Gun Raffles, Beer Pong and the Great Pumpkin: Why You Need a Gift Acceptance Policy
Most of us were raised on the adage "Don’t talk about religion or politics" with family or at social gatherings. If we listened to Linus van Pelt, we know not to talk about "religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin" with other people. But due to the ubiquity of Facebook, a relatively new Pope that even most atheists think is cool and a political season upon us in the U.S., most of us leap over that line of what is appropriate to talk about in public on a daily basis. (Yes, I am including myself in that group.)
Anyone who has worked as a fundraiser or the executive director of a 501(c)(3) organization knows it is, for the most part, smart to keep your political opinions to yourself in the nonprofit realm as well. There are a number of reasons for this; at the risk of oversimplification, I’ll boil it down to the benefit of neutrality. It is best never to assume that because someone supports the mission of your organization, then he or she also holds the same personal beliefs as you. And starting an argument over elephants and donkeys probably isn’t going to endear you to your organization’s supporters.
That is why you rarely see development professionals or nonprofit executives with political bumper stickers on their vehicles. If you pick up a potential donor for lunch to ask for a gift, and he or she sees your bumper sticker that promotes a philosophy he or she abhors, that donor meeting may quickly become an uncomfortable situation!
And so it goes; no promoting religion or politics unless they are part of your organizational mission. Check. What we should have, however, are gift acceptance policies and fundraising practices that adhere to some standard of neutrality. That can be a little harder, especially if your nonprofit represents a politically or emotionally charged subject, is faith-based, or is built upon a set of beliefs that is alternative to the mainstream. All the same, it is important for nonprofits to protect themselves, from the board of directors on down, by having appropriate policies and procedures in place.
Written policies can help nonprofits manage situations where gifts could be contrary to their missions and values. Here is an example: Ms. Chemical Donor works for Chemicals-R-Us. Her company would like to give a significant gift to a school for people with developmental disabilities in the same town as the company’s manufacturing plant. Great, right? But what if the chemicals her company manufactures have been linked directly to causing developmental disabilities at birth? What is a nonprofit to do?
A well-written gift acceptance policy will answer this question outright; it will have clauses stating that the board of directors has the right, if not the obligation, to refuse any gift that is at odds with the organization’s mission and values. Most policies also will have some type of ethics clause.
Ethics clauses may come into play in this type of situation: Mr. Not-So-Nice owns an "escort service" on the Las Vegas strip. He is looking for a suitable tax deduction and decides to give to a charity that rescues women and men who have been trafficked for sex. Should the charity take the gift? Most would agree the answer would be a resounding "no." But such a "no" backed up by written policy is easier to explain to a donor.
We’ve covered gift acceptance; now let’s move on to fundraising tactics and activities. Should one hold a beer pong extravaganza event to raise funds for an alcohol-treatment recovery center? See how "no" might be a prudent answer here? It isn’t that people are trying to be purposely insensitive when they suggest these events; it is more often the case that they just didn’t think the fundraising idea all the way through. A beer pong event might be fine to raise funds for a nonprofit whose mission focuses on teaching Millennials how to start community vegetable gardens, but not for the recovery center. It is important to be sensitive to the community you are serving when deciding on what fundraising activities to undertake.
A recent example is a gun raffle to raise funds for a New Mexico affiliate of the United Way. If you haven’t seen the hubbub about it yet, the charity is raffling off rifles, shotguns and handguns. In some states, that would not even be a legal option, but it must be in New Mexico. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that particular affiliate thought about the characteristics of its board of directors and local community, and decided that such a raffle would be well-received.
Even if something would be accepted in your immediate community, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea. We are not fundraising in a vacuum. In the U.S. in 2016, we are fundraising in a national atmosphere of tension, divisiveness and discord. No matter who we are or what we believe in, we are all living through an unprecedented time of uncertainty in our country. So when one of the nation’s oldest nonprofits (a charity that focuses on bettering lives by focusing on help with education, income and health) decides to hold a fundraiser that pokes at one of the biggest societal hot buttons in a century, it gives some of us pause.
I’ll leave you with this. Having documented organizational missions, values and policies can help you and your board of directors navigate uncertain situations. Not everyone will agree on what gifts are OK to take and which aren’t, nor will everyone agree on what fundraising activities are acceptable. In most cases, there are two rules of thumb by which I try to make such decisions:
- If you wouldn’t want it in the news in a negative way, don’t do it.
- Just because you can do a thing does not mean you should do that thing.
Always keep your organization’s best interest and reputation in mind and remember that it is part of a greater community. Actions that damage or inflame the whole while trying to benefit one individual part are not keeping the long game in mind. When all else fails, just try to avoid bringing religion, politics or the Great Pumpkin into your nonprofit fundraising.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.