October is Ethics Awareness Month, and we acknowledge the importance of this topic with fundraising consultant Eric Heininger, CFRE, managing director of EDEN+, and founder of the Des Moines Fundraising Institute.

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Setting clear boundaries and policies

“We are a community for good. If you set boundaries and you act on those, whether it’s a policy for gift acceptance or the relationship with board members and colleagues, it’s pretty straightforward.” Click To Tweet

October is Ethics Awareness Month, and we acknowledge the importance of this topic with fundraising consultant Eric Heininger, CFRE. Eric is the founding managing director of EDEN+ in Des Moines, Iowa, and founder of the Des Moines Fundraising Institute. Today, we cover two key ethics topics: gift acceptance policies and sexual harassment in fundraising and volunteer management. There is a very personal story that Eric shares with us, that hasn’t been shared anywhere else before, so I invite you to listen with a compassionate ear as it’s important to have these conversations.

Ethics are core to the sheer existence of nonprofits — serving a function that benefits the greater good which the government is unable to do itself. It is our societal ethics and morals that deem nonprofits valid and worthy of tax exemption. With donated funds, nonprofits thrive. Therefore, ethics are intrinsically valuable and worthy of the spotlight in order to guide the mission and vision of the work. 

Without ethics, giving doesn’t happen, fundraising doesn’t happen, and change and impact don’t happen. From feeding the hungry to ensuring physical safety and health, gift acceptance ethics within fundraising can be controversial. Doing good for the community and having a tax exemption comes with a huge responsibility, and so there’s more to fundraising than the dollars and cents accumulated to serve. Controversy can be found when considering who is giving the money and why, as well as how is the money used and when. 

Engaging in an open dialogue that acknowledges the role of fundraising is the first step in the right direction towards a more human-centric and ethical culture of philanthropy.

Donor Control, Conflict of Interest and Dirty Money

Is money dirty? Many times I’ve questioned the societal impact of disparity in a society. When extraordinary wealth juxtaposes poverty, what are the implications? What is the role of the government or the nonprofit sector to account for those inequalities. Can we function as a society regulated by the invisible hand? No. Is money dirty? No. But do we as humans need to interpret and steer the market with basic human ethics for the overall good of society? I think so. This is the gap the nonprofit sector bridges.

I believe great disparity is our greatest risk as a society. That’s a major reason why I believe in philanthropy and community engagement. We need to invite all to get involved and support causes that lift our society up rather than expecting everyone to fend for themselves — it just doesn’t work that way. 

Until and unless a nonprofit aligns on its ethical boundaries for management of staff and volunteers as well as its acceptance and distribution of donations, it should not be in operation. That is a bold statement. But after talking with my guest, Eric, I believe it is justified. 

In establishing ethics of gift acceptance, variables to consider are donor intent, the benefit to the organization, brand (mis)alignment and standards, and future implications for giving. The first step is to get centered on your ethics, beliefs, and boundaries with your leadership and board members. Then, document and post. Real-life scenarios may involve donations offered from controversial politicians, criminals, activists, and many others, so it’s important to make policies from the get-go so you don’t have to deal with judgment calls in one-off situations that could become areas of conflict.

One thing you can control as an organization is how you respond to donations. As an example, if your donor’s intention is to clear his/her name as a PR stunt for personal or professional gain — and it’s less about philanthropy and more about the transaction, you may decide the donor intention is outside of your duty to manage; however, if the donor is publicly engaged in behavior that would directly hurt your organization’s mission, your beneficiaries or your future ability to raise funds, you may decide otherwise. Some donors are motivated by fame and recognition. That is okay, imho! Just be prepared to know how accepting funds may impact the organization’s ability to fundraise in the future and support the mission it serves. It is up to you as an organization to have policies and procedures in place that state your ethical boundaries. 

Harassment prevention policies

Beyond the dollars, nonprofits are also responsible for operating in a safe and respectful environment. The nonprofit sector is not immune to harassment. Nonprofits not only have their staff to protect, but also their volunteers, beneficiaries, and donors. The layers of complexity are high due to the nature of engagement with the community. Create, state, and perpetuate your harassment prevention policies. Do not operate until that is in place. 

Go to the website of the Association for Fundraising Professionals for awesome resources. Click here for the link.

Key Takeaways: 

05:33 – Ethics in fundraising and the issue of accepting funds from donors with controversial backgrounds or careers.

10:14 – How to build an ethical gift acceptance policy.

17:16 – A story of a controversial gift refused by one organization only to be accepted by another.

20:04 – The steps you can take to impact ethics and giving policies in your organization.

23:33 – How to handle harassment in the nonprofit sector and why Eric became a champion in that matter.

Connect with Eric

Follow @Eric Heininger on Instagram

Follow @Eric Heininger on Twitter

Follow EDEN+ on Instagram

Connect with Eric through LinkedIn

Contact Eric via email

Schedule a personal meeting

Contact Eric via phone: 515-705-3336

Episode Resources

Shout out to AFP, the Association for Fundraising Professionals

Ethics Awareness Month 2020 | AFP Global

Ethics Awareness Month Toolkit

Reach out to Kirsten Anderson if you are facing a sexual harassment situation

Des Moines Fundraising Institute

The Fundraising Institute 

CCS Fundraising

Bart Skorupa | Start Something Good


This October, share your commitment by joining the conversation on social media and using #ISignedTheCode and #EthicsAwarenessMonth.