The MIT Media Lab/Epstein scandal is a kick in the gut for those of us in prospect development and for the hundreds of frontline fundraisers that I’ve worked with (and thousands that I haven’t) who do their jobs ethically.
It angers me that my profession is being tarred by the brush of bad actors working in the shadowy fringes:
- Coaches taking money to get rich kids into reputable universities.
- Program directors taking money knowingly from a guy who sex trafficked girls (because why else would you insist the gift be an anonymous workaround when the university’s central fundraising office told you that the individual was off limits?).
- Bad-apple fundraisers, nonprofit leaders, and administrators that turn a blind eye. Or are actively complicit.
It angers me to my core. We already have enough working against philanthropy these days, with dwindling numbers of donors; deficit funding that creates starvation cycles; low pay; a desperate need to retain good fundraisers; a stock market that is unstable; political systems in flux; and pundits who have never worked a day in the industry social-media blasting their opinions about the evils of our sector and scaring off actual decent people that could fund our work. We don’t need people within our institutions working against us, too.
It’s not rocket science. It’s basic ethics.
Fundraising ethics are not a nebulous mystery
There is a boatload of guidance out there on how to behave ethically in fundraising. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has a published code of ethics. As does Apra, the professional association for those of us in prospect development. CASE, too. AASP. AHP. I can’t think of a fundraising-related professional association that doesn’t have at least one (and sometimes two) codes of conduct/bills of rights.
Here at The Helen Brown Group, each employee on their first day has to sign an agreement that they will follow the Apra ethics guidelines. It’s not just lip service, either: I also have a discussion with each new colleague about our company values and expectations for their ethical conduct. My guess is that there are quite a few nonprofit managers that do the same. (Does yours? Do you?)
But besides ethical guidelines, there’s also what I call the “gut check.” If you have to lie, obfuscate, convince someone, or conceal a donor/relationship, you already know in your heart that whatever dodo you’re trying to launch isn’t going to fly. You know what that gut check feels like:
I am an institutional fundraiser. It is the duty of everyone involved in development to make sure that the highest levels of integrity are maintained. I can think of two times in my career that I have felt that the money I was taking was inappropriate, though nothing on the scale of Epstein. One gift was a quid-pro-quo for an internship for the donor’s child, and the other was a gift with questionable tax consequences. I deferred to bosses both times, and I regret it.”
-Commenter user_4429094 on Boston Globe article “Former MIT Media Lab Fund-Raiser says he was following university rules on Epstein donations” (9/10/2019)
I do get it – the pressure of a supervisor, a donor, a powerful leader “strongly encouraging” you to do something you know is counter to your professional ethics is extraordinarily hard to say no to. In the moment it feels nearly impossible. I am fortunate that saying no (which I have done) never put my job on the line, but I know that it can. The question to ask yourself in the moment is, would you want everyone to link your personal reputation with this action? Do you want your name and that donor’s to be forever intertwined? Is it worth that?
We have ethics resources. We need to make sure they’re deployed, understood, and followed by everyone who touches money. Not just people in the fundraising office, because as we’ve seen, the actions of a few bad (or uninformed) actors on the fringes can take the shine off the domes of previously solid institutions and respected development offices in a New Yorker minute.
Risk and gift acceptance
And it’s not just following ethical guidelines internally, right? It’s knowing what potential risks lie out there, too. Knowing which prospective donors could bring reputational risk to your door and avoiding them (or being prepared to defend your relationship with them).
It doesn’t matter (to me) if your leadership decides to accept gifts from Koch or Soros (or neither), tobacco and guns (or neither), big pharma (or no pharma). What about a prospective donor who has done jail time – under what circumstances is your organization prepared to affirm that have they paid their debt to society? What about someone whose source of wealth is a little too hard to nail down, or is tied up in businesses that lend themselves to graft? What will you do then?
If you can defend a company or industry or donor’s alignment with your mission to your stakeholders and the court of public opinion, then you’re good to go. But you need to write it down.
It’s critical to have transparent, published gift acceptance guidelines to help every one of your stakeholders – internal and external – remain clear on whose money you will accept and whose you will not. What projects you will take it for, and what you will not. A gift acceptance policy is a reflection of your ethics and values, and it serves as one important guardrail for your philanthropic work.
I’m aware that many nonprofits in the United Kingdom have in recent years formed gift acceptance review groups. The group meets on a regular basis, and it is required that each solicitation at a certain level go before the group to be discussed and approved (or rejected). Yes, it probably slows the process down slightly, but you can’t beat the transparency and accountability.
What else saves your bacon?
Besides a solid gift acceptance policy and a review panel, due diligence prospect research is one of the few shields that an organization and its leadership have against institutional and personal reputation damage. Due diligence research checks for past civil or criminal charges; whether the person or company is politically exposed; whether they or their family serve on a company or nonprofit board whose mission is antithetical to your nonprofit’s; if they are, in fact, as wealthy or well connected or even who they say they are.
But a due diligence report isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if its recommendations aren’t followed – or if non-professional fundraisers act outside of that safety net.
Because that’s exactly what due diligence prospect research is: a safety net. You may think it’s expensive to have it, but it’s lots more expensive not to.
If you don’t have one yet, create a gift acceptance plan now and take advantage of due diligence
Whose responsibility is it at your organization to make sure that everyone in the institution that cultivates and solicits donors is aware of and is following the nonprofit’s ethical guidelines for fundraising? Do you have an institutional gift acceptance policy and is everyone aware of it? Does your nonprofit demonstrate transparency for all internal and external stakeholders?
Now is a pretty good time to get on that.