7.7 Ethnical Guidelines for Conveying Program Costs to Donors

Dear Kim:

Are there ethical guidelines for placing values on “example” donation amounts on websites and in appeals? I see other organizations provide lists in their appeals such as “$10 will provide toothbrushes for 5 people”; “$100 sponsors one child at event X,” etc. I’m not sure how to word example amounts without misleading the potential donor, who might think that his or her donation is actually going to a specific program or child. At the moment, I’m using fairly wishy-washy language on our website “$10 will help us do XYZ,” but I think there has to better way.

Do you know where I can find a resource on the ethical guidelines of using this language? Is there a difference between saying “$10 pays for” and “$10 sponsors” and “$10 will make X possible”?

Giving donors examples of how the organization will use their money is such a common practice that I’m sure there must be some widely accepted guidelines (at least, I hope there are).

Signed me,

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Dear No:

There may be specific guidelines about this common practice, but I don’t know them.  If any readers know where we can find them, please let me know and I will pass on the information. If you are a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, you could write to them, or you could pose the question to the Nonprofit Ethicist, which is a column in the Nonprofit Quarterly.

I think the language you are using on your website is fine and not wishy-washy at all. You are giving an example of how much it costs to do the work you do, which donors find helpful in deciding how much to give, or whether they even trust you to get the work done.

Remember also there is a big difference between “earmarked” and  “restricted” gifts.  Restricted has a legal meaning, which, not surprisingly, restricts what you can do with the money to that for which the donor gave it.   “Earmark” doesn’t carry a legal restriction.  Say you need 10,000 toothbrushes that cost $5,000 and you raise $7,000 using the toothbrush example in your appeal.  The remaining $2,000 helps with the rest of the dental program, the cost of administering the program, and other health needs of these children.  What I believe is the ethical answer to your question is fairly simple:  if an organization says that $10 provides 20 toothbrushes to children, then 20 children better have toothbrushes.

~Kim

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