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.

Unwanted Advice

Submitted February 10, 2022

Q

I have a longtime donor who regularly e-mails me articles he’s seen and things he’s heard on the news. Normally, it’s either about financial planning, planned giving, or research in his passion area that he supports at our organization. However, in the last few weeks, he has sent a few different articles praising the work of individuals who have been vocally anti-vaccination and anti-Dr. Fauci. Noting that this donor is himself vaccinated, do I, as a planned giving officer, have a responsibility to debunk the material he sends along? Or do I ignore it? If it were just a political issue, he’d be entitled to his opinions, and I’d leave it alone. But the public safety aspect of this concerns me!

A

Donors, especially major and planned gift donors, can seem like family at times. We can get to know them fairly well over the course of cultivating them and stewarding their gifts, and so the familiarity the closeness generates can seem, to some, a license to talk about or send along any information that strikes their fancy. So it is with issues not directly related to the charitable cause you represent or the one your donor is supporting. You might, for example, get an opinion about the outcome of a sports event or the latest gossip about a celebrity, which, when donors know you’re also interested, can be an aspect of building and maintaining a relationship. But sometimes, when the topic is divisive, it can cause a strain.

My first suggestion is to do nothing. Ignore it. He may just want to share things with you, controversial as they may be, and then just forget that he sent anything, or, at least, it may be that he’s not expecting you to get back to him. But I suspect that’s not where things stand right now. I sense he’s letting you know that he’d like a reaction, some form of a response, and this puts you in an awkward situation, one that silence won’t fix.

The second suggestion, then, is to remind him that, as a planned giving officer, you don’t have an official stance, that your organization is not involved with the political sentiments that have emerged relating to the divisions that have been created on the question of whether a state or federal government has the right to impose restrictions or requirements relating to vaccines. Your donor is vaccinated against Covid, and so it may be that he believes, as many do, that the question should be resolved on a personal level and not the result of a mandate. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not, and many vaccinated people do feel this way. (The question gets broader, I know when we take into account that the personal-decision aspect here actually does affect others, but we should stay on point: how you should respond to what he is sending you.)

You see where this is going, and it should come as no surprise that you are best advised not to try to debunk the material he sends along. Certainly, you don’t have a responsibility on the point. It’s not that you don’t or should not have an opinion on the topic — any sentient human on the planet does — but your role as a planned giving officer should not have to collide with controversies that are separate from your organization’s mission.

Which is not to say that you can’t, if the first two steps — silence and staying in your lane — don’t do the trick, respond at all. If he follows up and if your duty as a person with good manners compels, as it well might, you can explain your views on this most important public policy matter in good conscience. The key, however, once the conversation gets going, is to honor him as an individual and, if you disagree with his views, to respect them. A basic tenet of ethical behavior, in fact, is respect. Ethics has never been about getting everyone to agree (a fool’s errand); instead, it’s about, among many other things, acknowledging disagreement all the while respecting another person’s point of view. And that comes as a result of understanding that we sometimes adhere to different values. Where personal freedom meets civic obligation is a line, as we’ve learned so well these past couple of years, is a place as yet unagreed upon.

As for Anthony Fauci, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I point out that he is an accomplished scientist who has served this country honorably for over a half-century. We should be welcome to disagree with him, but we should never feel welcome to treat him with disrespect.

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

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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."

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"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.

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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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