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Fundraising ethics

Perhaps the most important topic in fundraising, but with the least thinking behind it

The bedrock of all our work to Rethink Fundraising is fundraising’s professional ethics.


If fundraising practices and policies are not built on appropriate ethical theory, then it’s down to luck, guesswork and happenstance whether they are or are not ethical. And if our practices are not ethical, then our relationships with our stakeholders, particularly our donors, will suffer, and the ultimate losers will be our beneficiaries if unethical practices fail to yield as much money as possible to provide the help and services they rely on.


And so professional ethics in fundraising is important in the most fundamental way. And we need to be ethically literate as fundraisers, because the practice of fundraising attracts more than its fair share of allegations of unethical practice, such as: 


  • how much it costs (the perennial – and nonsensical – demand from some people that every penny they give should be spent on ‘the cause’ and none of it to help run the charity or raise more money)

  • use of third-party fundraising agencies

  • how charities process data

  •  ‘aggressive’ or ‘guilt-tripping’ types of fundraising (so-called ‘chuggers’ often being the main targets of such allegations).

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These are perennial challenges that fundraising faces across the globe, particularly, but not only, in English-speaking cultures such as the USA, Canada, Ireland Australia and New Zealand.


And that’s not even considering more nuanced ethical issues such as the appropriate framing of beneficiaries in fundraising materials, or whether donor-centred fundraising fosters a sense of white saviourism.

Fundraising practice has plenty of ethical prescriptions, which are mainly contained in its codes of practice – such as the Fundraising Regulator's Code of Fundraising Practice in the UK, and the International Statement on Ethical Principles in Fundraising, developed by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the USA. These codes contain ‘applied’ ethics that tell fundraisers what they may or may not do.


But what the fundraising profession has much less of is what’s known as ‘normative’ ethics – theories that help fundraisers understand why they may or may not do certain things.


Unlike most other professions or emerging professions – including marketing and public relations, the two most closely related to fundraising – fundraising has very little in the way of a normative ethical foundation upon which its applied practices are built. There is very little scholarship on normative fundraising ethics and there is next to nothing to be found on ethical theory in fundraising published in academic journals. 


The absence of normative theory to inform fundraising’s applied ethics and practice means that when fundraisers encounter an ethical dilemma, they often have to make up their ethical policy on the fly/hoof without guidance or frameworks for them to follow, often leading to sub-optimal ethical decision-making and policies.


A major component of our work to build a richer and more robust knowledge base has thus been to develop new theories of professional ethics that will provide firm foundations for ethical best practice. You can access each of our work streams on fundraising ethics by click the links in the boxes below, or download our paper – Rethinking Fundraising: Professional Ethics – which gathers all our work on ethics in a single document.

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Rethinking Fundraising optimised for desktop viewing.


Rethinking Fundraising optimised for tablet viewing (available soon).

Rethinking Fundraising optimised for home/office printing.

What we want to achieve

a. Improve ethical decision making by fundraisers in their day-to-day roles.

b. Empower fundraisers to ethically justify, advocate and defend their actions to stakeholders (public, colleagues, boards, regulators, politicians and media).

c. Improve ethical decision making in fundraising at a strategic policy level by ensuring fundraising policies are ethically coherent and consistent and not developed solely as a reaction to allegations of unethical practice.

d. Advance fundraising’s claims to professionhood by putting its professional ethics on a firmer foundation.

e. Reduce scepticism about, criticism of, and hostility to fundraising (from the likes of media and politicians) by demonstrating a coherent theory of professional ethics that underpins those activities that attract criticism.

What we are working on

Our work on ethics is currently focused on six areas...

Normative fundraising ethics

A new normative theory of general fundraising ethics.


Donor dominance

The power dynamics in donor-fundraiser relationships.


Beneficiary 'framing'

How beneficiaries ought to be ‘framed’ in fundraising.


The virtuous fundraiser

Virtue ethics and fundraising.


AI & fundraising ethics

Ethical implications of using AI in fundraising practice.


Community-centric fundraising

The new movement challenging Donorcentrism


Ethics of legacy fundraising

Durning health and

other emergencies.


Rights-Balancing Fundraising Ethics


Our main project has been to develop a new normative theory of fundraising ethics. This states that:

Fundraising is ethical when it balances the duty of fundraisers to ask for support (on behalf of their beneficiaries) with the right of the donor not to be subject to undue pressure to donate…

…such that a mutually beneficial outcome is achieved and neither stakeholder is significantly harmed.

  • Download the white paper that  articulates this theory – Rights stuff: Fundraising's ethics gap and a new theory of normative fundraising ethics.

  • Find out more about Rights-Balancing Fundraising Ethics and all our work on normative fundraising ethics

Ethical decision making framework


We have developed an ethical decision-making framework based on our theory development. This framework is designed to be used with the Rogare white paper on Rights-Balancing Fundraising Ethics.

  • Download the the Rogare Ethical Decision-Making Framework.

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