top of page

Ethics of legacy fundraising during emergencies

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020-22 raised some disquiet that it would be unethical to ask people at risk of dying form Covid-19 to make a bequest to a charity.

To explore this issue, Rogare commenced a project to identify the ethical issues facing legacy fundraising in all emergencies that are likely to result in severe loss of life, such as a pandemic or epidemic (even a man-made one such as the opioid crisis), war, or societal disruption (such as might be the result of economic depression or natural disaster).

The project team set out to:

  1. Identify potential ethical challenges/issues/dilemmas relating to legacy fundraising during emergencies generally and the current pandemic specifically.

  2. Differentiate these from the usual ethical challenges/issues/dilemmas faced by legacy fundraisers – i.e. what makes this ethical issue relevant to the current situation or any other emergency?

  3. Analyse these ethical dilemmas through the lenses of existing theories of fundraising ethics to recommend possible resolutions.

The team's full deliberations and are available in the final report, which you can download by clicking on the cover image or the button below. Scroll down for a short summary.

Legacy ethics cover.png
  • Download the final report from legacy fundraising ethics during emergencies project. A version optimised for home/office printing with block colour removed is available here.

In carrying out the first two stages, the project team classified the various arguments into two question sets:

Question Set 1 – ‘offence’ and other overarching ethical questions.

These were range of questions such as the consideration of people in vulnerable circumstances, communicating about a death-related subject at a time when thoughts of mortality were high, or public perceptions around ‘ambulance chasing’. Many of these scenarios could be summed up by the overarching questions below: 


  • Where is the line (or how do we decide where the line is) on when it is appropriate/inappropriate to ask for a legacy gift?

  • Does risk of death or physical/economic disability change whether marketing is ethical or just how, and to whom, we market?

  • How do we weigh or offset offence of some versus impact to mission by those who accept? Since this is always trailing (or afterwards) how can we make ethical decisions in the present?

Question Set 2 – ‘urgency’ and other ethical dilemmas in practice

This set included issues such as the possibility of people making legacy decisions in a hurry, the risk of short-term offence leading to long-term detriment to legacy giving, or the importance of offering a convenient way to give at a time when other options (e.g. attending events) might not be available. These could be summed up with the overarching questions below: 


  • Does urgency impact the ethical implications of legacy marketing?

  • Whose urgency matters most? The donor, the beneficiary, or the organisation, (perhaps something else) and why?

  • How does an environmental factor (pandemics, war, famine, etc.) change the ethical rules that are followed and why would certain environmental factors matter more than others, such as lack of access to healthcare, economic inequality, etc.?

  • In an environment of imperfect information (not knowing whether a donor is affected or how severely they are affected) how should a fundraiser discern the probability of urgency?

  • Does it matter that certain organisations may be seen as more worthy currently/in an emotionally heightened situation? Or vice versa i.e. not taking away from current giving?


Exploring the questions using ethical lenses


The project team then looked at each of these sets of questions using the lenses of three ethical theories identified through Rogare’s work on fundraising ethics:

Trustism – fundraising is ethical when it maintains and protects public trust.


Donorcentrism – fundraising is ethical when it gives priority to the donor’s wants, needs, desires and wishes (and, in the consequentialist view, this maximises sustainable income for the nonprofit).


Rights Balancing – 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 final report to see the full analysis.

Rogare Quote Icon Black.png

More information

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

Legacy fundraising ethics project group

Claire Routley.jpeg

Project leader

Legacy Voice (UK)

  • Heather Hill, CCC+H/Rogare Council member (USA)

  • Cherian Koshy, Des Moines Performing Arts (USA)

  • Lucy Lowthian, Sue Ryder (UK)

  • Meredith Niles, Marie Curie Cancer Care (UK)

  • Ligia Peña, Greenpeace International (Canada)

  • Michael Rosen, ML Innovations (USA)

  • Andrew Watt, Accordant Philanthropy/Rogare Council member (UK)

  • Roewen Wishart, XPonential Fundraising (Australia)

Rogare R Icon Grey.png
bottom of page