Thursday, August 30, 2012

ethics boy

My team at Leeds have accused me in the past of being a bit "definite"on my views regarding the ethics of fundraising. Well, I have a problem. It's not simply my former career. It's my academic training. Unlike most fundraisers (straw poll in a room of fundraisers this morning - not many had any ethics training per se) ethics was very much part of my academic background. It was a fairly major part of my second go at Oxford.

And it wasn't the theory or history or philosophy of ethics that I was any good at. It was the logic, the sense and the dynamism of ethics that fired me. 'If you do 'A' then 'B' will apply. Given that, what should your response be?'

Fundraisers are simply not ethics professionals. Very few possess the ability to think with any kind of ethical complexity. Why should they? That's like saying they aren't veterinary professionals, and can't operate on horses. Except, of course, that the occasions when fundraisers are expected to operate on horses with any degree of success are (in my limited experience) unusual. The occasions when fundraisers are expected to operate with ethical understanding are daily.

So I was interested in the session this morning at CEAC2012 on the ethics of fundraising. It was a very serious and considered review of a terrible situation faced by LSE and a discussion of what happened afterwards.

In that terrible situation, a furore happened because not quite good enough questions were asked which meant that the fundraisers were crucified due to the mistakes of others. Now, on the other side of all the fuss, the fundraisers won't be caught out so easily; there are better firewalls.

I simplify, and that's unfair, but honestly the last thing that seemed to have happened was that anyone was educated ethically. Maybe I missed that bit. What did happen was that processes were set in place so that when people did their job (i.e. get donations from rich people) it clearly wasn't their fault if some of the rich people turned out to be dodgy. Others were given the responsibility for making that call.

I'm being harsh - but I'm being harsh with a purpose.

A question was asked at this conference, right at the start in the fundraising  plenary. If there were qualifications for fundraisers, what would you put in there as essential?

Ethics. I'd make teaching ethics essential.

Here's a basic issue: I wonder how many institutions make first contact with potential donors to their universities by talking about "involvement" and never mention giving? Just how ethical is that?

There's a simpler way of asking that question:

How honest is that? Or try this: How transparent is that?

I'm not going to rehearse arguments here. Please feel free to disagree. Please be offended by me. But be offended by me because you have a well thought out ethical understanding that has a good response to the things I have questioned. And if you do - as a fundraiser I am going to posit that you are in a minority. Which is a shame. A shame on our profession.

I was naughty in the session I attended, and I didn't get the opportunity to apologise to the speaker, who did a great job at talking us through what had clearly been a terrible time for her & her team. I was naughty because I asked a question which cheaply pointed out that there was ethical work still to be done.

It remains.

For the head of that department to put a slide up at a conference with a recommendation that we should 'use the ethics thing to embed our work deeper into our institutions' demonstrated that there is a lot of work to be done to help fundraising professionals truly understand ethical issues. I say that again not to belittle a situation but to demonstrate that process is not understanding. That department in that university went through hell; their process in dealing with the same situation is now much better. The ethical understanding of individuals is - well, I have no idea. But at no point were we told - everyone was sent on a professional ethics course. Everyone was educated. Everyone understands more.

The university where I'm employed is doing enormous work on professional ethics. CASE Europe might well turn to the guys at Leeds and ask for some input. It's not just bankers and geneticists who need that help.

What can I say? I'll get off my soap box.

Those of you who know me well know that at heart I'll always be an ethics boy.


Ricky Carvel said...

Let me get this straight... you were naughty by being ethical?

Marcus Green said...

Well, yes. But I did it shamelessly publicly. Though I was very polite & didn't point out that the answer I got ("fundraisers aren't ethics professionals but we now know people who are") was actually exactly the point I was making. Oh well.

KWRegan said...

On a side note, my brother-in-law finds that his Master's in Philosophy has been worthwhile in business (academic publishing) precisely because it gave him a grounding in Ethics. Without casting aspersions, he simply says his knowledge and practice of ethics gives him an actual competitive advantage.