A Guide to Charitable
Giving, Part 5

A Donor’s Rights (Honouring a Donor’s Rights Means Being Accountable)

What rights does a donor have? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that. In the end, your enthusiasm for a cause and how much you think of an organization will determine the degree of your support. Still, there are charities that distinguish themselves by posting their policies and their underlying ideologies, a practice that resonates with me. Some precede the specific donor’s rights they have adopted with this statement crafted three decades ago by a group of charitable advisory associations:

Philanthropy is based on voluntary action for the common good. It is a tradition of giving and sharing that is primary to the quality of life. 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, we declare that all donors have these rights…”

Among the rights listed are a few obvious ones, such as access for all to information about the way donations are used, the identity of those determining policy, detailed financial statements and a pledge that grants will be used for the purposes they were given.

But then the list goes on, delving into promises that are more controversial. One of these is to acknowledge and recognize donors. This is an area where conventions widely differ. I think most people would agree that philanthropy represents an exchange of energy, one of the most profound transactions in human existence. The donor recognizes the worthiness of a cause and acknowledges the help of the volunteers and staff who help make a difference. Conversely, it would seem, the charity should recognize the donor’s gesture of support.

Yet logistically, donor recognition presents challenges. For a small charity, it’s demonstrably much easier to recognize its couple of hundred supporters than it is for a large organization with many thousands of donors. Some entities, to overcome this challenge, recognize only sizeable givers, organizing them into categories; the proverbial “platinum, gold and silver supporters” come to mind. Even within charitable organizations there is debate about what is right; Doctors Without Borders in Switzerland lists sizeable supporters; the Canadian chapter opts not to do that.

As a donor, you should also be aware that marketing agencies routinely harvest donation data, such as your name and the size of your grant, from various charities’ annual reports. They then sell this information to other charitable organizations. In short, being recognized as a donor with one charity can make you a fundraising target with another organization.

Another persistently controversial issue is whether a donor should be able to earmark funds to a specific cause. What if I feel that I’d like to help victims of the Sudanese civil war, but don’t want my donation directed at mass Covid vaccination in Nepal? Should the charity of my choice observe such preferences? My own feeling is that they should, but realistically much depends on the size of your grant. After all, a charity may be able to direct a sizeable donation, but will not be able to do the same for amounts of $500 or $1000. That is an ethical dilemma of the first order, but perhaps an insurmountable one.

Here is one of the more interesting donor rights, observed by very few charities: should a charity have to disclose whether those seeking donations are volunteers, employees of the organization, or hired solicitors? Almost all large charities retain marketing agencies who routinely pose as idealistic volunteer fundraisers, but are paid handsomely for donors they bring to the table. That, to me, borders on the immoral.

And, finally, there is always the issue of selling the names of those who once supported the charity, but no longer do so. The small charity I mentioned covers that base too. It lists among its donor rights “to have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from our mailing list and to know that our organization will never share lists with others.”

A few organizations even go further; they have privacy policies, complaints policies and even whistleblower policies in place.

To me, whether a charity has an accessible list of donor rights tells a lot about its ethics. And that is highly relevant, because an ethically deficient charity should neither be supported, nor call itself a charitable cause.


Balancing Intention with Thought (Back to Basics: The Challenge is to Give Well)

In sharing my experience and presenting my conclusions I hope to have made only one major point: if the intention behind your charitable giving is to help in the most effective way, carefully consider where your donations should go. There are numerous organizations in many areas of charitable activity whose work is admirable and whose social impact is impressive. Finding them and continuously reassessing their progress requires a bit of work but is also deeply rewarding. A disciplined review process will give you the time and distance that is needed for all successful decision making.

As you weigh the merits of each donation, you’ll be perplexed by what a small percentage of charities and non-profits out there deserve your support. You’ll be even more surprised how much the worthiest organizations can accomplish and what a difference your support can make!


“The greatest use of money is to spend it on something that will outlast your life.”



Reprinted from Peter Cavelti’s “A Guide To Informed Charitable Giving”, copyright 2023. Published by the Author. Content may be reprinted with proper attribution.