As more and more schools look to increase income through their own efforts, we are beginning to see a greater diversity in fundraising methods, from events such as school fetes, fashion shows, raffles, competitions and sponsored activities through to applications to the Lottery and grant-making trusts.

Some companies, notably the large supermarkets, are also offering funding or gifts in kind to support local schools. Others offer competitive ‘deals’ to get their products into schools.

Whilst, on the face of it, these might be seen as welcome developments for cash-strapped schools, it is also important to reflect upon the ethical issues that such fundraising can raise. These issues are especially pertinent to schools because some funders, especially companies, may well have another agenda – the desire to reach a new captive audience, the children.

The key issues for any school
I would not wish to appear too cynical, but companies know that brand loyalty starts young. Hence the forceful objections by the food industry to the proposals to place limits on the TV advertising of so called ‘junk food’ to children. Can the companies get in through the school gates instead?

This has become a major issue in the United States where the concept of ‘pouring rights’ has significantly undermined schools’ healthy eating programmes. Pouring rights’ constitutes an exclusive contract between a soft drinks supplier and a school for placement of the company’s vending machines within the school premises in return for substantial funding for the school. These contracts have been worth as much as $8million plus incentives for a 10-year deal to place vending machines in 53 Colorado schools. That is a lot of money. Predictably, the result has been a massive increase in the consumption of soft drinks by school children – just what the donor intended.

America has also seen the corporate sponsorship of school learning materials, featuring prominent corporate logos alongside educational messages. There have been concerns that these messages have been influenced by the donors and imply nutritional values of a dubious nature.

Think too of the computer manufacturers that offer cut price ‘deals’ to schools. Part of their motivation will be to raise brand awareness of their products to future customers. If the child wants a computer at home, doesn’t it make sense to buy the same brand as the one used in the classroom?

Accepting corporate donations – at what cost?
One of the problems with corporate donations is that the donor nearly always wants something in return – and that is usually exposure of their brand/product to potential new customers. This may not always be in the best interests of the children or indeed the school. To what extent do we want these messages in UK schools? Are they creeping in already?

The major problem areas for schools to look out for are likely to be ‘junk food’ manufacturers, companies that exploit child labour in other parts of the world and companies involved in the promotion of pornography, alcohol or tobacco. These issues are not always easy to research since many companies are smaller subsidiaries of global enterprises with fingers in a number of different industries and activities. Reading the Ethical Consumer magazine is a good starting point though.

Ethical issues, however, do not just apply to corporates. Every school needs to ask itself if there is any organisation or individual that it would not accept money from.

An example of ethics and educational funding ‘gone wrong’
A few weeks ago, many people would have looked askance if asked what Colonel Gadaffi and the London School of Economics (LSE) had in common; this was, of course, before the row erupted about the fact that the LSE had accepted a major donation from its prominent alumnus, Saif Gaddafi (son of Colonel Gaddafi).

This revelation caused widespread condemnation and resulted in the resignation of Sir Howard Davies, director of the LSE. As the saga unfolds, it has been revealed that numerous prestigious UK universities have accepted money from oppressive regimes, including China and Saudi Arabia.

Since alumni could well become a highly lucrative source of funds for schools as well as colleges, we need to be increasingly wary of who those funds are ultimately coming from. This applies equally to grant-making trusts and foundations (Saif Gaddafi’s money came to the LSE via a trust).

Another interesting example is that a number of religious organisations will not apply for lottery funding since it represents the proceeds of gambling. How do faith-based schools feel about this? Would it not contradict religious teachings to accept money from the proceeds of gambling? How would raffles fare, since it is known that, especially in poorer communities, gambling tends to increase during times of financial hardship as families try to win themselves out of poverty?

Further action
As a professional fundraiser, I am not trying to imply that fundraising is, per se, unethical – far from it – merely that fundraisers need to be mindful of ethical issues before they start.

Best practice would be to develop an ethical fundraising policy for the school in advance of any fundraising activity. Although there are no ready-made templates, the Institute of Fundraising does publish a number of codes of practice that can be downloaded (free) from its website at The most relevant are Fundraising in schools and Acceptance and refusal of donations.

Key things to think about when developing a policy include the questions in the panel below.

Key questions in developing an ethical policy

  • Why do we want to raise money? How much and what for?
  • Who will we approach?
    • Will we approach current students and their families?
    • Will we approach former students and their families?
    • Will we fundraise in the wider community?
    • Will we seek corporate donations?
    • Will we approach the Lottery funders?
    • Will we approach grant-making trusts and foundations?
  • Is there any organisation or individual we would not accept money from – and on what grounds?
  • What are the key areas of concern?
    • ‘Junk’ food?
    • Child labour?
    • Alcohol?
    • Pornography?
    • Tobacco?
    • Other?
  • To what extent will we allow corporate messages inside the school in exchange for funding? What are the boundaries?

Keeping such a policy in mind will ensure that we fundraise in a manner appropriate to the ethos of the school whilst protecting ourselves against potentially embarrassing revelations after the fact!

Kathy Roddy is a trainer for Fundraising Skills, which has developed an online course for bursars, business managers and administrators leading to the Certificate in school fundraising & income generation. For more information call 0191 276 3261 or visit