Monday, October 11, 2010

Talk of unethical fundraising - How do you respond?

It happens every year at this time. Exactly when charities are moving into their busiest and most important quarter, there is a flurry of media activity about unethical fundraising practices. The stories are often inaccurate, sensational and extremely damaging.

For those of us who are dedicating our lives to creating positive change in the world through the redistribution of wealth, these stories are offensive. The implication that resource mobilization isn't worth a pay check, that we don't deserve to get paid for keeping charitable programs funded is well...

WAIT! - this blog is turning into a rant. I didn't mean to do that. There has already been a lot of ranting. The point is this year was no exception. A few weeks ago there was a flurry of media activity about charities in Canada spending too much to raise money.

Every year we all have an opportunity to respond to this story.

Professional associations responded quickly. AFP Toronto and Imagine Canada were right there for all of us. Within what seemed like hours fundraisers across Canada had guidance and speaking points. We were armed.

The response from consultants in Canada was swift and dramatic. Almost every agency I know wrote a blog attempting to prove their worth to charities.

While associations were proving they are worth the membership dues and agencies were fighting to keep business I was having a very busy week on the road. In almost every conversation I had that week I was asked whether we hired ‘professional fundraisers’. People wanted to know how much of their donation went to fundraising costs. It was time for our response?

Our charity decided to be transparent, open, honest and proactive. We wrote to our donors. We empathized with concerns they might be having and told them where they could find our charitable return, what our fundraising costs were and why we hire third party fundraisers. You can read our email here.

Now it was turn for the donors to respond. Within hours my email box was full. Some people saw this as an opportunity to express a concern they had. That was marvellous because then we were able to have a conversation. I telephoned these few people and talked with them directly. They really appreciated it.

Here are a few examples of other responses:

‘I never worry about the FON using funds irresponsibly or for personal gain. Just keep up the good work!’

‘Thank you, this was a good idea.’

‘You are the first (only?) organisation to have contacted me about this issue.’

‘I believe in your work, thank you for your efforts!’

‘K. Well done.’

‘Thanks Kimberley, You can count on my continued support for years to come!’

‘Thank you for your letter but I have no concerns.’

It has been extremely hectic in the fundraising trenches this past year. We have done some good work. Work I’m proud of. Work I believe I deserve a pay check for. I think the majority of our donors would agree.

How about you? How do you respond to media coverage on the cost of fundraising? If you didn’t, don’t worry – you’ll get another chance next year.

NOTE: I only know of two other charities that issued a proactive communication about this story. Great job CPAWS and Second Harvest. Anyone else?

Thanks for spending time here.


  1. Kimberley,

    Well done. First of all for being so pro-active in your communicating with your donors and facing this issue head on. Secondly for taking a stand on this. Every year at Christmas the media writes articles about how much a charity spends or how much per christmas card actually goes to the cause. I think we need to deal with this by not commenting in the defensive. We should take a stand, as an industry, and challenge the media to do a piece on the impact of our work. Ask them to consider the benefit of the money we are getting.

    Well done on a great approach to this issue and a great post.


  2. Conor,

    Thank you so much for commenting - and saying nice things too!

    So much of our sectors communication around this issue is with each other - not sure many charities actually talk to donors about it.

    We sent hardcopy letter to all major donors, personalized email to those we have and .pdf on the website. Honestly it is great to work in an organization that agreed so quickly it was a good move.

    Thanks again for your comment. Cheers.

  3. Your proactive approach is a great idea. When the media attention is predictable, what's the excuse for inaction?

    The donor responses show the benefits of your approach. Well done!