The Ethical Dilemma Checklist: Insights from Dan Brunette

ben-rosett-10613-unsplashAlthough fundraising for a cause you care passionately about is often a rewarding and fun experience, sometimes things come up that unfortunately turn that fun into a headache.  No, I’m not talking about the barista messing up your half-double decaffeinated half-calf.

I’m talking about ethical dilemmas.  

We’ve all been there.  Someone comes up to you saying they want to donate some funds to your cause, but wish to remain anonymous.  Fair enough right? But soon after they demand that there be no paper trail, and later they arrive with $50,000 cash in an unmarked brown envelope.  Although you may desperately need the donation, the questionable income source has you thinking…

Should I accept this needed gift?  Is this okay? Is this right? Is this ethical?  

Questions about ethics and morality are as old as philosophy itself, and are tied to almost all human activity, even fundraising, philanthropy, and volunteerism.  

Actually, ethical considerations are especially important in fundraising, philanthropy, and volunteerism, since bad decisions and ethical violations can ruin campaigns and individual careers, and can compromise the integrity of entire organizations.  Ultimately, unethical behaviours and practices have the potential to negatively affect everyone involved in the philanthropic, non-profit, charity sector that you are a part of.

Therefore, in order to cover most of your bases, this handy little checklist should help guide you when you face your next ethical dilemma.  I mean, who has time for reading everything from Socrates to Kant when you have a campaign to run?

The Checklist

When you’re face-to-face with an ethical dilemma, and you are having trouble finding the right course of action, consider the following:

  • What would Grandma think?  

Would she be proud of the decision you made, or would she be so taken aback by your actions that you wouldn’t get birthday card this year?

  • How would the media react?  

Would your decision lead to a hailstorm of media backlash, angry tweets, disappointed supporters, or scathing op-eds?

  • Did I do my due diligence?  

Did you take the time to carefully consider the  potential outcomes of your actions? Did you do your research before getting involved?

  • Was I transparent in my approach?  

Are you open and clear with why you chose one course of action over another?  Would people like the media or your sweet innocent grandmother understand your decision making?

  • Can I sleep in good conscience?  

Would this decision gnaw at you, or would you be able to end the day confident in yourself and your choices?

Gift Acceptance Policies and Donor Bill of Rights

If you’re keen and ethically inclined, you can always take the initiative, and try to preemptively avoid major problems.  For example, a well-considered Gift Acceptance Policy that is specifically tailored to your cause, campaign, or organization can be your core document when navigating some ethical issues, because it will provide clear donation-accepting guidelines for you and your team.  It’s better to have rules and not need them, then to not have rules when you do.

Along similar lines, a strong Donor Bill of Rights (DBR) that embodies the maxim, “Thou Shalt Not Take The Donor For Granted” is important, because it provides the foundational understanding of the relationship between you, the donor, and the organization or cause.  Although somewhat “common-sense” stuff, a good DBR would outline at least the following:

The Donor has the right to know how their gift is being used, or that is it being used explicitly for the purpose for which it was gifted.

Many donors already have prior knowledge about your cause, organization, or campaign, and may even be experts in their fields of interest.  They will know what they want to support and how they want to do it.  Listen to them.

The Donor can reasonably expect to be updated and informed on the impact of the gift.

Informing the donor about the impact of their gift can give them a sense of accomplishment, and reaffirms their commitment to your cause.  If they didn’t care about what their donation helped accomplish, they probably wouldn’t bestow a gift in the first place.

An example of a solid DBR can be found here.
Let’s do a thought experiment together to see how this works.

Let’s say that “Donor X” donated $1500.00 to buy some specific audio/visual equipment that you need for a music program, but the person in charge of managing the funds for the program is a wizard and was able to buy the equipment without tapping into Donor X’s donation.  Your wizard colleague says, “Let’s just use the money on food instead. Who care’s that Donor X’s donation was for the audio-visual equipment. They donated to the program so that’s good enough, right?”

Briefly you think the wizard makes sense, but then you consider your Donor Bill of Rights and ethical values it holds.  When Donor X gave the gift, it was explicitly for the audio/visual equipment, so using it for something else without their permission violates the trust Donor X put in you and the program.  Being the ethical person you are, you send Donor X an email that states, “We were too efficient with our money, can we use your donation for something else, like food and beverages?”

Donor X is kind and sincerely cares about the program, so they agree and the entire issue is resolved, plus now there’s the added bonus of having some wicked snacks.  Thanks Donor X!

Being open, honest, and transparent with gift allocation to your donors helps build that important bond of trust, and shows that you care about the means as much as the ends.  That being said, it is not uncommon for some people to try to bend or even break rules for their donors, or go out of their way to exploit loopholes. Yes, sometimes there may be a grey area or some ambiguous loophole that might not be technically wrong, but in the end it’s best to avoid taking that road.  Do you really want to become infamous for scamming the system?  I mean, what would grandma think about that?

Hopefully you won’t experience too many serious ethical problems in your professional or personal life.  However, if you do, don’t panic! Ethical dilemmas are incredible resources insofar as they help us navigate, update, tweak and modify our policies and personal behaviours.  Taking the time to carefully think through potential ethical problems is a great way to test policies. And if the thought of sitting alone and playing make-believe in your head sounds a little strange, consider talking through case studies with a partner, colleague, and becoming a part of a professional association in order to share practices with others in your field.  Having someone else’s insights may provide a fresh new perspective, and help illuminate the right cause of action.

Remember, not all ethical dilemmas are the same, so ultimately it is up to you to think everything through carefully.  In the end you are the decision maker, so you need to ensure that you genuinely feel that you’ve done the right thing at the end of the day.  

Here’s a final tip, approach every situation with ethical considerations and you can ensure that you do good, better.

See, wasn’t that helpful?

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