Posts tagged ‘Marilyn Fischer’

August 24, 2018

What is the Most Important Thing You Can Learn from Recent Nonprofit Scandals?

Recent incidents at Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Oxfam Great Britain, The Presidents Club Charitable Trust, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and elsewhere remind us that the nonprofit sector is not immune to wrongdoing and scandal.

If you’ve never worked for a charity reeling from scandal, there’s a good chance you will one day. Even if you don’t work directly for a scandalized charity, you could still be affected by a loss of public trust if a similar nonprofit finds itself under the spotlight for misdeeds.

For those reasons, it is essential that you learn the most important thing about how to survive a scandal.

Three broad types of scandals can affect a nonprofit organization negatively:

1. Self-inflicted scandals beyond your control. Here’s an example of a situation that was beyond the control of fundraising staff. Oxfam Great Britain was banned from operating in Haiti and the organization’s country director was forced to resign following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. Four other employees were fired for “gross misconduct.” While the frontline fundraising staff was not at all involved in the scandal itself, they nevertheless had to deal with the aftermath.

2. Self-inflicted scandals you could have avoided. We saw this when the Ohio Attorney General’s Office accused the charity Cops for Kids of defrauding donors of $4.2 million. Of all the money it raised over a 10-year-period, the charity spent less than two percent on charitable programming. This scandal allegedly involved fundraising staff as well as senior staff engaging in fraudulent behavior. The solution to this type of scandal is simple: Do not misbehave. Obey the law and adhere to the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethical Standards, the International Statement of Ethical Principles in Fundraising, and/or your nation’s own fundraising code of ethics.

3. Guilt-by-similarity scandal. People in Scotland experienced this several years ago. A cancer charity was embroiled in a well-publicized scandal. As expected, that charity saw a sharp decline in contributions. However, there was also an unpleasant, broad side effect. Completely unaffiliated cancer charities in Scotland also experienced a deep drop in donations resulting from broad public mistrust of all cancer charities. It took the innocent charities nearly a year to recover even with a coordinated campaign to restore public confidence.

Other than avoiding problems in the first place, always a good idea, what can you and your organization do to ensure it can survive a crisis or scandal?

The answer is simple, though the execution is not: Build strong relationships with donors. It takes effort, financial resources, and time. However, it’s an investment well worth making.

Recently, a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch contacted me. Rob Oller sought my commentary about the scandal involving Urban Meyer, The Ohio State University football coach. You can read about the situation on your own since there’s no need for me to get into the details here. Suffice to say that the coach has received a three-game suspension, but not before Bob Evans Restaurants withdrew its corporate sponsorship of Ohio State football.

Oller asked me about how scandal affects charitable giving. I told him, “It depends on the institution and quality of the relationships with its donors over time. The stronger the relationships the more likely the institution is able to weather the controversy.”

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October 16, 2015

When Should You Refuse a Gift?

From opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I learned of two stories that both raise an important question:

When should a charity refuse to accept a donation?

The first story concerns Lucy the Elephant,  an historic six-story tourist attraction in the US. Built in 1881, the wood and tin structure is in need of major repairs. The nonprofit organization that operates Lucy the Elephant is raising money for the project.

Lucy the Elephant by Doug Kerr via FlickrHearing about the repair effort, the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered to make a significant, though not huge, donation. However, the gift would come with major strings attached.

PETA wanted to use the attraction for anti-circus messaging. “PETA wanted to decorate Lucy ‘in a way that would educate visitors about the grim lives facing elephants in circuses.’ That would have included shackling one of her feet and affixing a teardrop below one eye,” according to the Associated Press.

However, the board of trustees for Lucy the Elephant rejected the PETA offer. Richard Helfant, the CEO of Lucy’s board of trustees, said that accepting PETA’s terms would risk scaring or upsetting children who visit the site. “Lucy is a happy place,” he said. “We must always ensure that children who visit Lucy have a happy experience and leave with smiles on their faces. Anything that could sadden a child is not acceptable here at Lucy.”

In other words, the board of Lucy the Elephant found that the conditions of the PETA gift offer were not in alignment with the organization’s own mission and, therefore, it could not accept the donation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a children’s charity in the UK was offered a gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust. Under normal circumstances, this would be considered great news. Jimmy Savile  was a huge celebrity in the UK. He worked as a DJ, radio and television personality, dance hall manager, and a major charity fundraiser. He was sort of the Dick Clark of the UK.

Unfortunately, Savile also had a very dark side. Following his death in 2011, hundreds of people came forward to accuse the media star of sexual abuse. His alleged victims were eight to 47 years old at the time of the abuse. A Scotland Yard investigation and an ITV documentary looked into the allegations and the alleged cover up of the crimes.

In 2014, UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt delivered a public apology in the House of Commons:

Savile was a callous, opportunistic, wicked predator who abused and raped individuals, many of them patients and young people, who expected and had a right to expect to be safe. His actions span five decades — from the 1960s to 2010. … As a nation at that time, we held Savile in our affection as a somewhat eccentric national treasure with a strong commitment to charitable causes. Today’s reports show that in reality he was a sickening and prolific sexual abuser who repeatedly exploited the trust of a nation for his own vile purposes.”

So, why would a charity, particularly a children’s charity, even consider accepting a gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust?

Raising the issue in the Institute of Fundraising Discussion Group on LinkedIn, the Fundraising Manager for the charity and participants provided some insights:

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March 15, 2013

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.

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