The Ethical Fundraiser

By Norman B. Gildin

In his book “Lessons in Leadership,” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, touches on the matter of desecrating and sanctifying God’s name.

In Judaism Rabbi Sacks asserts, “When we behave in such a way to evoke admiration for Judaism as a faith and a way of life that is a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. When we do the opposite – when we betray that faith and way of life, causing people to have contempt for the God of Israel – that is a chillul Hashem.” Clearly, this has great application to fundraisers who need to abide by ethical principles when raising funds for their nonprofit organization.

In 2013, Helen La. Oyekanmi, PhD, wrote a paper entitled “Ethical Issues in Fund Raising and Biblical Response” giving the Christian point of view on fundraising. She discovered that a large number of Christian fundraisers had no formal or informal training as to how fundraising should be ethically approached. She quotes Matthew 6:1-4 that stresses that “charity should be handled with care and discretion and with a sense of privacy. God rewards every good deed done in secret and with a focus on Him.”

Regardless of the religion you practice, it would seem that the same principles apply. Anyone involved in raising funds, has an obligation to act ethically in this noble work.  When representing any nonprofit organization, how one performs in public will dictate how you are perceived by the world.

I am a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the trade association representing thousands of professional fundraisers. We must adhere to the national code of ethics promulgated by the AFP. For example, code #21 states that professional fundraisers:

“…not accept compensation or enter into a contract that is based on a percentage of contributions; nor shall members accept finder’s fees or contingent fees.” Unfortunately, there are nonprofits that do not follow this rule.

Charity Navigator objectively rates charitable organizations to trust and support. Inherent in the nonprofit’s financial health, transparency and accountability is a principal mandate to meet ethical standards. On its website Charity Navigator states:

“Our ratings show givers how efficiently we believe a charity will use their support today, how well it has sustained its programs and services over time and their level of commitment to good governance, best practices and openness with information.”

Good ethical conduct is, therefore, a condition in achieving Charity Navigator’s mission. Objective professional evaluators of charities mirror the same approach.

I have compiled a short, albeit inexhaustible, list of ethical markers that fundraisers and organizations they represent should consider as part of an ethical fundraising approach. Some do’s and don’ts:

  1. Commissions by fundraisers based on a percentage of what they raise are an inappropriate and unethical form of compensation. As a donor, I don’t want to find out that a sizable chunk of my donation went to the fundraiser. Appropriate forms of compensation include salary, project allowances and even bonuses for high level performance.
  2. Do what you say you are going to do. Meet or exceed donor expectations and set high standards. 
  3. Be honest in your endeavors including all communications with the public.
  4. Always follow the rule of law, respect donor privacy and intent, as well as acknowledge donor gifts in a timely fashion.
  5. Run campaigns that are real and not “of the moment.” Some organizations run specious campaigns contending these will establish a program or a building. Time elapses and no program or buildings appear. “Of the moment” campaigns ruin credibility and future prospects for support.
  6. Commemorative dedications are a sensitive topic. Some organizations remove plaques or naming gifts from buildings without seeking permission from the donors or families. Unless the donor did not fulfill the pledge, removing a commemoration is unethical and inappropriate.
  7. Fundraising expenses should, at most, not exceed 35% of revenue collected. This yardstick assures that the majority of funds raised are used for their intended purpose. Obviously, the less spent on fundraising expense and the more allocated to services the better.
  8. Don’t spend money lavishly for transportation, personal amenities or even gifts or premiums for donors. It’s simply unethical and wrong.

There are, of course, many more benchmarks we can cite. But, these are minimum expectations. The National Council of Nonprofit’s indicates:

“Transparency inspires confidence. Beyond what the law requires, nonprofits can demonstrate their commitment to ethical practices by being entirely transparent with financial information and fundraising practices.”

So, I ask you as a fundraiser, or as a nonprofit organization raising funds, or anyone involved in raising funds that has an obligation to act ethically, are you interested in sanctifying God’s name?

About the author: Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $93 million in the process. He lived in Teaneck for 34 years and now resides in Boynton Beach, Florida and currently is the President of his own company Strategic Fundraising Group. He can be reached at

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