February 15, 2021


Americans tend to place more trust in nonprofit organizations than they do in many other structures. But if any organization abuses that trust or defies the ethics of philanthropy, it paints us all with the same mistrust. 

When some nonprofit hospitals across the country recently allowed their major donors and board members to “skip the line” and receive the coronavirus vaccination early or through special invite-only arrangements, it understandably angered not just the general public but most of us inside fundraising. 

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) released an unambiguous rebuke of the practice. “The idea of hospital systems, or any charity, ignoring protocols, guidance or restrictions—regardless of origin—and offering certain donors and board members the opportunity to ‘skip the line’ and receive vaccinations ahead of their scheduled time is unethical, inequitable and antithetical to the values of philanthropy and ethical fundraising.”

While we in public media are not subject to concern over vaccine distribution, it would be unwise to ignore this opportunity to examine our own ethical responsibilities to discover where we need to shore up our practices.

AFP’s Code of Ethics and the Donor Bill of Rights offer important starting points, but that shouldn’t be where we stop. There are particular concerns  that fundraisers and station management who work primarily with gift clubs and major donors should address: 

  • One-to-One Fundraising Work Requires Boundaries
    Some of the best advice for this work is to get to know your donors, understand their passions and build a relationship. But it’s important to remember that the relationship should be between the donor(s) and the organization not with the individual fundraiser. Create the right boundaries for yourself and your work so that everyone understands this is a professional relationship which can continue even after staffing changes.
  • Major Donors Give More, They Aren’t More
    Careful attention and cultivation is a part of the work that leads to a gift. But the anchor for that relationship needs to be the mission of the station, not the happiness of the donor. If you are valuing the happiness of the donor(s) over the mission of the station, you may be tempted to agree to requests or demands that could be unethical.
  • Scarcity Mindset Will Lead You Down the Wrong Path
    Major giving fundraising really does require optimism to be optimally successful. It requires faith that when you combine great services, thoughtfully engage your community, and tell your story well, that gifts will come. Assuming the worst (you won’t find supporters, no one cares, rich people are all free-loaders) will convince you that you have to meet every demand from a donor or accept a gift that feels wrong because you won’t find that support anywhere else. There is abundance in this country and Americans are generous; we must do the right thing and believe in our work and in our donors

Commit to a discussion on this issue with your team in the coming weeks. More ethical lapses will come to light and you will feel better knowing that you have discussed the practices that uphold your organization’s values openly. The dissimilar situation of vaccine clinics can help you take the plunge into the ethics conversation at your station but don’t limit it to discussion. This is the time to investigate how you can be an agent of change and hold yourself more accountable with the support of your station management. 

Read through your gift acceptance policy, or begin the work of creating one, and make sure it meets your needs now and is broad enough to work in the future. If you have a gift acceptance policy that you are quite proud of, please share with Greater Public so that you can help other stations on their journey.