Ethical Fundraising: When Should You Say ‘No’ to Money?

Published January 26, 2018 by monika


The Presidents Club story broken by the Financial Times this week has reignited the debate around whether, and when, charities should turn down money donated to them, which can only be a good thing, because too many trustees have not considered the question, or don’t want to consider it. 

It’s a tough thing to do. Charities need money to deliver the aims and objectives they were set up for. With over 185,000 charities registered in the UK, it’s a crowded market for fundraising.

I have worked with many charities over the years, and have long ceased to be astonished at how many have not given any thought to an ethical policy connected to their fundraising.

It’s a relatively easy discussion to start. Simply focus on two questions: Number one “Who should we not accept money from?” and number two “Why?”

I’ve experienced all sorts of kick-back when I have raised this question though. I’ve had trustees shut the meeting down. I’ve had trustees shouting at me that it’s a stupid question. I’ve had trustees tell me it’s an immoral question. I’ve had trustees tell me I am jeopardising the lives of children by saying that they should not accept money from some sources. I have had many groups of well-meaning people telling me completely seriously that the good the money can do outweighs the bad practices of the company donating it.

This is a problem.

A well-run charity must have a strong ethos at its core. What is it aiming to achieve? What problem is it aiming to solve?

There will be companies out there who are in direct conflict with the ethos of the charity, and in fact who will be contributing to the very problem they are trying to solve. It is always galling to turn down money, and it’s often personal, which is why an ethical policy that has discussed the parameters of the organisation’s fundraising is so essential.

For example, you may have a charity director who has personally boycotted a make-up company for testing on animals. The charity they direct may have nothing at all to do with animals. Should the charity turn down a donation from the company the director has boycotted? On what grounds?

For example, you may have a children’s charity, aiming to relieve the effects of poverty in Britain. Should the charity accept money from international companies who have been known to use factories that employ children in other countries? On what grounds?

For example, you may have a charity that is approached by a lawyer on behalf of an anonymous donor. Should the charity accept the donation without knowing who it is from? On what grounds?

By not considering these questions as a board of trustees, the charity risks undermining its own values. Worse, it can become complicit in promoting or supporting behaviours in direct conflict with what it stands for. And the active shutting down of a discussion around these questions is a dereliction of duty.