Calling out Bad Fundraising

April 9, 2021

Perhaps it has been the fact that we are into year two of this crazy pandemic. Maybe it is because I have seen many charitable organizations totally botch their fundraising lately. Or, it could even be that I am a fifty-year-old curmudgeon. The fact remains that after decades of being a professional fundraiser, I feel it is my duty to call out bad fundraising practices or incomprehensible policies when I see them. One of my most-read posts was about the end-of-year solicitation for funds (here). As a card-carrying member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), two documents govern individuals’ behavior in this amazing vocation. These are The Donor Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethical Standards.


While these two documents are over-arching, I believe that there needs to be some further expansion of these duties. Especially when it comes to transparency. It is well and good that these documents speak of the relationship with donors and suppliers. Still, it doesn’t go far enough as the documents do not directly address the charity’s relationship with their own staff. I have seen organizations blatantly speak mistruths to their unsuspecting staff, who, for the most part, were young and naive. I have been privy to a handful of communiques from organizations to their staff during this pandemic (shared with me confidentially). The level of misrepresentation (and even dishonesty) is unfathomable.

There is nothing wrong with saying that a situation is fluid and that the future is uncertain. People genuinely appreciate that level of honesty and transparency. But making up answers (especially if they are incorrect) isn’t the way to go. If you aren’t transparent with your staff, how can you expect the staff, in turn, to be transparent with donors? Furthermore, it creates an aura of deceit, and staff is shown that it is okay to bend the truth. In fundraising, the truth is your friend is one of the principles that I adhere to. The truth WILL come to light, by design or by accident, so it is much better to be upfront. There is nothing wrong with identifying an issue and saying that you don’t have a solution yet. Quite often, donors who support your organization may be a great sounding board for developing future solutions.

One Example

I admonished a national charity a few weeks ago for publishing an ad in the newspaper singling out an individual who has made a lot of money but has yet to donate to their cause. I am sure that this was done tongue-in-cheek, but it came off as a disrespectful communication piece. This post caused had 7,500 views and is still getting feedback.

This would be akin to the theory of cold calling Elon Musk because he is the wealthiest American and asking for financial support, just because he is affluent. I wrote about the factors that make someone a good prospect here. HINT: Capacity is not the main driver. I’ve often said that we need to treat donors as partners, not ATMs. This ad offered nothing to the individual as a partner in their health charity. Rather the ad was seen as “give us some of your money”. I wouldn’t recommend this course on a private face-to-face visit, let alone a newspaper publication that boasts a 3.3 million readership number.

Another Example of Bad Fundraising

In Canada, we have seen a huge backlash against a specific international charity — the WE charity. A great piece was produced on this scandal and can be found here. This organization’s deceit and dishonesty led all the way up to the Prime Minister’s office. It is truly a blemish on Canada. Aside from the fact that they were awarded almost $1 billion to run a program on behalf of the government (being sole-sourced and with no experience managing this type of program), the public later found out that the charity was recycling naming opportunities for some of the development work in Africa. Unconscionable!

As I have mentioned in many posts before, I think that what we do as professional fundraisers is quite noble. I think that we are helping solve society’s problems and play a large part in the direction we, as humanity, take. Shoddy fundraising only diminishes the efforts of all charities. When one charity breaks these codes, all charities are unfortunately painted with the same brush, and the level of mistrust deepens. It is within our collective power to ensure that we aim to raise the boat, not sink it.

Until next week.