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?

How dancing helped me raise $16,000


“We should do a flash mob”

The whole table looked at me weird, and waited until I made another point. 

I told them that was my idea, and that we were moving forward on it

Why a flash mob? Because we were doing a dance marathon! We needed to dance!

So we set to work to get a group to choreograph it, and then find a group to film it. We managed to do it pretty easily (free swag can move people to do some awesome stuff)

And sure enough, our flash mob bounced around and drew tons of eyeballs to our event. As a result of that, our event helped to raise over $16,000 for the local children’s hospital.

Moral of the story…don’t do a flash mob….what do I mean? Let me explain

Our flash mob worked because it hit on these 4 steps.

  1. What’s your cause/event about?

For us, it was dancing for those who couldn’t. So a flash mob fit with the theme, and had a direct link to the cause/event we were doing. So a flash mob would be in bad taste/wouldn’t fit for certain things: your charity chess tournament, your ping pong tournament, or even your loonie drive (unless you had giant chess pieces dancing around….hey, that’s pretty cool!) Ultimately, find something that fits with the theme of your event and run with it…or dance, your call.

  1. Choreography

Not just of the dance, but make sure you plan out every element. This includes the boring stuff: like paperwork and waivers, all the way up to getting the people involved and the items you’ll need. If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail…..and you wouldn’t want to be a failure. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but not typically when it comes to charity. You’ll also want to make sure you plan for times when there’ll be the most eyeballs on you, giving you the best exposure. A flash mob seen by one person isn’t so cool. A flash mob seen by a hundred people is pretty awesome!

  1. Be social, but the right kind

Don’t just hide behind the screen, but get out there and be social with people. We blended the social element, being there in person, with the social media element of sharing the video to get awareness around what was happening. This helped generate some fear of missing out (FOMO) and gave those there a feeling of being in on something cool. So don’t post a status and wait for the likes to roll in…get out there and earn them

  1. Take notes

Take note of those who say things about what you’re doing, and ask them to do that more! Follow up and ask them to be part of the event, or to share your stuff more. Why would you turn down offers of free help? Especially when it means you get a further reach! So take notes on who helps/talks about you, and praise them!

So don’t do a flash mob….or do it….either works so long as you follow the above steps. Follow them religiously and you’ll be laughing! And dancing….maybe…….up to you

The Anti Bake Sale


Since fundraising time-immemorial, volunteer fundraisers have long sought to raise money for the causes they cared about. And all too often, the same methods to raise money have been employed, and almost always they are met with contempt. Yet one stands above the rest that draws the most groans and eye rolls…..the bake sale. So today, I’m here to free you from this vicious cycle, and introduce you to your new favourite fundraising endeavour: The Anti Bake Sale

What’s an anti bake sale? The premise is quite simple. Instead of spending the hours baking baked goods, only to have them go sale and having to basically give them away, here’s what you do. You instead will get some recipe cards printed up with cool facts, as well as mild threats of a bake sale if donation goals aren’t met. You hand these out to people at your office/school/wherever you’re doing your fundraiser at. Then you see the money start to roll in as a result! Think of it as a protection tax from another bake sale coming onto your turf…..because we all can remember when that happened, and very few people were happy.

This fundraising endeavour accomplishes a few things

  • It makes sure you don’t have to bake anything
  • You don’t have to waste money on baked goods
  • Your items are all recyclable (yay environment)
  • You get people laughing, which typically is a good thing
  • It’s super low cost (think a few cents per print out)
  • It’s creative, which will get people’s attention
  • It isn’t a bake sale

So now you may be wondering “how can I possibly execute this?” Well, let’s explain it in ways that those with bake sale on the mind can understand….with cook book steps

Step 1: Ditch the recipe, keep the cards

Don’t bother heading to the grocery store (you can do this all from home). Instead, head online and find some interesting facts about the cause you’re raising money for. This could be the amount it costs to feed someone, how much it costs to put a young person through a program, or perhaps something about the environment. In addition, throw on some funny jokes about “only you can prevent bake sales….by donating to our fundraiser today”. If you have the space, throw on a sudoku or crossword puzzle to keep people interested.

Step 2: Get to baking….sort of

Instead of baking, send your design to a printer. You can also use a printer at home, assuming you’ve got some nice card-stock, thicker paper to print on. Since you’re not spending nearly the same amount as you would have for baking, you can spring for the good stuff. Then make sure they’re all cut and stacked appropriately, or go pick them up from the printer.

Step 3: Get to asking

You’ve got your cards. You’ve got your spot. Now it’s time to ask! Start by handing out the cards around the office/campus/event space, and give them your elevator pitch. Be sure to also let them know that you can accept money later, or even come by and get it at a later date. Also be sure to have some credit card readers with you so you can accept money via credit or debit, and watch the money come in!

Helping you do Good, Better