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Fundraising and the rule of law
For real change to come fundraisers need a new kind of covenant with donors. Part 5 of 5.
Of all my 100+ articles published on this site, this is perhaps the most prescient, the most important. Please read to its conclusion. Thank you.


Final part of a
five-part feature
on the future of fundraising, from
Ken Burnett, author of Relationship Fundraising, (1992).

The first in this series appeared in November 2014 and the final part was published in mid-May 2015.

If the founding fathers of our society could devise and evolve a set of principles that define and underpin how society should work, surely we could aspire to do the same, to define the donor/cause relationship and
how it should work and be governed in practice?

The future of fundraising.

Part 1
Why fundraising has to change.

Part 2
A fundraising Utopia.

Part 3
Some keys to
fresh fundraising success. Three mega-opportunities
for fundraisers.

Part 4
Marketing was a mistake.

Part 5
Fundraising and the rule of law.





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book cover
Ken’s storytelling book (which, not entirely coincidentally, focuses many of its pages on remedies for the issues opposite) is reviewed here and here and you can buy it here.

CF cover

You can order Ken’s latest book
The essence of Campaigning Fundraising
here. Please follow this link for reviews too.




My son Charlie, a human rights lawyer, recently gave me a book, The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham QC. He wrote on the flyleaf that, other than what he’s learned from me and his mother (of course), within its pages I’d find the key principles that guide him in his work.

I envy Charlie the precision of his chosen profession. I’ve often thought that aspects of the fundraising framework that I and others advocate and agitate for would be much more sure of implementation if they could be enshrined in law, or at least in clear promises of commitment to donor-focused best practice. But I always saw this as an unrealisable dream. The small book that Charlie gave me has changed my mind.

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the US Federal Reserve Board and one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, believes that the single most important contribution to economic growth is the rule of law. The rule of law may be more obscure in fundraising than in society generally, yet perhaps if we could change and update it the same might also be said for fundraising growth.

There are of course lots of laws that regulate fundraisers. Charity law however is more about preserving assets than making a difference. Ample general standards and principles governing what fundraisers must and must not do already exist, mostly designed to guide fundraisers rather than to reassure or inspire donors. The 88 pages of the Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Practice cover practical dos and don’ts and I wouldn’t aspire to add to or alter those. These notwithstanding, we need – and would prosper substantially from – specific guidance designed directly to clearly define, regulate and improve the donor experience. As far as I’m aware, as yet no donor-focused, donor-friendly mechanism exits for ensuring that donations make a difference or that donors should get to know of it, or have their crucial role in the process neatly summarised and enshrined in protective principles.

We can’t impose laws on donors nor on our fellow fundraisers but we can show donors through a new promise specifically for them that from now on things really are going to change. If David Meerman-Scott can write about the new rules of marketing, we need new rules for the donor experience. And these have to be very different from what donors get now.

So rather than a set of laws I’m suggesting something more like a covenant (defined as a binding agreement or compact) or perhaps a constitution (a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which an organisation is acknowledged to be governed). These should be donor-focused, not merely about fundraisers and what they want. But if fundraisers are to prosper in future they need to give these principles, whatever we call them, the status and weight of actual laws, so that donors can rely upon them and that fundraisers can live by them. The ideas behind the rule of law go back as far as Aristotle, maybe beyond. It says that the law, not royalty, nor parliament, is king and no individual or group is above or beyond it. It can only lay claim to this eminence because its principles are clearly understood, fair, just and universal, seen and trusted to be so and because every citizen high or low is equally subject to it. Imagine if fundraising could be so consistent, respected and inclusive.

Always in law the emphasis is on fairness and so it should be with voluntary action. In law the commercial imperative to make a profit is given a very lowly place. And fairness is an evolving concept, in the eyes of the law. If the founding fathers of our society could devise and evolve a set of principles that define and underpin how society should work, surely we could aspire to do the same, to define the donor/cause relationship and how it should work and be governed in practice?

Confidence and belief in the rule of law doesn’t imply blind or unqualified admiration of the law, the legal profession, courts or judges. Famously the law is an ass and lawyers – well, let’s not go there. But without strict observance of the rule of law society quickly breaks down and falls apart.

The point I’m making is that we have to elevate the principles opposite – or some version of them – far beyond the status of codes of practice. If fundraising is to thrive we have to ensure we and our organisations live by clear and understood principles, consistently, with no exceptions. And we need to make sure donors know about them, value them and even have a role in their formulation. To do otherwise is to betray our beneficiaries, our colleagues and our causes, as well as our donors.

So what might be the fundraiser’s equivalent of the rule of law? I hope my first efforts opposite will encourage further debate on this potentially important subject, so I respectfully submit the following 15 statements merely as a draft proposal for the fundraiser’s immutable covenant with donors. I know there are other rules, charters and donor promises and I have not, for this series, scoured those fully to extract the best of them. So for sure this list can be improved and made more useful both for donors and fundraisers. It’s a task we should give priority and entrust to more capable hands than mine.

© Ken Burnett 2015

This article, posted in May 2015 (just one month before the tragic death of Mrs Olive Cooke provoked the media storm that all but engulfed UK fundraising), is the final in my 5-part analysis of the future of fundraising:
Part 1. Why fundraising has to change
Part 2. A fundraising Utopia
Part 3. Three mega-opportunities for fundraisers.
Part 4. Marketing was a mistake.
Part 5.
Fundraising and the rule of law.

See also the forewords to two important fundraising books published in 2015, here. Retention Fundraising by Roger M Craver and How to love your donors (to death) by Stephen Pidgeon. With thanks to Roger Craver, Giles Pegram (particularly for input to this final part), Richard Turner and Craig Linton for their guidance and advice as I was preparing this series.

Click here for the summary document from the Commission on the Donor Experience, the 6Ps, which sets out a blueprint for the new era of responsible fundraising.

Please feel free to email me your thoughts on this series here.

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1. Putting donors at the heart. Charities should put the donor at the heart of their communication, talking less about themselves and what they do or want, more about what their donors enable them to do. Fundraisers should make liberal use of ‘you’, the most powerful word in fundraising.

2. Inspiration.Hard selling has no place in fundraising.  The letter ‘i’ appears twice in the word fundraising. These should stand for inspiration and innovation, not imitation and irritation.
(Editor's note, 2022:after the political shenanigans of recent years as characterised by Trump and Johnson, there should be a third 'i', standing for integrity. Without it, we perish.)

3. Clarity and precision. There’s no room for grey areas or doubt as to how a charity achieves its benefits. Fundraising organisations, their motives, missions and ways of working must be accessible and understandable by all, particularly donors. All fundraisers should prize clarity, so precise use of language at all times should be a given. Fundraisers should speak and write plainly, powerfully and accessibly, avoiding acronyms, jargon and organisation-speak in both internal and external communications, for these obscure meaning and hide failures. Formal language sucks the life out of the great work our causes do, rendering dull as ditchwater some of the most moving, inspirational action that’s happening anywhere.

4. Equality and respect. Fundraisers’ responses to donors should be consistent and equal whatever the donor’s location, status, position, or the size of his or her gift. Of course larger donors may justify more personal treatment and feedback over smaller donors but every donor should expect and receive the same levels of gratitude, commitment, responsiveness, service, respect and civility, irrespective of the size or type of their support. Donors should have a say in how fundraisers communicate with them.

5. Openness and transparency. Essential precursors of trust and confidence, openness and transparency are mandatory, not optional for charity boards, management and staff. Though seen as desirable if not always necessary by the public, full openness and transparency should invariably be essential for all who work in any organisation that seeks to change the world.

6. Passion. As any other workers for a cause, fundraisers are required to passionately believe in and openly advocate for the mission, vision and values of their cause.  If they cannot they should seek agreement to change them, or leave and do something else.

7. The WHY. As a duty to donors all fundraising organisations should be required to formulate, define and clearly set out what’s at their emotional heart: the dream that underpins their existence and inspires their mission, vision and values.

8. Evidence of making a difference. No donor should be expected to give financial or other support to a cause without explicit, accessible information on how that support will be applied and the benefits it is expected to bring.

9. The truth, told well, should always guide a fundraiser’s storytelling as well as whenever he or she communicates information of any kind to a donor.

10. Speed of response. It’s polite as well as mutually beneficial to get back quickly to a donor with confirmation that his or her gift has been safely received and applied as intended. Fundraisers should fulfil this duty before the donor’s enthusiasm has cooled or been overtaken by other events.

11. Excellence. Organisations dedicated to doing good must, in themselves, be beyond reproach. This requires honest appraisal of all controversial or contentious issues and frank, transparent accountability. No pretence, obfuscation, keeping heads down or hiding things when they go wrong.

12. Prudent risk-taking. Because of the urgency of the needs we address, fundraising organisations have a duty to take risks boldy and wisely to advance the interests of their donors and their cause as fully and as fast as possible.

13. Active listening. Fundraisers need to commit to actively listen to all of their important audiences, so should take the pulse of their donors regularly either face to face or through promotion of help and complaint lines, regular soundings and mini-surveys so that the voluntary sector is seen by everyone to be the most customer-aware and responsive sector of them all.

14. Fearless asking. When they ask, fundraisers should ask properly and fearlessly, confident that if their request is well put, real donors will expect it and respond appropriately.

15. Bold investment. In the cause of efficiency and effectiveness fundraising leaders have a duty to work to ensure sufficient and appropriate investment in necessary administration and to optimise fundraising returns. No charity should boast of low admin costs per se because any enterprise that’s not adequately administered is doomed to wastefulness or failure. Admin costs are investments in the organisation’s efficient running, so should be justifiable, sufficient and appropriate. Fundraising costs are investments in a cause’s mission, so should not be judged on an arbitrary ratio but on commitment to prudently maximising returns in short, medium and long terms. Charity management and boards should be challenged and held to account as much for under-investing in administration and fundraising as for over-spending. Both are a failure of duty to the cause and its beneficiaries.

You’ve now reached the end of this series and thank you for staying with it. So here, if you didn’t collect it last week, is a little present for you from the legendary Sam Cooke singing ‘Change gonna come’. I believe it will too, some time ere long.

Sam Cooke

But, I wonder, how much of human life is lost in waiting?