Public policy and advocacy expert Andrew Watt, senior principal of Accordant Philanthropy, explores the challenges of recent years that have brought ethics to the fore for charities, looking at how to embed ethical principles in your organisation and its fundraising.

“Ethics” sounds like an abstract concept to most of us. It’s not a word that is always easy to relate to. And, so long as we feel we’re doing things properly and things are going well, it’s all too easy to postpone our focus on “professional ethics” as something to return to on that mythical day when we have the time to catch up. That is, until the storm strikes, we are in the middle of it, struggling to see the way ahead.


At that point, understanding what ethical behaviour means at an industry and organisational level is critical. As is having an ethical framework for decision-making both personally and institutionally. This is no more apparent than when a crisis occurs and ethics are thrust into the spotlight.


Let’s look at two different examples. Cast your minds back to Scotland in 2002. The news broke that a Scottish charity revealed significant sums of money were missing – funds had been misapplied for a number of years. How had that happened?


Regulation of charities in Scotland at that time was minimal. Registration was the responsibility of the Government’s underfunded and over-stretched tax office (the Inland Revenue as it then was). The public was unaware of what it could do to satisfy any questions it might have about charities’ performance – and the media was no more familiar than the public. What followed was massively damaging; critical of government and, most importantly, hugely critical of the lack of accountability of charities in Scotland. Public confidence plummeted and the level of donations halved.


What to do? The Scottish fundraising community didn’t put up the barricades, circle the wagons and wait for the storm to pass. The Institute of Fundraising (IoF), Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and Scottish Office came together to promote the sector’s commitment to the Codes of Fundraising Practice, and just months later launched a public facing campaign to get Scotland giving again. The campaign focused on rebuilding public confidence in charities, and forming a new regulatory structure for charities in Scotland.


Giving recovered. By the middle of 2003 it had reached the levels achieved before scandal struck. In large part, that was due to new heights of public awareness of the professional standards and accountability of Scotland’s charity sector. And by the end of 2005, not only was there a new Charities Act for Scotland but, after extensive public consultation, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) had also been established.


In 2015, after the death of Olive Cooke and the series of exposés that followed, it seemed that the UK fundraising sector took a wholly different tack. Silence, for a time at least. Each organisation appeared to wait for others to come forward. This allowed the story-line to be led by the media and politicians, not by those organisations whose mission was to achieve impact across society.


Then, as details emerged of conversations, fundraising practices, lack of concern for ethical norms, it became harder and harder to defend the standards that had been established by fundraisers, for fundraisers. Public trust was severely damaged – and while research suggests that trust is slowly on the mend, fundraising standards and the entire regulatory system have been overhauled – it will take time and effort to rebuild.


Had the sector acted faster, more collaboratively, would it have made a difference? It’s hard to say. It’s also true that the Scotland crisis primarily was driven by the actions of one bad apple, while the more recent UK crisis exposed a range of moral and ethical questions about fundraising across the sector.


So what are the lessons to take from this? How can we embed ethical principles and how will this help us deal with a crisis?


– Establish a firm set of ethical values that fits with the organisation’s approach. They should be both aspirational and achievable, creating a bond of trust that unites beneficiaries, charity staff, volunteers and donors.


– Don’t just tick the box and move on. Ethics are not something to be kept in a cupboard to be taken out occasionally, dusted down and then forgotten about. Make sure ethics are at the core of your strategy, that they shape your values and that this feeds through into what everyone in the organisation does on a day to day basis. This means reviewing them regularly and making sure your induction, training, supervision and support all reflects those values, meaning people never lose sight of what is the right thing to do.


– Be inclusive. Ethical structures need to have trustee, staff, volunteer and stakeholder buy-in, supported and promoted by all those who helped to build them and who genuinely commit to make them happen.


– Ensure your ethical principles are clear; that they are concepts the public can understand and recognise as important. They should not be a series of prohibitions or instructions that are understood only by insiders.


– Be proactive and use firm ethical principles to help guide your actions in a crisis. If accused of wrong-doing, lead from the front, communicating your commitment to these, to investigate if and what may have gone wrong acting appropriately and transparently.


– Above all, remember that ethical practice and the codes that support it aren’t designed to keep wrongdoers in check; but to promote trust, respect and openness between charities and the communities they serve.


The single most important stakeholder that we all have is the public that supports us. Make certain that they are a key partner as you design, build or refresh your ethical statements; you will never regret it.


About Andrew Watt
Andrew has served the fundraising community since the early 1990s: first with the Institute of Fundraising in the UK, then as president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and, most recently, as interim president and CEO of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy in the US. A public policy and advocacy expert, Andrew has advised regulators across the globe on many aspects of the regulation and practice of fundraising. He has now returned to the UK where he is establishing a European practice on behalf of Accordant Philanthropy.