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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.

Raising Money in the Time of Coronavirus

Submitted March 25, 2020


It came up in my shop about whether it was appropriate to still send out our scheduled planned giving marketing piece, considering the coronavirus. Of course, we said, absolutely: People are making sure their family plans are in order and if not, they should be. I ask because most fundraisers are trying to find ways to be sensitive to our current circumstances but still fundraise. What are your thoughts?


Life has dramatically changed for the worse in just the last few weeks and, if the predictions and warnings of the world's most experienced scientists and doctors are correct, we can expect even more, and more dramatic, change for at least the next several months.

How — when the world is literally coming to a standstill, when people are afraid to even breathe the air for fear of being infected (or infecting others), when the quintessence of touching and being touched by other humans is put on indefinite hold — can we even think of asking people for money? Is it not an egregiously selfish act to now intrude with our simple wants for a charity that may have nothing to do with stopping an invisible, fast-traveling killer of thousands, perhaps millions, of people? Would asking for support for our small cause at this time not be embarrassingly callous? All of humanity is facing a crisis right now — today — and you're asking me to help out for something that most likely won't happen until several years from now? Put that way, how could anyone possibly think that soliciting planned gifts these days is a good idea — or exhibits ethical behavior?

To be clear, I don't opine on strategic or tactical decisions (here); the leaders of any charity, no matter its purpose or size, need to evaluate operational options based on their own circumstances, but there is a clear ethical component to the question of whether, by asking for support — here, with consideration of a planned gift commitment — you are intentionally and improperly intruding into anyone's understandable desire to concentrate exclusively on the worldwide epidemic.

On this, however, I think you are right, for two important reasons. One, which you already put forth, people still need to plan for what happens after their death, and, two, people actually yearn to make a difference in times like these, even if the way they want to make a difference is not directly related to what is capturing our attention right now. Ben Miller, chief analytic officer of DonorTrends and secretary of AFP's Growth in Giving Initiative, says, "While we have to be careful, because it is not a true apples-to-apples comparison to today's headlines and the concept of 'social distancing,'" data suggest that "donors are very supportive of their nonprofits through uncertain economic times. When the current crisis ends," he says, "history will show that the most successful nonprofits continued to ask for donations, although likely in a different way. Those nonprofits who go silent or attempt to give their donors a break will likely see the same results as others before them — and suffer or even go out of business as a result."

This opinion, based on an analysis of past trends, squares with mine, which is based on a charity's ethical obligation to its cause and on our need to continue to do something good for society, which is why most donors are donors to begin with. Is it about you? Absolutely. But that's not selfish and is as it should be when you are raising money for a good cause. The key thing here is that it is actually not in conflict with your donors' desires. And if it is, they will put you on hold for a while, which is okay too. But you should not presuppose their thinking as an excuse not to go forward.

Clearly, as you state in your question, you are advised to proceed with caution, ever sensitive to current circumstances. Yes, acknowledge the gruesome reality blasted our way, every day, through every medium; anything less would reveal a wooden ear. But don't let that gruesome reality — which, not to sound like a Pollyanna, will one day change — keep you from doing your work now. Let your supporters know that commitments today are imperative to ensure that you will be around, doing the work they have already acknowledged is important, now and into the future.

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 and scholar in the nation's philanthropic community, is an author and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He serves as the Co-Chair of the Walter Cronkite Committee at FoolProof, and as a board member of the Secular Coalition of America. He is the former Director of Columbia University's Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, where he also taught board governance, ethics and fundraising. Prior to that, he was a lecturer at and the academic director of New York University's Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

Doug has published five books. His most recent, "Wounded Charity" (Paragon House, 2019), analyzes the allegations of mismanagement made in January 2016 against Wounded Warrior Project. Kate Bahen, the managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, wrote, "An epic whodunnit. A sweeping sector perspective. A gripping read for everyone interested in the charity sector. The facts behind the news headlines leaves one reeling. How could this happen? Using the dramatic case of Wounded Warrior Project, Doug White addresses the key forces shaping today's charity sector. From his unique perch, he generously shares his insights and those of the sector's thought leaders. Doug White's books should be required reading for charity directors, journalists, staff and donors alike."

"Abusing Donor Intent" (Paragon House, 2014) 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. The Foundation Center had this to say about the book: "Well-plotted with the slow burn of a decades-old frustration, and immensely readable with the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars at stake — to say nothing of the reputation of one of America's most august universities — Abusing Donor Intent is equal parts thriller and cautionary tale."

His three other books are: "The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation's Charities" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), "Charity on Trial: What You Need to Know Before You Give" (Barricade Books, 2007), and "The Art of Planned Giving: Understanding Donors and the Culture of Giving" (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 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 — including social service, educational, health and environmental organizations. Today, he works closely with select organizations on ethical 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 worked as the development director at Holderness School (NH). 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. He has also since served as an expert witness in other lawsuits relating to donor intent.

Doug is a past member of the Board of Directors of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning (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 the Association of Fundraising Professionals. He writes the ethics column for the National Capital Gift Planning Council; in 2002 the council presented Doug with its Distinguished Service Award.

Since 1981 he has spoken at over 750 conferences on philanthropy, including the Association for Fundraising Professionals, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, 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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