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Fundraising ethics

March 16, 2012

Like most universities these days, Sacramento States raises a lot of money from private donors. Such donations bring significant benefits, but they also raise difficult questions about whether and how donors might influence the university’s core activities of teaching and research — either directly, or more likely, indirectly.

The section on Fundraising Ethics in Sacramento State’s Development Policy Manual states:

All philanthropic activities at California State University, Sacramento will follow the ethical standards and guidelines promulgated by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), and particularly the Donor Bill of Rights.

The CASE Donor Bill of Rights specifies ten rights of philanthropic donors that aim, “To assure that philanthropy merits the respect and trust of the general public, and that donors and prospective donors can have full confidence in the not-for-profit organizations and causes they are asked to support.” For example, donors have a right:

To be informed of the organization’s mission, of the way the organization intends to use donated resources, and of its capacity to use donations effectively for their intended purposes.

To be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.

To receive appropriate acknowledgment and recognition.

This statement of rights raises some questions about the new video monitors in Tahoe Hall that I wrote about a couple days ago. As I said, my understanding is that the Business School is not receiving any direct payment for broadcasting corporate messages on these monitors. Dean Varshney explained to me that the Business School broadcasts these videos  as a gesture of good will toward selected donors. They express appreciation for an ongoing relationship. But then it’s worth asking:

  • What are the “intended purposes” of corporate donations to the Business School?
  • Have the donors been assured that their gifts are being “used for the purposes for which they were given”?
  • Is the acknowledgment of these gifts with the continuous broadcasting of corporate video messages in a public space “appropriate”?
  • Do such video messages risk damaging the “respect and trust of the general public”?

We can’t answer the first two questions without more information from the Business School and its donors. But if “appropriate” means conducive to the university’s mission, then acknowledging corporate donations with commercial messages is definitely not appropriate in the sense intended by the Donor Bill of Rights, which is endorsed by Sacramento State’s Development Policy Manual. And assuming that the general public expects a Business School to teach about brand loyalty and not teach loyalty to brands, then the new digital signs in Tahoe Hall do not promote the public’s “respect and trust.”

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