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Ethics Corner

This is an online resource for ethical questions and answers as they relate to fundraising and planned giving. The NCGPC posts real questions from real people and Doug White answers them. All identities, both of people and places, are kept confidential.

The Deadbeat Donor


Our organization received a generous pledge from a donor with whom we had no previous relationship. We’re a social services agency and the donor has been a volunteer here for a few years. He has given us a gift of $1,000 in each of the past two years. Recently he pledged $50,000. At the same time he made the pledge, he also said we would be included in his will. We made a big deal out of that — we described the gift and the donor in our newsletter and wrote a news release to distribute to the local media. The problem is that the money hasn’t come. It’s been several weeks and he hasn’t returned our phone calls or responded to our emails. He has also stopped coming in to volunteer. We haven’t hired a private investigator but he seems to have disappeared. My boss, the development director, and the trustees are beside themselves. Half of them want to expose the man for his fraudulent behavior — they’re mad in part because we began to spend the money — and the others want to keep things quiet so as not to make us look bad; besides, they say, he may have run into some temporary financial difficulties and is simply embarrassed. How do we best deal with this situation?


Charities are grateful for gifts, and when one comes from someone who has not been cultivated in the usual, time-consuming way, it can seem like the best of worlds. But sometimes it’s not, and we have to be better prepared.

The best way to deal with this problem is for the board to have an honest discussion that weighs the consequences of pursuing the commitment versus those of letting it go. It looks like that debate is already taking place and the board, if all of the issues have been aired, now simply needs to make a decision. Neither choice is all good or all bad, but make it you must. Whatever it is, people will live with it most comfortably if they know that the competing values — sympathy for the man against the needs, and possibly the reputation, of your organization — were openly weighed. 

You are not alone: I know of a handful of charitable promises made by people who have not make good on them. 

As for my own instinct — and I say this without benefit of hearing out the opposing viewpoint — concern for your organization’s long-term reputation makes me inclined to pursue the gift and accept any negative publicity that might arise. While things might look bad at first, in the long run I think you’ll be better able to defend your decision. 

But you can do yourselves a big favor by doing what you can so that this situation does not take place again. Your gift acceptance policies should address this. I’d recommend, for example, avoiding publicizing a gift and not spending any of it before the financial records of the donor have been vetted. A first installment of a pledge might be made, but you want to be as certain as possible that the future installments will arrive without difficulty. This may seem like harsh treatment in exchange for a person’s generosity — and of course almost all of the time donors make good on their pledges — but you have to keep in mind that, as much as we talk about stewarding donors — and in fact, for good reason, do steward donors — we are first and foremost stewarding the charitable institutions that employ us.

If you have a question, please feel free to contact Doug White at While all issues discussed are real, identities are kept confidential.

Doug WhiteDoug's Bio

Doug White, a long-time leader in the nation's philanthropic community, is an author, professor, and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He is the director of Columbia University's Master of Science in Fundraising Management program. He also teaches board governance, ethics and fundraising. He is the former academic director of New York University's Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

His most recent book, “Abusing Donor Intent,” chronicles the historic lawsuit brought against Princeton University by the children of Charles and Marie Robertson, the couple who donated $35 million in 1961 to endow the graduate program at the Woodrow Wilson School. The family contended that Princeton abused its mandate to spend the money as the donors wished - and as the university agreed to. His three other books are: "The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation's Charities" (2010, Palgrave Macmillan), "Charity on Trial: What You Need to Know Before You Give" (2007, Barricade Books), and "The Art of Planned Giving: Understanding Donors and the Culture of Giving" (1996, John Wiley & Sons), which was awarded the 1996 Staley/Robeson/Ryan/St. Lawrence Prize for Research by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. He has written several articles for a variety of magazines and periodicals, including Trusts and Estates, the Journal of Gift Planning, Charitable Gift Planning News, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Since 1979 Doug has advised hundreds of charities of all types and sizes. Today, he works closely with select organizations on ethics decision-making, board governance, and fundraising, as well as with individual philanthropists who want to see their gifts used most effectively.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Doug has worked as the development director at Holderness School (NH), and has served as a trustee at several charities. For almost two decades (1982 – 2000) he served on the Capital Giving Committee at Phillips Exeter Academy and as its national chair for several years during that time. He has served in leading roles with two national planned gift and endowment investment firms. As a long-term consultant to Blackbaud, Inc. in the 1980s and 1990s, he developed one of the first planned giving software programs.

In 1995 Doug testified before a Congressional committee in support of the Philanthropy Protection Act, and served as an expert witness for the charitable defendants in a national lawsuit - the "Texas Lawsuit" - that threatened the ability of charities to raise money.

Doug is a past member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (formerly the National Committee on Planned Giving). In 1996, while on the NCPG board, he founded the national initiative of Leave A Legacy. He is also a past chair of the NCPG Ethics Committee and the 1995 NCPG National Conference. He is a past president of the Planned Giving Group of New England and a past president of the New Hampshire/Vermont chapter of AFP. In 2002 the National Capital Gift Planning Council presented Doug with its Distinguished Service Award.

Since 1981 he has spoken at over 800 conferences on philanthropy, including the Association for Fundraising Professionals, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, United Jewish Communities, and hundreds of local professional organizations and planned giving councils, as well as many audiences sponsored by local charities and other groups.

Ethics Corner Archive

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How Does it Work?

Emails are sent to e-list members with a teaser about the ethical question of the month with a link to the site. Readers are encouraged to submit a question to Doug and/or to disagree with his opinion on the question.

Why Should You Read Ethics Corner posts?

The primary objective is to establish and grow an ethics-based dialogue about important issues facing gift planners and other fundraisers at charities today.

Doug, a teacher of ethics and philanthropy at Columbia University, states that, "Based on the queries I receive, it is clear that those who have worked in this field, even those who have served charities for many years, have too few places to go to discuss issues that are not covered by legislation or the IRS. This site is meant to address that need."

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As ethical decision-making is more of a journey than a destination, we encourage readers' comments and will post representative reactions and opposing responses to the columns. Please send your comments by email ( Be sure you include the topic.

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