for a sick relative, or is so busy trying to work and help children through online school that they can’t take the time to read and think about the offer you’re making. It’s easy to assume that donors have less to give right now, or that their income is diminished and perhaps their giving is influenced by the stock market and they aren’t currently able to give the kind of assets they normally would.

But isn’t it always true, any day of any year, that someone who is on our mailing list or reading our social media feeds is going through something that means they will not give right now? Of course it is! What is different now is that the odds are higher that our audience is feeling some additional stress and hardship — and we are more aware of it.

Despite what nonprofit staff and board leadership might assume, donors WANT to give… even during the pandemic. Giving to nonprofits in the United States in the first half of 2020 is the highest it has been in 5 years, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. We should be the last thing standing in the way of letting donors do what they want to benefit the community!

We have an obligation for ethical fundraising during the pandemic. Our beneficiaries still need us to fulfill our missions, and in fact the need is quite likely greater than it was a year ago. Our donors still want to give, and deserve to have that opportunity. Let’s do the really cool thing that we get to do as fundraisers and offer that opportunity, especially now.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Sarah Willey
Sarah Willey, MA, CFRE, SMS is an experienced fundraising professional with a passion for learning, teaching, and building community. She works as a coach and consultant with nonprofits across the US and Canada to build sustainable individual giving programs and write great communications. A lifelong learner, she holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis as well as the CFRE certification and a social media strategist (SMS) certification from the National Institute for Social Media, and is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis and expects to complete her dissertation in 2023. Sarah can be reached at