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#92 Aristotle and Face to Face Fundraising

The Ancient Greek philosophers had quite a different gauge on what ‘success’ meant than is common nowadays. The contemporary understanding of ‘success’ tends to be defined by career status, material wealth and popular renown. A quick internet search of ‘successful people’ yields such names as Elon Musk, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson. It is likely that if the ‘founding fathers’ of Western philosophy took charge of Google, a very different set of names might appear!

According to Aristotle, the only ‘success’ worth talking about was the achievement of eudaimonia. While definitions vary, Aristotle generally described eudaimonia as a state of ‘flourishing’ brought about by living a ‘virtuous’ life. He maintained that if a person is ‘good’ and performs ‘good’ deeds, happiness would necessarily follow. We can forget wealth, power, and fame – all we need to focus on is “doing the right thing, in relation to the right person, at the right time, to the right extent, in the right manner, and for the right purpose.”

But surely that’s easier said than done?! How do we know what the ‘right’ thing to do is, let alone when to do it or how or to do it? According to the ‘deontological’ school of ethics, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ actions are determined according to a certain set of rules; an action is ‘right’ if it conforms to the rules, and ‘wrong’ if it breaks the rules. Aristotle had a very different take. He argued that the best way to know what was ‘right’ was by becoming the kind of person who does the right thing. For Aristotle, ethics wasn’t about ‘rules’ as much as it was about cultivating a ‘virtuous’ character. If an individual possessed such qualities as ‘prudence’, ‘temperance’, ‘courage’ and ‘justice’, they would naturally know the best way to act in any given situation. No rules required! This form of ethics came to be known as ‘virtue ethics’.

So, what do the moral teachings of a Greek philosopher writing 2,400 years have to do with face-to-face fundraising? As anyone familiar with the Australian face-to-face fundraising sector would know, in the past few years there has been significant emphasis placed on establishing guidelines and regulations. A decidedly ‘deontological’ approach has prevailed, in which charity clients, suppliers and regulatory bodies have laid out clear rules for how face-to-face fundraising should operate. This has been done in the spirit of promoting ‘best practice’ and doing away with unethical operators. Has this approach proved successful? Well …

There is no doubt that the sector needs guidelines and regulations. There is also no question that the deontological approach has had some degree of success is raising certain standards and establishing important avenues of accountability. However, there are few who would argue that this approach had done away with unethical or undesirable practices in the sector. For every agency that earnestly strives to adhere to the rules, there is another intent on undermining or completely disregarding the rules. For every new regulation put in place, there is a sly solution for circumnavigating its impact.

As was outlined in the Irregular Giving Project ‘White Paper’, a question of ‘values’ underscores many of the problems that continue to define the sector. The Irregular Giving Project identified a common disconnect between the values of charities and the actual implementation of face to face fundraising. Furthermore, a lack of integrity, sincerity and kindness was also observed in the manner face to face fundraisers often engage with potential donors. Simply put, our sector is suffering from a lack of virtue, for what are ‘integrity’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘kindness’ if not virtues?

I suspect we are spending too much time focused on how we regulate the sector, and not enough time focused on how we motivate the sector? Perhaps instead of establishing more and stricter rules, we should more closely examine the values that drive face-to-face agencies and the charities which engage them? Instead of simply prescribing the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of face-to-face fundraising, we should invest greater time and energy into cultivating the kind of sector stakeholders who do the right thing.

For more information about the irregular giving project and how you can help sustain our sector, jump to and join the team. And to find out how fundraising partners can serve your cause, go to


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