Do You Know How to Navigate in the Gray Area?

I recently published a post about how City of Hope plans to host a special fundraising event at odds with the organization’s mission. Most readers who responded to a poll at the end of the post felt the event is inappropriate with many even finding the event unethical.

The unscientific poll reveals that 49 percent of respondents feel that the “Let Them Eat Cake” event is “Inappropriate but Not Unethical,” 27 percent say the event is “Unethical & Inappropriate,” 13 percent say the event is a “Great Idea All Around,” and 10 percent believe the event is “Appropriate, Whether on Mission or Not.”

I’m comforted to know that over three-quarters of the respondents feel the same way as I do about the City of Hope event. However, some of the comments I’ve received on this blog site, on LinkedIn, and via email concern me a bit.

Perhaps the comments are a result of how I worded the post or phrased the poll responses. Some people seem to be under the impression that one’s actions are either purely ethical or purely unethical. In certain cases, those folks would be correct. Some actions are clearly ethical or not. Stealing money from Girl Scouts selling cookies (this really happened) is clearly unethical.

However, not all situations are black and white, ethical or unethical.

While the legality or illegality of an action is certainly a guideline, such as the theft incident I just described, something can be unethical without being illegal. SScales of Justice by mikecogh via Flickrome situations in which we find ourselves put us into a gray area. The most challenging ethical dilemmas often involve situations that are not black and white. If they didn’t, they really wouldn’t be dilemmas, would they?

When considering the possible, multiple responses to a situation, we will often find some alternatives are more ethical while some are less ethical. In the case of City of Hope, the organization could choose to continue to host its “Let Them Eat Cake” event without any changes although many readers found it at odds with the nonprofit’s mission and, therefore, unethical. Alternatively, the organization could choose not do any event.

However, the organization has other options. For example, City of Hope can run its cake event but offer healthy alternatives and educational material as well. Or, the organization could host a different event like the Healthy Chef Competition in Vancouver, Canada that Rory Green, a development professional and blogger, told me about.

Again, some alternative courses of action are more ethical or less ethical than others. The objective should be to always choose the best option, make the best decision.

The most challenging ethical dilemmas of all, however, do not have any good, ethical solution. They’re no-win situations. Think of the novel/movie Sophie’s Choice or the “Kobayashi Maru” test from the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even in these no-win situations, we must cope as best as we can to be the best we can.

As those who work in the nonprofit sector, we must understand that our greatest asset is the trust of the public. The more trust people have in charities, the more likely they are to donate. And, with greater trust comes larger contributions.

Therefore, we must always strive to make the best, most ethical decisions possible. When given a choice between a right and wrong action, we must always choose the right one. When there is not an obvious or pure right option, we must work to arrive at the best alternative. Sometimes, that means choosing the best solution from among bad options, in other words, the least terrible option.

Navigating in the gray area is difficult. Fortunately, author and professor Marilyn Fischer, PhD has given us a terrific framework for considering even the most challenging ethical dilemmas. She shares her decision-making methodology in her book, Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising. You can download a free copy of my article “Doing Well By Doing Right: A Fundraisers’ Guide to Ethical Decision-making” (The International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing) that contains a detailed summary of Fischer’s model. 

When considering an ethical dilemma and/or when striving to take the best possible course of action, we need to consider all of the possible alternatives. Then, once we have noted all the possible courses of action, Fischer instructs that we must ask a series of questions about each possible alternative:

Organizational Mission: Does this alternative promote or detract from the organization’s mission? Basic philanthropic values? How does this alternative affect those ultimately receiving the services?

Relationships: Does this alternative strengthen long-term relationships with colleagues, donors, volunteers, and community members?

Personal Integrity: In what ways does this alternative help or not help you develop into the person you want to become? How does it strengthen or weaken your own integrity?”

By carefully exploring our options, taking the time to answer questions from varied perspectives, consulting our professional codes of ethics, and by talking with stakeholders, we will be better able to arrive at the best decisions than if we were to simply wing-it. And, that decision will be far more defensible should it ever be challenged.

The Fischer model can be enormously helpful. However, it can only help us if we recognize a dilemma when it presents itself. Therefore, we need to remain vigilant and open-minded so we can recognize even the least obvious dilemma and avoid trouble. And, when coping with a tough decision, we need to employ a framework that helps us to arrive at the best possible outcome when navigating our way through the gray area.

When contemplating a challenging decision, you’ll want to know what the professional standards are. To help you, here are links to just some of the codes of ethics and standards of practice that have been carefully developed by our professional associations:

Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethical Principles and Standards

Partnership for Philanthropic Planning Model Standards of Practice for the Charitable Gift Planner

Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement Statement of Ethics

The Giving Institute Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics

The Donor Bill of Rights

Institute of Fundraising (UK) Code of Fundraising Practice

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


[Publisher’s Note: Michael Rosen is available to lead seminars and workshops about ethical decision-making. He can tailor a presentation for the unique needs of your nonprofit organization or professional association. You can contact him here.]

6 Comments to “Do You Know How to Navigate in the Gray Area?”

  1. Hi Michael,

    I love your point about: “Relationships: Does this alternative strengthen long-term relationships with colleagues, donors, volunteers, and community members?”

    The Healthy Chef competition mentioned above was the most fun gala I got to go to all year. Sponsored by the BC Produce Marketing Association, it brought top chefs from across Vancouver and challenged them to make delicious and healthy appetizers, entrees and deserts. It was amazing what they came up with using creativity, spices and everyone always had a great time. Everyone walked away with goodie bags of fresh herbs, lemons, veggies.

    That being said – I used to work for a health charity, and it can be hard reconciling mission and a fun event. But ultimately, we have to remember that our events should put mission, and relationships at their core.

    • Rory, thanks for your comment and, again, for telling me about The Healthy Chef Competition. You’re right about the importance of relationships. The difference between transactional fundraising and professional development is the central role of the relationship. Development is not always easy. But, it’s the right approach.

  2. Michael,
    You know how I feel about the topic of ethics and fundraising. It is how our friendship originated. Generally, I am a pretty black and white kind of guy, and I tend to err on the side of being conservative when given a difficult choice. You have provided your readers some excellent information when considering those gray areas. I also appreciate the sources for your readers to go to for further information. Keep bringing up the topic from time to time. It needs to be revisited often, lest we forget.

    • Richard, thanks so much for your kind comment. I’m always happy when the subject of ethics resonates with people. However, it can be difficult to engage folks in a discussion about fundraising ethics. There are two problems: First, most people think of themselves as already ethical and, therefore, feel they don’t need to learn anything about ethics. Second, most development professionals are busy looking for new ways to achieve goals and, therefore, have little time to learn about something they consider merely academic or theoretical. In reality, ethical decision-making is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. And, when we’re highly ethical, we’re more likely to earn the public’s trust which will lead to greater support for our organizations. I’m an ethics nerd, so I’ll definitely continue to bring up ethics issues from time to time.

  3. Michael:

    I hedged a bit when I first read this story because I do not believe that these types of topics are discussed much in fundraising circles. And yes,there are grey areas. On one hand, funds are needed to operate the programs. On the other hand, how far do we go?

    I’m prone to think “this is a board decision”- that’s right,pass it upwards! I think that it is totally relative.

    My main thoughts are that it should be O.K. to have the event but please promote healthy alternatives during the festivities.

    However, I can certainly understand and appreciate your sensitivity to your wife’s situation.

    Here are two alternatives that may be considered:

    a) In the future, could the group perhaps consider hosting the event outside of the realm of the hospital independently, and then donate the proceeds to the appropriate charity?

    b) Another alternative could be that a wealthy donor could find out the net proceeds of previous eventa and then write them a check for the amount. (I know, it defeats the purpose of a special event-the involvement, engagement, etc), but if it is an ethical dilemma, it could save a lot of folks some grief.

    Thank you for propelling this issue to the forefront.

    • Michelle, thank you for sharing your thoughts and suggestions. Nonprofit organizations have many choices when it comes to hosting a fundraising event. You’re right, it’s not a bad idea for an organization’s board of directors to adopt a policy to guide the staff in choosing an event and managing it. While we all want to raise as much money for our organizations as possible, we need to be careful to do so in the most appropriate ways possible. I’m glad you took the time to read my post and comment on it.

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