A couple of months ago, in a blog post (with CBC video) I called “Great story! Woman finds $17,000 & donates it back”, I lauded the story about a 70-year-old woman who thought she’d won an alarm clock at a Princess Margaret hospital fundraiser only to find it stuffed with a wad of bills and a tiny gold bar. Her story was authentic and inspiring.
By contrast, I was disappointed to say the least when I opened a Toronto Star news article sent to me this week about Mayor Rob Ford signing and selling bobble head dolls of himself for $20.00, with an undisclosed amount of the proceeds being donated to the United Way Toronto.
I was disturbed because associating the Rob Ford brand with the United Way brand could be problematic. The Toronto Argonauts and the Santa Claus Parade organizers have already distanced themselves from Mayor Ford for that very reason. There have also been suggestions that Mayor Ford is linked to organized crime and that link raises a question about the source of Ford’s bobble head funds.
It can’t be true, I thought and began looking for what the United Way had to say about the matter. I believe the explanation given by the charity’s spokesperson in saying they don’t have input into how money is raised in work places, is very weak and should be revisited.
You see, I believe charities must be very careful about the monies they accept and steer clear of those which do not pass the test of authenticity or don’t align with their mandate, messaging and cause.
This is an issue I had to deal with on more than one occasion when I headed up national fundraising programs at Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. It seemed like everyone wanted to be associated with the Foundation’s pink ribbon and sometimes when there was a potential reputational risk to the Foundation, we had to decline such donations.
On one occasion, I remember a tax shelter charity wanted to distribute funds to the Foundation and while we really were not certain that what the third party was doing was illegal, it just didn’t sit right so we sent them a thanks, but no thanks communication. This was what I call a donation that doesn’t pass the “smell test” and when working for CBCF I felt that even though nothing at the time was proven against the charity, negative association with tax shelters of that sort it could be harmful to the Foundation’s brand at that moment or in the future.
Granted it’s not always easy (despite trying) to put hard and fast rules around what you will accept or decline. I believe there are grey areas where thoughtful judgment calls must be made. However, I don’t think the case I am writing about is a grey area at all.
Transparently, I declare I am not now, nor ever have been a Rob Ford supporter. But that’s not why I believe the United Way should decline to accept whatever money is raised in this and any other fundraising surrounding the Mayor.
You see, at the heart of charitable fundraising is authenticity (you’ve seen me write about this before) and when fundraising by an individual or organization does not live up to that standard (particularly where recognition or marketing is involved), a charity should give serious thought about whether to accept or decline such contributions.
I asked myself if I was just having a negative gut reaction to this situation or if there was something more to my discomfort with this story. So I did a quick Google search of “United Way Toronto Drug Program” to see if any of their programs were in conflict with United Way mission or values.
Within seconds I came across the organization’s 2012 Youth Impact Plan which talks about engaging youth in community and found the following,
“When young people are actively engaged in decision-making processes, political matters and in their communities, they tend to have better results at school and in finding work and develop more positive behaviour and attitudes. Engagement also improves youth’s ability to make healthy lifestyle choices and avoid a range of risky behaviour, such as drug and alcohol use, delinquency and violence.”
By all accounts, the Mayor’s behaviour admitted from his own lips runs counter to what the United Way Toronto stands for in its youth engagement program. And I worry what kind of example the Mayor setting for youth and the charity is setting by accepting money from this initiative. Does it send the message that anything goes in order to reach our fundraising targets? I believe consumer/donor expectations are changing and with the role of social media in our lives making so much information readily available I think charities must be increasingly careful to ensure their funds have been ethically raised.
In this case, I asked myself if it would be conceivable that money associated with this Mayor could end up helping to fund a program like the one I mentioned above and it is cause for concern in my mind.
To be clear, I don’t believe charities can achieve perfection when it comes to authenticity, nor can they delve into the personal politics of every donation made to it in community fundraising. But the “bobble head” donation, because of its public nature, fails every test of authenticity or high integrity and in my view should be declined until this controversy is cleared up, if it is ever cleared up. Otherwise what kind of message is the charity sending youth when it accepts this kind of donation?
I want to be clear I am not trying to give United Way a black eye. Any of you working for a charity could be (and likely will be) faced with a similar kind of decision.
So what could you do when posed with the question of accepting ‘smelly money’? Here are three pieces of advice:
1. Don’t be REACTIVE when making these decisions. Plan for them.
Yes, you should have an acceptance policy or protocol on what kind of donations your charity will accept and what kind it will not accept. Rather than just trying to imagine every kind of situation you can develop these overarching policies and protocols in advance.. When helping charities develop such policies, I encourage them not only to be specific about the kinds of donations they receive but I also suggest them to list a series of “guiding questions” to help, here are three that are relevant to the case:
- Will the contribution contribute to brand strength of the charity?
- Will the contribution pose and any reputational risk to the foundation?
- Does the contribution run counter to the principles of programs it might help to fund?
2. Don’t be a charity “whore.” You don’t have to take every dollar handed to you.
I am sometimes amazed at what monies are accepted by charities. There are a host of reasons why money should be declined and I have only written about one. A while back in a speech I was giving on “The Anatomy of Cause Marketing” in which I was talking about the principles of good cause marketing, I was asked about the worst case of “inauthenticity” I’ve encountered. At the time, I pointed to the KFC Buckets For the Cure in which the deep fried chicken franchise donated $3 million to Susan G Komen for the Cure, while knowing that fatty foods actually are a known contributor to cancer. I argued that while the donation was huge, it should have ben declined because it didn’t pass the test of authenticity.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Yes, there are times it IS your business.
I believe one of the most valuable assets a charity has is its brand (hard to develop, easy to dilute). When it comes to the experience you deliver to your donors, you must tenaciously guard the reputation of your brand. And when a company, individual or organization comes along with a donation which “smells” funny, it’s ok to ask probing questions. If you’re not sure, you don’t have to act like a prosecutor going for the jugular, but you can ask questions that can uncover great stories, and questionable practices at the same time. Here are just a few to get you started:
- I am so curious, how was this money raised?
- Who was involved that made it successful?
- Tell me why you chose our charity?
And if you need to be more probing, you could say:
- We have a few concerns about the “fit” with our charity. Do you mind if we talk about them?
- I see there was a central figure involved in the fundraiser who doesn’t seem to align with what we stand for, do you mind if we talk about this?
- I am concerned that one or more activities associated with this fundraiser may not be in keeping with the values of our charity. Is it ok if we discuss this a bit further so we can be fully informed?
As I pointed out, this situation could happen to any of us on the receiving end of donations. No charity wants to be caught on the dirty end of the stick when it comes to fundraising. I have great confidence in the leadership of United Way Toronto and know that in the end, they will do what they think is right for their charity and their brand. Doing what is right is what is most important. If you ever find yourself in a tough situation where you don’t know what to do about acceptance, I hope this blog can be helpful in working through the decision as to whether to accept or decline the donation. And remember – it’s ok to take time to think it through and make a good decision, it’s also ok to say no.