Is It Time to Reassess Donors’ Rights?
In September of last year, Bruce DeBoskey, who writes “On Philanthropy,” a syndicated column that appears in more than 600 newspapers, took on the Donor Bill of Rights in his column. He called it “significantly out of date” and provided his own update.
Some of you scanners out there are about to move on. Perhaps you have never heard of the Donor Bill of Rights, or you haven’t paid much attention to it for years. I’m not here to convict you of that; the truth is, the Donor Bill of Rights is a bit long in the tooth.
First, a brief history: back in 1993, shortly after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President of the U.S., the Giving Institute (formerly known as the American Association of Fundraising Counsel), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) developed the Donor Bill of Rights, which declared all donors have 10 rights. Later, the AFP released the E-Donor Bill of Rights, adding nine more things online donors should “demand.”
The first question we should all be asking is, “Does it really matter that this document is outdated and often ignored?” I would argue that it does—because mistreatment of a donor or a donation can impact us all.
Presently, charities in the U.K. are under close scrutiny to say the least. A recent concern was voiced by a representative of the Information Commissioner’s Office related to using online search engines to research a potential donor, as that constitutes a breach of the U.K.’s Data Protection Act. Ian MacQuillin, founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, asked in a recent article, “What relevance does any of this have for fundraisers in the U.S.?”
“If people outside the U.K. want to learn from this affair, the question they need to ask is not whether British charities broke data protection laws (facts); it’s how and why the data protection regulator came to the view that fundraisers ought not be permitted to use public domain information to do research about people (which is about values)… While the facts of the enforcement against charities’ wealth screening in the U.K. may not be transferable between countries, cultures and regulatory regimes, the values that underpin that action most certainly are.”
In other words, those of us who aren’t part of U.K. should not just dismiss this concern of our compadres as “their problem.” Instead, we need to shore up our own standards to ensure that we are doing all that we can to protect both our donors’ rights and our rights to thoughtfully invite people to voluntarily choose to support the work we carry out.
Which brings me back full circle to the Donor Bill of Rights. It is severely outdated. The E-Donor Bill of Rights is less so, but it’s little known. I, an active fundraiser, had never heard of it until a few years ago when one of my students came across it during an online search for an assignment. DeBoskey suggested 10 rights that he calls “strategic partnership principles.” These principles are based on the assumption that an organization and a donor are in a partnership and relate to transparency, information access, honesty and respect.
Limiting “rights” to 10, especially in our complex world, is difficult and certainly not required. However, on too many topics, we as fundraisers talk a lot, but seem to find it difficult to agree and then take action. We have a Code of Ethics, but adhering to that isn’t required to be a fundraiser, just a member of AFP. We have identified an “overhead myth,” but it’s hard to change generations of thinking that “less is better, more is evil” with a discussion that hasn’t gone mainstream. We have a greater emphasis on storytelling and reporting results, but we’re still seeing three in four new donors drop off a gift and disappear into the sunset, never to be seen again.
With all this as background, is it time to urge the AFP to launch a formal effort to update the Donor Bill of Rights, incorporating donors from offline and online sources, into a single, updated and relevant document? I argue it is, and that part of this effort should be to invite—and consider—input from the fundraisers in the trenches. Many organizations have taken the existing Donor Bill of Rights and adapted it to their situation. What can be gleaned from looking at how the original Donor Bill of Rights has been put into action in a real-world laboratory?
What do you think is the most important right an updated Donor Bill of Rights should contain? This old dog would love to hear from you with your thoughts. Together, we have a great deal of influence over how fundraising (and fundraisers) are perceived by the public. Let’s find ways to use our influence to self-regulate—and possibly stave off the (hopefully) well-intentioned efforts of regulators.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.