Principled or stupid? 4 questions to ask yourself

Is it okay to lie in your fundraising?

NO!

You know that. Most fundraisers know that. We don’t spend one second pondering the ethics of lying. We just don’t do it.

But not all. Some fundraisers lie. A lot. Like certain political fundraisers who constantly and outrageously lie to donors. They know they’re lying, but they keep lying because it works. They make millions more with lies than they would with truth.

I know this may be an odd way to think about it, but your ethical decision not to lie to donors doubtlessly costs you revenue. Even so, you choose not to lie.

That’s partly what values are for: to guide ethical action. To help you make decisions based on things more important than revenue. In the instance of lying, it’s an easy decision.

But not all values decisions are that clear or easy. Sometimes we have to choose between doing X and Y, where X will raise more money, but Y is more principled … but it’s a little fuzzy.

Which brings me to an interesting post at The Better Fundraising Blog: Right Value, Wrong Place.

Steven Screen tells the story about a client that wanted to use the technical and precise term “food insecure” rather than the more colloquial “hungry” in fundraising messages. It was tested in direct mail, and the version with “hungry” did measurably better.

Then the surprise: after seeing the test result, leaders at the organization said “We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was on that team with Steven, and shared in the outrage he describes. Our client had made a decision that was going to mean less revenue to accomplish their mission. Extrapolated over time, they were going to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars less each year to help people overcome food insecurity — because they preferred the “correct” term over the “inexpert” term.

That’s how we saw it. How could anyone who cared about their cause make such a decision? How could they make such a stupid call?

One thing the years teach you is that you don’t know everything, and you know least of all about what’s going on in other people’s minds. (This realization makes life very much nicer.)

Looking back, I hesitate to label their decision as stupid. And since it’s better to give people the benefit of the doubt, I now think the decision was more likely principled than stupid.

But maybe both.

It seems that people in the organization valued a scientific level of accuracy. They also valued professionalism in the way they talked.

Those are good things.

But I suspect those leaders, and many others who take principled stands like that, did so without really examining their principles.

When you take a stand on principle, I believe you should ask yourself four questions about it:

  1. How much is following this principle likely to cost? Yes, that’s a mercenary question, but it’s an important starting point. A principle might obliterate your revenue. It might make little or no difference. Some principles should be followed regardless of the cost. But many are in a gray area. Ideally, you should test it if you can.
  2. Is this principle important enough that it’s worth what it may cost us? Once you have a sense what a principle will cost, weigh that cost. That’s where you can get a sense of just how important it really is.
  3. Is it a principle or a preference? “I prefer it this way” is not a good reason to make revenue-reducing decisions. But sometimes a strongly held preference feels like a principle. That’s why this can be a hard question to answer. But being as open minded as possible — asking yourself why this particular thing is important to you — can bring clarity. (This is the error I make most often; I have strongly held preferences that I hold up as if they are principles. This has been a source of many fundraising errors throughout my career!)
  4. Are we considering the impact of the principle on others — or just ourselves? I think the organization I’m telling you about here made this mistake. They were looking carefully at how their terminology felt to insiders … and ignoring the fact that it was unimportant to donors. Try hard to discern if you are doing that. Remember that all forms of communication involve reaching outside yourself … if you hope to be effective.

Stand up for your principles.

But don’t be stupid about it!

(Note: I highly recommend you read Steven’s original post. He comes to a completely different conclusion than I have, and it’s well worth reading!)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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