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An ask too far? The ethics of fundraising from your beneficiaries

By Iona Joy 21 April 2016

Before the press’s coverage of the death of Olive Cooke, I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘Dorothy Donors’. The term refers to older women from the post-war generation who are very generous in giving to charities, but may be being targeted by multiple fundraising asks. We also know that those in the lowest income brackets give, proportionally, the most. It is, perhaps, the ‘widow’s mite’ that powers the voluntary sector. Though from what I hear now, I’m not sure they have much left to give.

Yet charities need to raise money to achieve their objectives, and with fundraising practices under increasing scrutiny—while many are experiencing funding cuts—many are looking elsewhere.

At NPC we’ve started to notice a trend towards charities viewing interactions with beneficiaries as fundraising opportunities, and so we’ve been debating what we think about this.

I’ve said previously that charging for goods and services is okay when: commercial activity is aligned with mission; you aren’t damaging your beneficiaries’ interests; and the people you are trying to help can afford it. It is not okay to sell goods and services to beneficiaries who cannot afford them—unless the state pays or there is some kind of subsidy to make it affordable.

Similar principles apply to fundraising. On the one hand, a contribution from beneficiaries who value the charity’s work—and can afford it—is empowering. It converts beneficiaries into active consumers who feel invested in the charity. Research also suggests that the act of giving increases well-being, especially if people are thanked for the gift.

And if a beneficiary is not vulnerable and has means then why not make the most of this? At the London Wildlife Trust where I’m a trustee, we have no qualms about inviting our human beneficiaries—visitors to our wonderful sites—to support our cause and become members.In a similar way, I intend to leave a legacy to whichever hospice takes me on in my final years of life—sufficient to cover the costs of my care plus a bit.

But probe this a little and issues do arise: if said hospice has to ration its services—many have waiting lists—then will they be inclined to take me, a donor, over someone who cannot afford to donate?

NPC has concerns that some charities do not appear to be thinking through the ethics of fundraising from vulnerable beneficiaries. Mission, and the interests of beneficiaries, must trump revenue. So if your beneficiaries are vulnerable and broke, please don’t fundraise from them. Coercion of any kind is a total no-no. And please don’t make the ask when people are at their lowest ebb and easily pressed. We don’t see this as ethical.

Tricky issues abound. So here’s a starting point. As a trustee I’d ask the following questions of the fundraising team and its strategy. They fall into two categories—mission and ethics:

Does our fundraising activity in any way compromise our mission?

  • Does fundraising affect our beneficiaries in a way that is contrary to our mission, eg by making them financially worse off, or misrepresenting them in order to increase donations?
  • Does our fundraising ‘story’ lead us to be ‘economical with the truth’ about what we do, or less transparent about lessons?
  • Does our fundraising distort what we do away from actions that could have biggest impact eg, away from campaigning?

Are our fundraising tactics ethical?

  • Could fundraising from our beneficiary group potentially damage individuals? What is the risk that it could incentivise the charity to help those who can afford to donate at the expense of those who cannot?
  • Our target fundraising population: are they vulnerable? Can they afford to donate?
  • Could our fundraising activities be seen to be taking advantage of any vulnerable group?

We know times are hard, and that fundraisers must be creative. But let’s remember the bottom line of every charity: the good of their beneficiaries.