Ethics @ Work: Fundraiser or schnorrer?

Professionalism can empower fundraisers to realize the best and avoid the worst.

Fundraising is a noble pursuit that sometimes gets a bad name for various reasons, some unjustified and some, sadly, sometimes justified. Therefore it is good news that this week’s conference of the Israel Association of Professional Fundraisers undertook a process of professionalization, which will ultimately include accreditation and a code of ethics.
The nonprofit sector is a large and growing share of the world economy, and innumerable services that make life better for poor and rich alike are provided by these groups and in many cases only by them. It is wellknown that Jewish tradition and culture give charity a very high status, and Jews are invariably among the leading charitable donors both individually and collectively.
It is less well-known that Jewish tradition also has special regard for the fundraiser. The Talmud says, “One who makes others give is greater than one who gives himself.”
Yet fundraisers are often held in low regard. Some of the reasons are bad ones. Many people understandably prefer to hold on to their money and get annoyed or pressured when fundraisers try to convince them to part with it. Prospective donors have to remember that it is always permissible to say no, but that it is also permissible and ultimately necessary that others should ask.
Others are suspicious or resentful of the salaries and expense accounts of fundraisers. But there is no way around the need to pay fundraisers a decent salary. Just as the commercial sector cannot function without salespeople, the nonprofit sector cannot function without fundraisers. Capable people will be drawn to this sector only if they can be fairly compensated for their talents and efforts.
That being said, the fundraising sector truly is too often characterized by misleading, exploitative and disgraceful tactics.
Fundraisers are entitled to decent compensation, but transparency is essential. Not infrequently a very large share, or even a majority, of the money goes to fundraisers. Yet donors are not informed that their donation to a worthy cause will hardly make a dent in the operational budget after the fundraisers and their middlemen get a share.
It is always permissible to ask, but sometimes charities solicit so much it constitutes true harassment. Once I got repeated calls from a local charity, and when I complained, the caller told me frankly, “If you donate I will stop harassing you.”
Perhaps infrequently, but certainly too frequently, there are outright lies. A particularly scurrilous tactic sometimes used is to tell people they already made a pledge and ask them to make good on it. Many people customary make a number of small pledges to well-known charities, and they are reluctant to contradict the representative who claims they did so.
Professionalization and codification are a viable solution to all of these issues. Transparent policies about fees can prevent and prohibit the worst excesses and educate the public about the genuine need for fundraisers to get adequate compensation. Misleading, harassing and exploitative tactics will be shunned. The result is that fundraisers who belong to a professional organization will have an enforceable commitment to act in a responsible way. If a fundraiser doesn’t belong to a professional society, donors will justifiably want to know why and will be extra careful before writing a check.
There is a worldwide trend toward greater professionalism in this field, and the participation of the very large and active cadre of Israeli fundraisers in this process is an important step.
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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).