Daniel Fluskey: Why there are some donations that you just don't want

08 Feb 2018 Voices

The saying is wrong – sometimes you do look a gift horse in the mouth

Earlier this month the Presidents Club came under fire for hosting an all-male fundraising dinner where hostesses were said to have been sexually harassed. Dan Fluskey, head of policy and external affairs at the Institute of Fundraising, looks at why charities should sometimes decline gifts.

You’re a charity. Your only reason to exist is to make a positive difference in the world. To do that, you need money – to fund your services, pay your staff (if you have them), to host a website. So when someone gives you a donation, the first thing you think about is how you can use that money to do something good for your cause and beneficiaries. The last thing you want to do is refuse that money, or give it back.

But, of course, nothing is that simple. What if accepting that money, which you can put to such valuable use, has a knock on impact and leads to consequences which could seriously affect your charity. What if accepting the donation, and because of the association of who’s donated it, or how it was raised, means that two of your long term major donors (who give more than the value of the particular donation you’ve accepted) decides they no longer want to be involved with you. Or the commercial partnership you’ve been working on with a company suddenly falls through. And after the weekend you come back to the office and realise that a number of your volunteers don’t want to come back, and some of your regular supporters have cancelled their direct debits.

How do you weigh up the benefits?

These considerations (and many more!) will have been going through the heads of trustees, CEOs, fundraising directors and staff at the charities who had received money from the Presidents Club. Quick decisions were needed, the media spotlight was firmly on them. But how do you go about making that decision? How can you weigh up the benefit of the money received which is tangible (a real amount, in your bank account) while playing through the hypothetical (but possible) scenarios?

Well, you know what – it is not easy. And, part of why it’s tricky is because, at the end there is no definitive right or wrong answer. There is a trustee board, supported by their teams, trying to make the right decision for their charity. Other people – commentators, tweeters, TV presenters – might have a view, but the only people that make the decision are in that charity, and their only duty is to the best interests of the charity and cause.

I’ve spoken to a number of charities over the last week or so, and we’ve all done the ‘what would you have done in their position’ game. I think nearly all said they would have refused a donation from the Presidents Club, but not all would have returned past ones – mainly because the money would have been spent and isn’t there to return! It was interesting to see the results of the public poll from Yougov commissioned by NCVO with Peter Kellner discussing the results here Just 20 per cent of the public think the charities should give the money back. A sizeable majority, 67 per cent say they should keep the donations. (The remaining 13 per cent don’t know.) So, it seems that two thirds of people would back charities if they didn’t return the donations. That’s useful to know as a gauge of public opinion, but it is not necessarily the determining factor. Public polling informs what charities do, but shouldn’t dictate it. It will be one of the things that charities think about as they consider what’s in their overall best interests.

Always an element of risk

As with anything, there will always be an element of risk. You can’t eliminate it. As Peter Kellner recognises “it is impossible to police the way every donation is raised.” And what about anonymous donations? Some people want to donate with anonymity – the Charity Commission says that this is ‘perfectly acceptable and reasonable. It just means charities may need to put in place additional safeguards to protect themselves against those who want to take advantage, while ensuring this does not put off legitimate donors’.

Having an agreed policy and processes in place will help of course as well. If you don’t have a gift acceptance policy, then I strongly recommend you adopt one. And if you have one, it’s probably worth reviewing it to check it’s still up to date (and that your following it!).

But at the end of the day, it will always be in each charity’s decision – and however much we prepare and undertake due diligence, we can’t eliminate risk completely. So, it’s worth everyone thinking…..if that was us, what would we do?

Daniel Fluskey is head of policy and external affairs, the Institute of Fundraising.

Civil Society Media would like to thank the Institute of Fundraising for their support with this article.


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