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Fundraising Ethics In Higher Education

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Every profession likes to claim ethics are essential to its success. But you can make an especially robust case that this is indeed the case in fundraising.

What does it take to be successful in fundraising? Strengths like persuasion, problem solving, and persistence come to mind quickly. But integrity is squarely at the top.

Fundraising is a profession directed at nurturing friendships that culminate in gifts of time, talent, and treasure. There’s no way this is possible without earning and maintaining trust. I love the expression that fundraising occurs at the speed of trust.

Fundraising ethics isn’t an option but a necessity. We simply aren’t going to be successful if donors don’t have faith in us. They must have full confidence that we and the organizations we serve are going to do what we say we’re going to do and fulfill their philanthropic intent.

I think the best way to illuminate the day-to-day application of ethics in fundraising is to examine actual examples that arise among fundraisers, management, and donors. A day doesn’t go by in which nonprofit leaders have to wrestle with complex situations which put institutional success in the short run in competition with doing the right thing. I don’t pretend to have led a life of perfection, but experience is a great teacher.

Here are 10 issues around fundraising ethics from my time leading advancement programs for higher learning institutions.

  1. Selection of scholarship recipients: The majority of funds raised during my higher education career were to provide much-needed financial assistance to students in need. Though the rules have been changing, an essential constant has been that donors should not have a dominant voice in the process. Rather they can shape selection criteria such as majors, GPA, financial need, geography and extra-curricular activities. Race and ethnicity are forbidden, but specific school districts are permissible in which minorities are populous. Donors can serve on committees, but I always contended that contributed to awkward situations in which they would have varying opinions that might intimidate faculty and staff serving on the same committee.
  2. Hiring decisions: I’ve been asked by donors to make sure their favorites were being considered in searches. They certainly could serve as references and write letters of recommendation, but candidates receiving extra points is avoided. To be candid, as a candidate for positions myself, as a courtesy, I’ve drafted letters of recommendation for mentors who would submit them.
  3. Personal gifts: We often work with donors of substantial wealth. “De Minimis” guidelines apply in both directions, limiting the value of meals, gifts, and mementos to a modest level. For example, donors can only deduct the amount of support for a special event to the value above tangible benefits received. From the other side of the coin, I found it awkward and to be avoided to benefit from too much generosity from donors.
  4. Poaching: It is the nature of the nonprofit environment for development officers to change employers. In fact, keeping high-performing staff is one of the more serious challenges facing nonprofits. While it is blatantly wrong to take databases and donor records, it is common for employees assuming new positions to reach out to former donors. Remember, most donors support multiple causes; this is especially true in the education sector. My personal standard was never to speak poorly about former employers or even compare and contrast them to new organizations. I wanted their support based on passion and respect for the new organization, not because of discontent with others.
  5. Naming rights: Typically, it’s family, friends, and other loved ones who push more for naming recognition more than donors themselves. Many institutions go by the guideline that the gift must represent at least half of construction costs. I always made it a point to forcefully resist “honorific” naming because it is imprecise and it reduces the inventory of buildings and facilities to be named for financial gifts in the future
  6. New technology: What you do when you receive information that can benefit you and your organization through email or other transmissions not intended for you. While you haven’t broken any rules, taking the high road and informing the intended recipients of what happened typically strengthens your long-term standing.
  7. Gossip: It’s common for colleagues to gather after work for social purposes. There is clearly an upside as working relationships can be strengthened. But when these get-togethers result in innuendos, backstabbing, or spreading rumors, it unfairly and inappropriately creates innocent victims. For that reason, as a supervisor I never welcomed gossip and challenged why such negative information was being brought to me.
  8. Abhorring anything resembling commissions: As both employer and consultant, I have run at the very mention of them. They are wrong for several reasons. Bottom line: There is no one-size-fits-all formula to trace the continuum that culminates in gifts.
  9. Taking credit for work that isn’t your own: This is another slippery slope, especially with more and more work being performed in teams. The mark of a true leader is giving credit to those who report to him or her for their contributions in moving the organization forward.
  10. Going beyond compliance and what is legal: Ethics at its highest level is consistently doing the right thing, for the right reason, and at the right time because it reflects the character of employees and the culture of the nonprofit.

It can take large measures of both character and courage to be ethical, even standing up to the desires of CEOs, executive directors, and board chairs. Fortunately, fundraisers are not without strong resources and guidance. Drafting a code of ethics for professional fundraisers was the first order of business for founders of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) in 1960. Ethics remains a top priority for AFP, serving as a guide and major asset to the 25,00+ members in some 240 chapters that have generated more than $1 trillion. Every member must sign and abide by the AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards. This is the strictest and only enforced code in the profession.

But even more impactful are the righteous examples set by our leaders and practitioners. Over several decades, and especially now as a fundraising trainer/consultant to a wide range of nonprofits from all across the country, I am proud of the state of our profession and the men and women who live and practice the ideals of honesty, integrity, and excellence in advancing their noble missions and causes.

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