Doing What's Right
"Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote can easily be applied to what we in the nonprofit arena do every day. We feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, rescue animals, protect the environment.
We’re clearly on the side of the angels. But I’d like to suggest there’s another way to look at the Rev. King’s admonition. We must be equally fearless in our commitment to do what’s right in our fundraising programs and in the way we treat each other.
We all recognize that many of the “scandals” involving nonprofits aren’t scandals at all, but rather a case of media misunderstanding and watchdog grandstanding. Rather than a scandal, it’s actually a wise business practice for nonprofits to spend money to acquire new donors, reactivate lapsed donors and cultivate current donors. It is what allows them to raise the net revenue necessary to fulfill their missions and to make the world better.
Yet it is equally important to recognize that while not all of the nonprofits that are called out are in the wrong, some fundraisers actually are abusing the public trust.
So for the majority of nonprofits — and consultants serving nonprofits — that take their missions and their donors seriously, I ask the following:
- Doesn’t it make your stomach churn when you see sound-alike charities confusing donors and raising money off the brand of legitimate charities that are actually doing the work?
- Doesn’t it gnaw at you when you see nonprofits mislead the giving public in order to raise more money?
- Doesn’t it make you sick when consultants hoodwink nonprofits and their donors with fundraising campaigns where, even after years, the bulk of the money goes to the consultants and not the work of the nonprofit?
- Shouldn’t we all give voice to our outrage whenever someone bilks a charitable donor?
At the recent Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation Conference in New York, Art Taylor of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance talked about our industry’s impressive work to self-regulate. I believe we need to take that self-regulation to a new level.
What it’s all about
That’s why I’m so impressed with the DMA Nonprofit Federation’s newly released Principles & Best Practices for Accountability in Fundraising. (Hats off to Shannon McCracken of Special Olympics International and her DMA Nonprofit Federation colleagues.)
Industry leaders are now saying that if you as a nonprofit or a consultant want to be part of the DMA Nonprofit Federation, you need to adhere to a code of ethics. (The Association of Fundraising Professionals also has a long-standing code of ethics for fundraising professionals. You can read it here.)
The new DMA Nonprofit Federation code is elegant in its simplicity, clarity and common sense. If I may summarize, it says:
- Nonprofits need to tell the truth about what they are doing and deliver on what they tell donors they will do.
- Nonprofits should be evaluated by mission, impact, stability and growth.
- Nonprofits should invest in sound management and smart fundraising, and use multiple metrics to measure their success over time. Campaign-by-campaign analysis is misleading.
- Nonprofits should honor donor intent and should adhere to generally accepted accounting principles, such as joint allocation of fundraising costs, to accurately portray how they are spending resources.
- Over time, most of the money a nonprofit raises needs to be spent accomplishing the mission of the organization.
- Often, nonprofits find that experienced fundraising consultants can help them raise more revenue, more efficiently. When a nonprofit works with a consultant, the charity should avoid conflicts of interest, have a clear written contract and, above all, should maintain control of the program.
- Consultants should always act in the best interest of their nonprofit clients, working to enhance their work, their financial health and their reputation.
This code is not a case of onerous over-regulation. It’s a common-sense approach to acting in the public interest. We need to have clear mission statements. We need to tell the truth. We need to honor donor intent. We need to allocate resources to and work toward accomplishing the mission we set forth.
I urge every nonprofit and consultant to become a member of the DMA Nonprofit Federation and to adhere to — and promote — ethical behavior.
We operate thanks to the public trust. Countless hurting people depend on nonprofits. Countless donors entrust their resources and their dreams to nonprofits. We must never be afraid to do what’s right. As Dr. King pointed out, society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
(Note: Tom Harrison is past vice-chair of the DMA Nonprofit Federation.)