South West Museums Network Event - A simple question of ethics?

South West Museums Network Event - A simple question of ethics?

The South West Museum Development Programme was funded by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy to deliver a one-day ‘hackathon’ on the question of Fundraising Ethics. Helen Jenkins, the facilitator for the day,  writes on what they learnt. 

On Wednesday 25th February a network of thoughtful museums professionals from the South West got together to talk about fundraising ethics.  We debated, we shared ideas, we questioned ourselves and others.  It is safe to say that we talked a lot, but that was the whole point of the hack – there is no one size fits all when it comes to ethical fundraising and we need to talk about it. And that’s just fine. Ethics do not come in isolation.  Ethics in fundraising need to be considered within the context of the whole organisation and even if you think your organisation has ‘got it right’, you need to keep reconsidering ethics in the light of shifting perspectives in the wider world. 

 A few years ago many arts organisations and museums would have loved a pledge of funding from the Sackler Foundation.  Today we would think twice about applying to them (notwithstanding that they have suspended grant making for the time being). But who are we responding to? Is it the arts press? The national press? Our visitors?  Would our visitors even know the issues surrounding the OxyContin scandal? Is it artists? The movement against Sackler was led by a well-regarded artist whose reputation is established. There is no doubt the artist suffered from the opioid crisis and she has an absolute right to criticise.  But should that criticism dictate who we as arts organisations seek funding from? Maybe.  Maybe not. 

The only way to answer that is to have thought about the issues in relation to your organisation. Where is your organisation’s line in the sand? It may be different to another’s, and often will be different from your own and your colleagues, so there is no easy fix. Just as your collections and your programmes are unique, so is your ethical fundraising stance.

So what did we talk about?  Well we started out by setting the scene and of course looking at some statistics.  Fundraising is a mix of art and science so of course we need some statistics to get us started.  Do you know that:

  • 73% of arts organisations employees consider their employer to be at reputation risk through association with a sponsor?
  • 69% of arts organisations would refuse a donation from a company which was considered detrimental to well-being?
  • 54% feel vulnerable to accepting an inappropriate sponsor due to financial pressure?

Worrying indeed.  But of course not the only part of the picture. We looked carefully at the risk of making the arts ’un-fundable’.  Many arts organisations already fear getting left behind by ‘charities’ in their fundraising, so are we being ‘too picky’?

It is very easy to say no to funding, but much harder to say yes with a strong and reasoned argument. 

We talked at length about heritage issues such as slavery and the British Empire.  We also considered reputational cleansing, and the question of ‘how bad is too bad’? 

We also reminded ourselves that ethics concern all areas of fundraising. It is easy to think that we need only concern ourselves corporate partnerships, but actually we need to act ethically with our regular donors.  Those generous supporters who so often provide the bedrock of our unrestricted income need to be considered – we need to think carefully about their opinions and views.  Crucially we need to treat them ethically – not pestering them, or falling foul of data protections laws and guidelines.

Of course the only conclusion from our deliberations was that there is no set answer.  The sand is always shifting and every organisation grapples with its own issues. 

Despite this seemingly slippery subject with no hard rules we did come up with some definitives!  We all agreed that:

  • Fundraising ethics is a whole organisation topic, but we need to be clear that it is the organisations ethics we are dealing with and not our own.  This can be very hard for other members of the team and for trustees.
  • Ethics needs to be discussed and kept on the agenda – this is not something you want to be thinking about for the first time in a crisis.
  • Each organisation needs a policy.  This does not have to have hard and fast rules but should refer to the organisation’s ethos and purpose. 
  • It is important to do your due diligence and understand who you may be partnering with.
  • Organisations need to balance solvency against reputation – this is easier said than done!

If you want to look at a template for developing your own ethical fundraising policy then click here