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Q. When I raise money for my charitable organisation, large donors sometimes insist their donations have strings attached. If they offer to pay for a new building, for instance, they might require that we hire a construction company of their choosing, or they might tell us to use their law firm to draw up documents related to the gift. We don't want to turn away donations, but we also feel it's unethical to accept these conditions. What can we do?

A. As a society, we’ve created a culture that invites donors to give generously and at the same time receive recognition for it  —  from a simple thank-you letter to the donor’s name adorning a building.

Charities rely on fundraising to support their missions and it would be easy to argue that any method of receiving donations that doesn’t involve flagrant illegalities would be a good thing.

Large donors sometimes want strings attached. (Credit: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

But charitable acts are supposed to be selfless. Aside from praise and admiration, donors aren’t supposed to get benefits or money back from the charity in other ways. When donors turn their gifts into vehicles for enriching themselves or their friends, something unethical is happening. The ends don’t justify the means and the situation makes you uncomfortable.

Charitable acts are supposed to be selfless.

You are wise to question this practice, said Allison Daubel, an executive coach in New York City. “The most basic rule of fundraising is that donors must actually give away funds, and in doing so they should not exploit their relationships with fundraisers for personal gain or to benefit anyone else,” she said by email.

Meet with your organisation’s board and put into place a policy on how you will accept gifts, making it clear that you won’t allow financial conditions, she said. Now you’ll have written rules you can reference when donors ask for special favours.

By clearly defining the types of gifts you accept, you will feel better about the money you’re raising and you’ll actually improve your charity’s reputation.

“By clearly defining the types of gifts you accept, you will feel better about the money you’re raising and you’ll actually improve your charity’s reputation,” Daubel said.

This may alienate certain donors. But that’s better for the charity in the long run, she said: “In the short run you may need to turn away potential donors, but in the long run you will attract the kinds of gifts that your organisation seeks: those that reflect its (and your) values and morals.”

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at work ethic@bbc.com.

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