Soliciting Those We Serve and Have Served: Is it Professionally Acceptable?

Several months ago, I raised the ethical issue of whether it is acceptable and appropriate to solicit those we work with or have worked with in nonprofit organizations (“A List of Names Is Not Enough”). The focus had to do with approaching people who were either being served by nonprofit organizations or who had been a recipient of their services in the past. I highlighted a number of situations that were actually opportunities for professional solicitation. Not surprisingly, this post sparked a number of comments on the eJewish Philanthropy website and to me privately.

I would like to revisit the issue and discuss it more fully because there are a variety of views and interpretations of what it means to solicit contributions from those we serve and have served in the nonprofit sector. There is no question that the subject is full of ethical questions and that there is no blanket statement that it is either “fine to solicit clients or members of nonprofits” or that “one should never solicit clients or members of nonprofits.” However, by understanding the complexity of the subject and adhering to the highest standard of professional ethics and practice, it is possible to articulate guidelines to be followed when engaged in the solicitation process.

In discussing clients we should distinguish between clients who are recipients of a confidential service in such fields as medicine, law, psychology, etc. from other recipients of nonprofit support. The clients who have sought out the expertise of these professionals have an expectation of complete confidentiality and there is an understanding between the professional and the client that their relationship will not be revealed or discussed with anyone without the request or the approval of the recipient of the service.

This is particularly relevant to the nonprofit sector because there are community-based nonprofit organizations providing these services such as hospitals, pro bono law clinics, community mental health services, among other similar agencies. In these and similar nonprofits there are resource development offices employing professional and volunteer solicitors and it would be inappropriate and unethical for clients/patients to be approached for a contribution. However, if the recipient of a service offers an unsolicited contribution this raises additional issues.

If the contribution is made during the course of receiving services then it is imperative that the donation not be understood to be payment for the services. There should be no misunderstanding that the recipient can express their appreciation for the services they are receiving, but that does in no way influence the services rendered to them. Of course, when a contribution is offered it must be handled diplomatically so that both the roles of all the participating parties are clearly defined.

It is much less complicated when a former recipient of services desires to express their appreciation with a contribution to an institution. It is not uncommon for people who have either survived serious health situations or had family members survive life-threatening conditions to contribute significant funds to a medical center. At the same time, people with modest resources also make contributions to these same institutions. There is no ethical issue when the donation is unsolicited and completely self-directed.

Students and former students of Jewish day schools and/or members of Jewish organizations represent a second category of recipients. In general, these people are not viewed in the same way as patients and clients of the professional services discussed above. For example, when a family has a membership in a synagogue or Jewish Community Center it is not a private or confidential matter unless they request not to be listed as belonging to the institution. A child who attends a Jewish day school is known by the other children in the school and by other families in the community.

For these types of nonprofit organizations, it is most appropriate to cultivate and solicit donations from people who are involved or who were recipients of its services. Synagogues would not exist and flourish without the support of its members and Jewish Community Centers would not be able to continue to meet emerging needs without the continued support of those who benefit from its services. By affiliating with these community organizations, members are expressing their desire to be identified with its mission and programs. As such, there is no problem encouraging members to support the services beyond the annual membership fees.

In this same way, parents of students who are enthusiastic about the education their children are receiving or have received should be encouraged to support the Jewish day school. These people represent not only potential donors but also a pool of potential members of the board of directors who will work to strengthen and enhance the school. They have the ability to not only influence the education the children receive, but to positively impact the Jewish community at large.

Ethical guidelines should be developed by the organizations that plan on cultivating and soliciting donations from past and present recipients. The issue is not simple and even when it is appropriate to raise funds from people it must be done appropriately and ethically. As such, professional staff and volunteer leaders should work together to develop a resource development plan that represents the highest standards of ethics and professional practice in the nonprofit sector.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.