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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Fundraising or Oversight

A new board member struggles to understand her role

Ann Skeet

A new board member, Jane, is placed on ABC Organization’s Fund Development committee. She learns that the committee also covers board development.  There is no other standing committee for nominations or governance.

In the committee’s quarterly meeting, the giving history of each board member is reviewed.  Jane is asked by the executive director (ED) if she’d be willing to call some of the board members who have not given enough (in her mind) to ask if they’d like to contribute more or relinquish their board seat.

Jane is surprised by this request.  She is not used to reviewing individual support at committee meetings, except in campaign settings.  Jane is concerned at this approach, not to mention she does not have relationships with the members she’d be reaching out to.  She tries several times to steer the conversation back to the organization’s overall plans for raising money as no annual giving campaign is currently planned.

The ED states again that the board is not giving enough money to the organization.  This time, she asks Jane to follow through with the request to contact the inactive board members.  The committee agrees, and Jane begins reaching out to the board members with a letter approved by the committee.  The recipients are appalled at the letter’s focus on fundraising and expectation that they will give more. 

Despite the backlash, the ED remains resistant to the notion of asking the organization’s regular supporters for an annual gift, stating her belief that the board should be the primary fundraising source. 

Was Jane right to reach out to board members to ask for financial support?

Discussion Questions

Should there be an expectation of financial contribution by nonprofit board members? What are the potential positives and negatives of this norm?

If the expectation is that directors contribute, which methods of solicitation are acceptable?

If a nonprofit is heavily financed by its board, is there a greater chance of the board not being able to effectively govern? 

A Framework for Thinking Ethically, from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Utilitarian Approach - Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good or does the least harm, or, to put it another way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The ethical corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good and does the least harm for all who are affected-customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and the environment. Ethical warfare balances the good achieved in ending terrorism with the harm done to all parties through death, injuries, and destruction. The utilitarian approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good done and to reduce the harm done.

The Rights Approach - Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. The list of moral rights -including the rights to make one's own choices about what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a degree of privacy, and so on-is widely debated; some now argue that non-humans have rights, too. Also, it is often said that rights imply duties-in particular, the duty to respect others' rights.

The Fairness Approach - Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that all equals should be treated equally. Today we use this idea to say that ethical actions treat all human beings equally-or if unequally, then fairly based on some standard that is defensible. We pay people more based on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an organization, and say that is fair. But there is a debate over CEO salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many ask whether the huge disparity is based on a defensible standard or whether it is the result of an imbalance of power and hence is unfair.

The Common Good Approach - The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others-especially the vulnerable-are requirements of such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This may be a system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a public educational system, or even public recreational areas.

The Virtue Approach - A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, "What kind of person will I become if I do this?" or "Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?"

Sep 13, 2016