Ethics Policy & Procedures

01. Introduction to Ethics in Prospect Research 

In this chapter we aim to outline prospect research’s role in ethics policy and procedures, which provide a framework for implementing consistent and transparent decision making across an organisation’s fundraising and other functions.  What we set out is a view on best practice and the full breadth of what you, as a prospect researcher, and your organisations might consider. However, we recognise that not all organisations will have the need, scope or resource to implement everything outlined, and so you should consider what is applicable to the context of your organisation. We hope to provide you with a range of tools which you could implement at any fundraising organisation, large or small, should you wish to do so.

We hope that through reading this chapter you will benefit by gaining insight into the important role of ethics policy and procedures and how their application enables prospect researchers to have confidence in their methods. We also intend that you will develop your understanding of different types of ethics policy and procedures and how these underpin effective fundraising and help mitigate risk as well as your understanding of the role of internal and external stakeholders in the development and application of ethics policy and procedures.

Whilst this chapter focuses on the importance of having effective ethics policy and procedures in place to ensure charitable organisations behave in line with their values and mitigate the risks of fundraising, it is important to note that under UK law, charities must start from the presumption that they will accept support (including financial donations) offered to them. Trustees or their equivalents are under a legal obligation to act in the best interests of their charity as governed by its constitution, which usually means advancing its purpose by generating philanthropic income. Furthermore, it is the stance of regulators such as the UK’s Charity Commission and Fundraising Regulator that donations should only be refused in exceptional circumstances, where it would either be unlawful to accept (because the gift comprises the proceeds of crime), or accepting a gift would harm the charity (because the conditions attached would require more investment than the value of the gift, the funds were generated in a manner antithetical to the mission of the charity, or the reputational risks involved outweigh the financial benefit).

Returning donations is governed by a different set of legal principles in the UK and should only be considered in exceptional circumstances. Trustees must be able to demonstrate that returning a donation is in the best interests of the charity and there is a valid reason to do so. Legal reasons might include:

  • A donation is invalid or was made in error
  • The terms of the donation or appeal cannot be fulfilled by the charity
  • There is a compelling ‘ex-gratia’ reason for returning a donation (legal not moral obligation). In the UK, ex-gratia payments can only be made with the Charity Commission’s approval.

This balancing of risks against benefits is where effective ethics policy and procedures as detailed in this chapter can help organisations navigate these challenging scenarios.

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