Is it Ethical When an Ethicist Browbeats Prospective Donors?

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and founder of The Life You Can Save, not only thinks it is acceptable to browbeat prospective donors, it’s exactly what he did in an op-ed article published in The Washington Post.

In my opinion, Singer’s piece, “Heartwarming Causes are Nice, but Let’s Give to Charity with Our Heads,” contains a glaring ethical problem:

Coercive Manipulation. Singer suggests that people who donate to causes that he does not endorse, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, are guilty of murder.

Let’s look more closely at this issue before exploring other problems with Singer’s reasoning.

After pointing out that the Make-A-Wish Foundation does not save lives, Singer presents a variety of examples of how contributions to his select group of organizations, instead of Make-A-Wish, can actually preserve lives. Singer writes:

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do. According to Make-A-Wish, the average cost of realizing the wish of a child with a life-threatening illness is $7,500. That sum, if donated to the Against Malaria Foundation and used to provide bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions, could save the lives of at least two or three children (and that’s a conservative estimate).”

Singer goes on to say:

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid [referencing a child who benefitted from Make-A-Wish last year]?”

Such adolescent logic is harshly manipulative. The taking of a human life is widely considered the greatest possible sin. By accusing people of this sin, Singer is using guilt to coercively manipulate donor behavior.

Mosquito by Ibrahim Koc

Mosquito by Ibrahim Koc

Rather than offering an unbiased exploration of the roles of emotion v. intellect in the philanthropic process, Singer uses the forum to browbeat people to meet his own personal philanthropic standards.

I’m not sure why Singer thinks he is better qualified to judge which charities are worthy to exist or not. Nevertheless, it is certain that Singer feels he has a better moral compass than the rest of us. And, unless we want to be murderers, we should support his anointed causes.

What I find particularly interesting is that, while Singer appears concerned about saving lives, he seems little concerned with the quality of those lives saved.

What happens to the child who has been saved from Malaria? Would Singer oppose donations to build a school to educate those children? After all, the money otherwise could have gone to buy more mosquito nets.

Singer’s op-ed article provides an excellent example of what nonprofit organizations should not do when trying to attract people to a cause. Instead, here are some of the things that charities should do:

1. Maintain the highest possible ethical standards. All charities should adopt the Association of Fundraising Professional’s Code of Ethical Principles (or a similar code) as policy.

2. Avoid coercion and outright manipulation.

3. Provide accurate, factual information to prospective donors so they can make their own informed decisions.

4. Make a strong case for support. Even Singer acknowledges the need for a strong case for support and effective storytelling. When a charity has a strong case and relates it in the form of a story about an individual or small group, the cause will be more relatable and the charity will be more likely to generate support.

5. Resist the temptation to blame prospects for their lack of support. Instead, organizations should look inward to discover how they could have better educated and cultivated the prospect and how they could have more effectively inspired a donation. See last week’s post for a great example of the power of effective storytelling.

In addition to his ethical misstep, Singer has philosophically trapped himself by embracing three fallacies:

First, he assumes that someone who donates to Make-A-Wish does not also contribute to life-saving charities. In most cases, that is undoubtedly false.

As Singer’s own informal research shows, people want to help others and, in particular, save lives. People tend to support many charities rather than just one. Donors often support a variety of causes. It’s up to individual charities to inspire those donors.

Second, he assumes that the philanthropic pie is of a static size and that only the slices can be made smaller or larger. If one gives to Make-A-Wish, one is taking money away from a life-saving charity; it is a false determination. In actuality, the nonprofit sector has the power to grow the pie itself. Instead of berating donors for giving to the wrong organizations thereby effectively taking money away from worthy organizations, let’s increase the size of the philanthropic pie.

There’s no need to squabble over limited resources if those resources are only limited by our own imaginations. With a larger philanthropic pie, we can all be more comfortable when donors choose to support life or the quality of life. Without both, it would be a rather bleak world.

Third, Singer assumes that philanthropic decision-making is governed by either the heart or the mind. The headline of his piece sums this up clearly: “Let’s Give to Charity with Our Heads.”

The reality is that philanthropy involves both the heart and the mind. To deny one or the other is to deny human nature.

As for Peter Singer, I assume his heart was in the right place when he wrote his op-ed article. Unfortunately, his head was not. Don’t make the same mistakes.

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

24 Responses to “Is it Ethical When an Ethicist Browbeats Prospective Donors?”

  1. Michael,

    This is a great response to Dr. Singer’s commentary. You know very well how I feel about this subject, and have read my piece, “It’s a Shame” ( Pitting causes against each other in competition for support is a shameful act. Tell your story, make your argument for support, and let the donor choose to support your cause, but don’t manipulate your donors and don’t degrade another cause doing so.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts here and for own blog piece about Peter Singer’s earlier article with the same theme. His shallow, ivory tower, self-serving opinion articles would be amusing if they weren’t so insulting and flawed. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that he’s started some interesting conversations.

  2. This reminds me of how some fundraisers think that manipulation and bullying will get the donor to give more. I don’t believe that to be true. Some give in to this kind of behavior because they are too embarrassed to walk away from a bully. People give to people who care!

    • Lyn, thank you for commenting. I agree with you. In my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, I devote a section to an exploration of the differences between manipulation v. motivation v. inspiration. If we’re ethical, we won’t manipulate. If we understand a prospect’s motivation, we can inspire. By being donor centered, we’ll increase our chance of getting a gift today. In addition, the lifetime value of the donor will be far greater than would otherwise be the case. Bullying might produce some short-term results, but it is unethical and, ultimately, counter productive.

  3. Michael, thanks for this good discussion.

    Pope Francis is calling the Catholic Church (a call that can apply to everyone) to make the poor a higher priority. But even this has to be done willingly, joyfully and with the heart as much as the head. Joyful experiences beget more giving. And nonprofits are key to telling stories to inspire the best in each of us.

    Critics often contain some truth. So, while I may not agree with all of Prof. Singer’s points (I agree with all 5 of yours), he is strongly reminding us of terrible poverty conditions that exist. At least for me, I feel challenged to reflect on ways that I can better help the poor in my giving. To be shaken up occasionally is a good thing!

    We do need to help people to live, to develop their potential and to be encouraged when hit with a challenging condition. This is a good discussion to stimulate reflection on our giving. Are we including the most needy as part of our charity investment portfolio? Can we do more?

    • Richard, thank you for joining the discussion. I agree with you that Peter Singer’s op-ed piece is not all bad. It’s stimulated some worthwhile conversations, here and elsewhere. I think Singer’s article touches on a number of important issues: 1) The psychology of philanthropy; 2) The difference between inspiring v. manipulating prospective donors; 3) The evaluation of nonprofit organizations; 4) The analysis of the effectiveness of charity programs; 5) Poverty. One of my complaints about his piece that I have not voiced until now is that Singer tried to cover too much territory in a limited space.

      Regarding the issue of poverty, I would like to point out that some thought leaders believe that the charity sector is incapable of solving the problem. Consider this:

      Approximately 2.7 billion people around the world live in poverty. Despite the fact that the global economy has grown 17-fold over the past six decades, about three of every eight people in the world exist on $2 per day or less.

      While charities have helped elevate some of the pain of poverty, they have not been able to significantly impact the problem. That’s why legendary fundraiser Mal Warwick and social entrepreneur Paul Polak have written the book The Business Solution to Poverty. If you’d like to learn more about the book, you can read Mal’s guest blog post here.

  4. Fabulous conversation touching on many difficult and challenging conundrums. I agree that it’s a fallacy to think there’s only one pie, and taking a slice diminishes the pie for the rest. To use another analogy, a rising tide raises all boats. Rather than attempt to limit charitable deductions to those organizations that serve the “poor,” we should try to expand charitable deductions and extend subsidies to more who make our communities, and world, a better, more liveable place. And that should perhaps extend to small businesses as well. Because who draws the line between Mom and Pop with a social business and a large hospital funded 90 percent by earned income?

    The psychology of philanthropy is fascinating, and the more we learn the more we know that giving and gratitude are good for people — for their soul, their heart and their health. So, the more we help folks to give, and to enact their values, the more we help them, too. The giving becomes a circle, with no one coming out a loser. People won’t give generously, for the most part, just because they “should.” It’s time to retire that organization-centric notion. It’s time to stop “hitting people up” and “twisting their arms.” It’s time to become facilitators of philanthropy — love of human kind — and to allow people to float their own boats. The rising tide will support us all.

    • Claire, thank you for joining the conversation. I agree with you that we should think of ourselves as philanthropy facilitators. Organization-centric thinking must be replaced with donor-centered thinking. Your call for the nonprofit sector to stop “hitting people up” and “twisting their arms” reminded me of a sales seminar I attended years ago to hear the legendary Tom Hopkins. Hopkins encouraged sales professionals to think of their role as encouraging people to own something rather than buy something. Like you, he wanted sales professionals to stop “twisting arms,” “hitting people up,” “doing pitches,” etc. He encouraged sales professionals to discover what people want and to understand their motivation. Then, if the sales professional’s product or service will meet that need, show the customer how. If the for-profit sector has figured out that being customer-focused is good business, shouldn’t the nonprofit sector be donor focused? Insulting donors for the charities they support and/or denigrating those charities is not acceptable fundraising practice.

  5. So, how ethical is an ethicist who publicly singles out one charity whose mission does not coincide with his personal world view? Damaging the reputation of an organization that needs to raise money has serious consequences.

    It is absurd to assume that no charity is worthy of support if it does not save lives. The Make a Wish foundation would not exist if a substantial number of donors did not support it or if it did not provide genuine value to those who benefit from its work. There are ways to save lives and there are ways to make life better. I think we need to do both and that both are deserving of support.

    • Bonnie, thank you for commenting. I’m with you. While saving lives is important, so is enhancing the quality of those lives. Peter Singer thinks himself noble because he supports charities that purchase mosquito nets to protect children in poverty. However, wouldn’t it be more noble to support the building of mosquito net factories in poor countries? That way, not only would people be protected against malaria-caring mosquitos, some would be able to earn a living by working in a factory that produces the nets. Unfortunately, people like Singer focus on what will make them feel better about themselves rather than real solutions. This narcissism is what makes it easy for Singer to denigrate the Make a Wish Foundation.

      • Thanks Michael I agree that choosing one cause over another at all takes us down the wrong path. The donors are telling us something and we should listen. If we don’t agree, we should take another look at our missions and how we are communicating them

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Michael. I am disappointed that this kind of thinking seems to be a trend lately. Author Eric Friedman recently wrote an open letter that (in part) disparaged donors who are moved by “inspiring photos and sappy stories.” And then AFP featured and endorsed the letter in their eWire newsletter…why?! Friedman also does much more chastising of donors in his recent book. Simone Joyaux responds eloquently here:

    With so many people in the world not giving to charity at all, why are we focused on criticizing the personal causes near and dear to the people who ARE giving?

    • Heather, thank you for commenting and sharing a link to Simone Joyaux’s excellent post. It does seem that castigating philanthropists of all sizes has become something of a new fad. I believe this attitude comes from well-intentioned arrogant, narcissistic, ill-informed individuals some of whom would be perfectly happy if philanthropy were replaced by higher taxes and greater central planning by the government.

      People like Peter Singer and Eric Friedman make flawed arguments. Unfortunately, in their desire to be provocative, they are actually polarizing. Rather than stimulating worthwhile discussion, they shutdown meaningful dialogue.

      It’s up to all of us who know better to challenge the misguided, even if well-intentioned, thinking of people like Singer and Friedman.

  7. Peter Singer, advocate of infanticide, euthanasia, and eugenics? THAT Peter Singer?

    • Susie, thank you for commenting. In answer to your question: Yes, that Peter Singer. Readers here might be shocked by your comment. However, a simple Google search will provide folks with illuminating information that confirms what you’ve stated. Frankly, I was unaware of Singer’s views on other issues. I thank you for opening my eyes.

  8. I have read up on Peter Singer and while he accuses those who give to causes he doesn’t support murders, he would support taking the lives of those he considers “less than.”

    Hypothetically, in Peter Singer’s world, if I can’t support the needs of my family working one job, by taking a second job I am guilty of taking a job away from someone who might need it more.

    I give — generously– to causes that support meeting the basic physical needs AND to those that meet the spiritual/inner needs of others. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.

    • Mary, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Some of Peter Singer’s opinions are certainly on the fringe. Unfortunately, his view of philanthropy seems to be gaining some traction, at least in some circles. The fact that The New York Times published his shallow, twisted opinion piece proves that some in the media establishment believe that Singer’s view of philanthropy is actually worth considering. It’s disturbing.

  9. He forgets that it is their money and they are free to decide the good they wish to do. He’s like the people who think nonprofits should merge because “there are just too many!” There are as many as diverse individuals wish to create. Just as there are many motivations for doing good, there are many types of good to be done. None are unworthy. Who does he think he is and does he really think that guilt is an effective motivator of anymore than token support? Has he studied donor motivation–and satisfaction?

    • Bob, thank you for your comment. For you and me (and thankfully many others), it’s simple logic: Those who earn the money should get to decide how to use their own money. However, there are also many who think that either they should decide or the government should decide.

      For years, private philanthropy and the nonprofit sector were discouraged in Brazil. It was mostly during the time of military rule. When the democracy was re-established, the nonprofit sector was permitted to thrive and Brazil’s democracy was more secure. Readers can download my article about this for free by clicking here. A free and independent nonprofit sector is one of the pillars of a robust democracy.

      As for Peter Singer’s training and expertise, I suspect he knows very little about philanthropy, nonprofit management, and donor motivation. He is a bioethicist. However, I guess he feels that being a Princeton University professor qualifies him to pontificate on any subject. His own words prove otherwise.

  10. Good piece, Michael. It seems apparent that Peter Singer and Eric Friedman are co-believers. I find it interesting that neither Friedman nor Singer have commented on your comments – or my comments in the blog.

    Their lack of knowledge (or interest?) about the real world, human decision-making, emotions, etc. etc. blah blah blah… is rather sad.

    And as Jeff Brooks notes, this constant trashing of donors is getting pretty distressing.

    • Simone, thank you for the kind feedback. Coming from you, it means a lot to me. I also want to thank for also standing up against the ridiculous, and dangerous, opinion pieces from Peter Singer and Eric Friedman.

      I’m glad that Jeff Brooks has also shared his thoughts about Singer and Friedman. For my readers interested in checking out Brooks’ post, click here.


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