What does fundraising ethically even mean?

by Ruby Bayley-Pratt

The recent Game of Thrones petition to have a disappointing ending re-written by “competent writers” is a beautiful, if frivolous, example of how our relationship with the things we consume has changed. We feel we have not only a personal stake, but a right to challenge and question. And we have the means to do it…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how supporters would react if, as a sector, we were totally transparent about where our money comes from – particularly when it comes to major donors and corporate partnerships. Whilst there is some research and guidance out there, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent approach to ethics across fundraising and I fear this could cause problems down the road.

In a world where trust in charities continues to decline, ethical consumption is on the rise, and our fundraising thought leaders are stressing the need to move away from transactional fundraising products to values-led supporter engagement, I don’t think we can leave this out of our conversations about the future of fundraising.

The fact that our approach to ethical fundraising across the sector is inconsistent has been acknowledged time and time again. At best, we have a list of industries we won’t work with and a screening process to mitigate against any reputational risk. At worst, we have nothing in place at all and rely on the judgement and, often, politics of individual members of staff.

In my experience, I have found that there tend to be two camps of fundraisers when it comes to this issue: those that believe we shouldn’t take funds which could compromise our mission and our responsibility to wider societal good (assuming we have one) and those who believe that what matters most is that we do good for our beneficiaries* with that money regardless of where it comes from or how we get it (‘robbing the rich to feed the poor’).  There is, of course, nuance in all of this and pragmatically, I think charities should probably position themselves somewhere on a spectrum between the two. That said, if you were to ask me what I truly believe, I struggle to swallow the latter.

Firstly, I think taking money from an industry or individual which undermines your mission – whether that’s through the work they do or the behaviours they demonstrate – does as much, if not more, of a disservice to your beneficiaries in the long-term than taking the money in the first place. For example, at Bloody Good Period, large period product companies are desperate to partner with us and we could make a healthy sum accepting their offers. But these companies play a huge role in perpetuating the stigma and shame which contributes to menstrual inequity – the very social issue we are trying to solve – in the first place. By taking their money, we enable them to continue doing that and make them look good in the process. So, we don’t. And we’re doing alright.

Secondly, I would like to see us questioning how our decisions about how and where we source our funds from are linked to things like climate crisis, gender inequality, and racism. We are increasingly being asked and asking others not to separate themselves from these issues as individuals; should we not be asking the same of our organisations?

Finally, there’s the question of poverty porn – a subject which I could write a whole separate blog about. Time and time again I am told “yeah, but it works”. And I know that’s what the research tells us. But what it ‘works’ at is bringing in cash and the starting point for that is a focus on growth rather than what’s best for our beneficiaries. Much like my first point, my fundamental belief is that the long-term damage of using tactics like this far outweighs the short-term good we can achieve as organisations. Again, at Bloody Good we refuse to use images or stories from the people we work with in our communications or fundraising…

All of the above is my personal opinion. What I would love to know is how charity supporters feel. Do they care if we respond to natural disasters over here but take money from extractive industries over there? Or if we campaign for women’s rights but take money from a reported sexual harasser? I don’t know and I think we might be a little bit afraid to ask them…

 

*I have used the word beneficiaries throughout for ease of understanding but I’d like to categorically document that I hate it. At Bloody Good Period we refer to “the people we work with” instead.

@RubyBayleyPratt

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