9 Steps to More Ethical Fundraising

Six years ago my wife and I were in the middle of a two-year effort to raise the necessary funds to move to the Middle East as long-term workers. While our fundraising journey had been exciting — as friends and family responded generously and lovingly to our call — it was also heartbreaking. We received discouraging comments such as “Why would I give you money to go over there and get yourselves killed?” or “Why can’t you just get a real job?”

We were doing all the things we were taught to do—pray, write newsletters, make calls, send letters, schedule meetings—but after two years, we felt stuck. We were at about 50% of our goal and couldn’t seem to make any traction. One day, I just felt I needed to do something to make a statement to our potential supporters that we were as serious about this as we possibly could be and that we held them and their potential donations in the highest esteem. So I decided to write down the ways in which we were committing to respect them and their sacrifice.

I called this our “Fundraising Code of Ethics.” To me, it was a public covenant we were making to hold ourselves to a standard of maturity, transparency, and responsibility. By making it public, we were welcoming our supporters to hold us to this standard, but we also warned them we would never have a perfect record and asked them to be gracious with us. Like every healthy relationship, trust is absolutely crucial. We are all aware if donors trust you they are more likely to support you. What we learned is that we also need to have enough faith in our supporters to be transparent with them.

My wife and I started including these nine commitments in our fundraising materials and presentations. We do not think there is anything all that original or brilliant about these things; in fact, most are common sense. However, there has been value to us in writing publicly what we think good support-raising relationships look like.


1. We will resist the urge to solicit support through guilt. We want donors to share in our joy when they support us.

Guilt is an effective tactic. The problem is that it creates a manipulative relationship between you and your supporter—and your supporter and your work—that is based on their shame of having and others not having. I don’t want my supporters to pity me or the people we serve; pity doesn’t do anything to help us draw closer to the Kingdom of God. Serving God in the Middle East is a great privilege and joy (most of the time), and I want my supporters to share in that joy. Likewise, my wife and I support fellow workers as a part of our tithe and we do it because we are excited about the kingdom work they are doing and want to be a part of it.

Admittedly, there is a slippery slope with this one, and I personally do have to resist the urge to lapse into using guilt. There is a line, though, between saying, “Four more donors at $25 a month will send us on our way to join the exciting work God is doing among the Ugabuga people,” and “Only four more donors at $25 a month stand in our way of taking the gospel to the Ugabuga people, who are dying and going to hell without knowledge of the Gospel.”

Our work with refugees is prime territory for guilt tactics. I often think I would raise more money if I published pictures of poor families huddled around kerosene heaters in their cold and damp concrete rooms than the pictures of refugees generously serving me cup after cup of Arabic coffee while we sit and laugh at the antics of our kids.

A friend of mine works for an organization that has a policy to only publish pictures that show “people at their best.” This has been a challenging standard for me to follow, especially because I do feel that it’s important for me to share the stories of the people we serve. But even though we serve people in the midst of tragedy, we want people to join our ministry because of the potential joy and wholeness that will come, not simply because of the presence and continuation of pain and suffering. Will people be excited when they support us, or will they simply feel relieved of their guilt?


2. Donors will receive a monthly report on the income and expenses of the ministry.

Full Disclosure: Our sending organization requires us to send this report every month. Nonetheless, we fully support this and want our donors to be aware of it and to see our support and commitment to this standard. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to tell dozens of friends and family what your salary is, but we want to be as transparent as possible.

Often, we are self-conscious that people will think we make too much and won’t give because of it; however, the feedback I received from some supporters is that they check the report to make sure we have enough resources, not to see if we have too much. That’s the kind of supporter we need more of, and we can’t have them unless we live in a relationship of transparency.

Will some people decline to support us because they think I should not be making as much as I do? Maybe, but I have to ask myself how healthy that relationship will be over the long run.


3. The donor’s privacy will be respected.

This one seems simple but in practice takes care. It’s too easy to be out to dinner with friends and say something about how generous another friend’s support is. We try as hard as we can to keep financial support a private matter.


4. The donor’s questions will be answered honestly and in a timely manner.

Supporters are our partners in this ministry. They see things from a different perspective than we do, and we respect and value that. I want to encourage a culture on our support team that supports a healthy dialogue about our decisions and tactics. Sometimes asking questions is also part of their process to decide to begin or increase their support. I want to build allies who have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of who we are, what we do, and why we do it that way.

We have also all had to field our share of seemingly silly and bizarre questions: Why do you need a car? Why can’t you deliver refugee aid supplies by bicycle? How was your mission trip? When are you coming home to get a real job?

What we’ve decided and have committed to our supporters is that we are going to try our hardest to respect inquisitiveness and give the benefit of the doubt by answering their questions humbly and joyfully.


5. We value unity in the church and will resist dogmatism.

I think most donors want to know their funds are not being used to support some sort of denominational turf war overseas. Once I was petitioned by a worker in Asia to support a new outreach in a village he claimed had no believers. During our discussion, I asked what religious groups were active in this area. He replied, “Well, [one particular denomination] has planted a lot of churches there.” There might be some supporters who want me to carry the flag of our denomination, but I think most care more about their funding going to where it’s needed most to do Kingdom work.


6. Our highest commitment will be to remain biblical in both our ministry and how we portray it.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but including it in this list is another layer of commitment to our support team that the Bible will be our ultimate authority in how we conduct our lives and ministry. By including this in our code of ethics, we are willingly opening ourselves up for biblical correction by our partners.


7. Our trials and triumphs in ministry will be accurately reflected in our communications; we will not sugarcoat or embellish.

“You mean you don’t skip out the door every morning singing hymns after spending two hours in prayer and then baptize three people before lunch and plant a church before dinner?” No, sometimes we get really discouraged by the lack of fruit in our ministry and need to call in some help to encourage us and get us back in the fight.

I’m also not going to fill my newsletter with a bunch of stories about our trials and tribulations to guilt you into giving more (#1). I’m just going to try to tell it like it is, as often as possible, and hope you and I can trust each other to deal with the real-world facts in a loving and gracious manner.


8. The financial decisions we make concerning our life and ministry will be made with health and longevity as a primary goal.

“Wouldn’t my financial support be better used to buy food for refugees than an air conditioner for your house?” Well, not if I come home from delivering that food to find my wife packing our bags. Sometimes we spend donors’ funds to immediately buy blankets, and sometimes it goes into my child’s college savings plan via my salary. Heck, sometimes it goes to get my wife a massage at a day spa. Again, we don’t think our donors’ money is going to do anyone any good if we are burned out and leaving the field.

Most missionaries are frugal by nature, but we need to be wise. Sometimes, instead of buying the absolute cheapest, we spend a little more on a tool or resource because we want things that will last and be useful to us for as long as we need them. This is good stewardship to us. We believe and hope that our ministry will increase in effectiveness and fruit over time, and we have to let our supporters in on that long-term perspective.


9. Donors have the right to discontinue support at any time without fear of guilt or reproach.

We have talked to potential supporters who list the fear of not being able to continue indefinitely as a reason for not starting to support us now. Likewise, we’ve seen people distraught as they come to us and say they have to cut back on their support.

Similar to not using guilt to motivate, we don’t want people to feel guilt for having to stop. Situations change, and we are not the judge of anyone’s budget. We want to assuage this fear from the beginning of our partnership. We trust God will provide for our lives and ministry.


Well there you have it, our nine-point Code of Ethics for Fundraising. Naturally you will want to know if this worked, and I don’t have a clear answer to that. We did end up raising all of our funds and have enjoyed generous financial provision on the field. A few people have given us positive feedback to the Code of Ethics, but most never said anything about it.

I can honestly say, though, that committing to these things has challenged me to conduct fundraising with a higher level of integrity and conscientiousness. Having confidence that I have raised our support with a commitment to these ethics has made me take our resources more seriously.

It has also relieved me of possible embarrassment and shame of fundraising. This isn’t a gimmick. To us it comes from our hearts, and it has been entirely worth it just from the standpoint that I can look my supporters in the eye and enjoy a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with them.


What fundraising principles have you tried to live by?


Matt is a missionary in the Middle East, where he leads a team that partners with a local church to provide aid to refugees. He’s also an adjunct professor for Johnson University. He ministers alongside Susan, his wife of seven years, and their 3-year-old daughter Annabelle. Matt and Susan worked in social work in Knoxville, Tennessee for 6 years before moving to the Middle East. He enjoys cooking, scuba diving, and talking about big and daring ideas.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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