Should Some Funders be Off-Limits for Our Organization?


Yes or No DecisionA  Sustainable Pathways student recently asked, “I’ve been working on a substance abuse prevention program project…  My participation in the Sustainable Pathways training has helped open my eyes to other fundraising opportunities, and I’ve been approached by a natural resource extraction company interested in supporting our project. My question is, how do you balance resource extraction with social/environmental needs and how do I traverse that mine field?”

Great question – and the answer can be applied to many of the partnership decisions we make as nonprofit leaders. How SHOULD we balance ethical issues with our nonprofit’s need for funding to deliver our mission? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. Do your homework first. Research the subject with an open attitude and be willing to learn. Ask questions. Could your personal beliefs (or those of the management above you) be based on something that’s not true?
  2. Meet with the company’s representative face to face if they are open to a meeting. Ask what they hope to gain for their company and what their expectations are from your organization as a result of their donation. This is the time to ask questions and openly discuss any concerns you have about issues within their industry, the appropriateness of collaboration between your organizations, or potential public reaction. If the industry is in any way controversial, they are already aware of the mixed feelings people have about their work. Their contribution to your organization may be a way to help them be viewed by the public in a more positive way, or they may have employees who personally benefit from your organization’s work, or their philanthropy director may personally support your organization’s mission. Whatever their reason, it’s best to have it on the table up front – and this is the time to bring it up.Not all companies encourage personal contact from potential applicants. But most will be willing to answer a few questions for you by email or phone, especially if the clarification will help you determine whether or not to make a request from them.
  3. Don’t violate your personal morals. There are a few groups I don’t accept work from for various reasons. I don’t contribute to organizations as a result of a solicitation call, for instance, and I avoid accepting work or giving a project to an employee for whom the work could be considered a conflict of interest. There are a few organizations that violate my own personal beliefs, and as head of the company I decline fundraising work from them.Each issue becomes a personal judgment call – there’s no “one size fits all”. Every leader or Board of Directors has their own compilation of beliefs, assumptions and priorities that influence them when making corporate decisions. If you’re in a position to individually decide whether or not to accept a gift (and few of us truly are), don’t violate your personal morals.
  4. No matter what you decide, someone – perhaps a number of people – will disagree with your decision. Train yourself to make sound decisions, and then once they’re made, be willing to stand by them and explain your reasoning to others. You WILL have to agree to disagree with some people – that’s the nature of leadership.

Taking the time to discuss the ethical boundaries surrounding corporate gifts with your Board of Directors – or thinking through them personally if you make the decisions alone – will ensure that you have a reasoned response at hand when you’re approached by a potential corporate donor.

How do you decide that a company is not an appropriate funding source for your organization?

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