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Online Ethics: Fundraising and Audience Research

By: Melissa Prunty Kemp, GPA Ethics Committee

In today's technology-driven workplace, many grant writing, fundraising, and research functions are online, which can make our jobs much easier. However, the 24-hour availability of information can lead to an increase in opportunities for unethical behavior. 

 

Nonprofits are not immune. In the last week, even Sen. Hillary Clinton, presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, has come under fire for breach of her ethics agreement between the Clinton Foundation and the U.S. State Department. The violations were revealed through an examination of Clinton's emails on her private computer server, demonstrating yet another way that nonprofits can get into trouble.
 
Online fundraising and online audience research are two areas that can become particularly problematic and have the potential to create ethics violations. How can nonprofits take advantage of the contact immediacy and rich data mining that online fundraising can provide without violating the GPA's Code of Ethics? Consider these familiar scenarios where strong ethics can guide a nonprofit to success without ethics violations that could severely weaken their brand and diminish public trust.
 
Scenario 1: Go Crowdfund My Latest Nonprofit Project, Please!
 
For small or start-up nonprofits that stand a lower chance of receiving grant funds, what could be easier than to use online fundraising models like Go-Fund-Me or other crowdfunding sources?
 
These models offer an immediate connection with donors and nearly instant funding. However, this model also works through emotional appeals and powerful means of persuasion that are the most unethical, according to mass communication theory.
 
Rather than falling back on the tried and true emotional appeal, nonprofits should develop and present a substantial needs statement supported by other components of a formal grant, such as a logic model or an evaluation statement.
 
Even though the online environment often provides less space than traditional grants, strong writing ability can mitigate space constraints.  A commitment to the moral intent can compel nonprofits to present a complete narrative that accurately reports the impact that funding an initiative will create.
 
Nonprofits face a lot of challenges in the honesty arena. Only 1 in 10 people firmly believes that charities are honest and ethical in their use of donated funds, according to the Nonprofit Quarterly.
 
Even though it's tempting to set up an account begging people to fund your cause, in the long run – your nonprofit will be viewed as more trustworthy by going the full disclosure route with a complete narrative and verifiable impact.
 
Scenario 2: Social Media—A Data Mining Goldmine
 
Another visible and powerful way to find new customers is online advertising and data mining. What's that? Those pop-up invitations to get email updates and hidden algorithms that control the advertising offered to you on social media and in your email messages.
 
The temptation to capture readily available customers is great. But it's not only unethical but annoying. Consider your personal reaction when you purchase the hottest sandals of the season and then get bombarded by unwanted emails. Or after following your latest fundraising guru on Twitter, you suddenly begin to receive emails from this source. How many times does it take before you unsubscribe or mark the content as spam?
 
This is not the reaction you want for your nonprofit! Online presence is a sensitive issue as is brand building and preservation. Before you mine that data to build a list of potential  donors, be sure your contact is not intrusive or unwelcome. The last thing any nonprofit wants is to be accused of abusive behavior and internet abuse, which are two of the five most likely ethics violations according to the National Nonprofits Ethics Survey.
 
Everyone in your nonprofit must maintain high ethical standards from the CEO to your volunteers. Nonprofits generally have a strong ethics culture compared to businesses or the government. The National Nonprofits Ethics Survey reports that 58% of employees in nonprofits report a healthy, or strong-leaning, ethics culture compared with 52% in business and 50% in government.
 
That's not the best number – 58% – so it's important to pay more attention to ethics in the nonprofit world. Sit down with your team and discuss how you will pay more attention to ethics so everyone can benefit.

 

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