Please share your thoughts on the following fictional scenario:
In response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on the Gulf Coast in 2005, a private consortium of citizens, community organizers, and celebrities in Branson, Missouri embarked on a fundraising initiative for storm victims. As part of this enterprise, they created an agency, the Branson Heart Club, which opened a bank account under the name “Katrina Fund.” In addition to collecting and distributing funds, the Branson Heart Club has attempted through several agency-sponsored social events to raise public awareness about the plight of survivors of the disaster. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the agency distributed the funds it collected to a variety of programs for hurricane survivors, including food banks, homeless shelters, and even programs for the victims of family violence, a problem that has spiraled in the wake of the Katrina disaster.
In the months and years following the Hurricane, the Heart Club and its staff members have dedicated themselves tirelessly to collecting funds through the acceptance of individual and corporate contributions as well as small grants from several private foundations. This fundraising has been carried out despite the fact that, at the time of its creation, the Heart Club’s organizers lacked formal fundraising experience. Nevertheless, the agency has attempted to carry on its work with the additional benefit of having the donated services of a small group of committed volunteers. Now, three and one half years after the catastrophe, the Heart Club finds that its small group of devoted backers lacks the time and energy to continue its earnest commitment to ongoing fundraising activities. It now seems evident that an organized, full-time fundraising effort is simply beyond the means of the relatively modest number of Branson locals who first organized it.
At the same time, as they realize that Katrina’s impact promises to cause long-term, newly emerging social problems, the organizers of the Heart Club are interested in ensuring that their efforts to provide for victims continue. Knowing that they can no longer individually commit themselves to ongoing fundraising, they are determined to seek assistance from other experienced fundraisers who, the organizers believe, can create the infrastructure and organize the participants necessary to keep the Heart Club’s efforts ongoing. Toward this end, the organizers have engaged the assistance of a regional telemarketing organization experienced with large-scale charitable collection activities. Through the efforts of the telemarketer, and with the donated support of a network of area television stations, the Heart Club has planned a three-hour telethon whose proceeds are to be earmarked for the agency’s relief efforts. Consistent with charitable telemarketing practices, a small percentage of the funds collected are to go to administrative costs and the telemarketer’s fees.
Disagreement among the Heart Club’s organizers has occurred as to exactly how much of the funds collected from the telethon should be applied specifically to the needs of fund victims and deposited in the Katrina Fund. Several of the organizers are concerned that the immediate needs of Katrina survivors have been addressed by the federal government and private sources in the years following the disaster, and that it is therefore wrong to collect money for this specific purpose when doing so will only divert necessary attention away from other important regional purposes, such as combating poverty, hunger, and homelessness throughout the southern U.S. The group also believes that a solitary emphasis on aiding Katrina victims is no longer timely, and, in addition, serves only to distract potential contributors from these other vital purposes. Indeed, other charitable organizations have reported that, in the first years following Katrina, a decrease in contributions has occurred, presumably as a result of the attention that has been focused on Katrina and its consequences. The idea that the long-term needs of hurricane victims have been satisfied is both naïve and plainly disputed by research. Indeed, the long-term mental health impact of the disaster is just now becoming evident, and the ongoing problems of victims—including homelessness and family decay due to relocation—are likely to continue indefinitely.
In light of the present scenario, the Branson Heart Club’s organizers must make important decisions concerning their agency’s mission, their responsibilities to the clients targeted by that mission, and their duty, if any, to prospective recipients of funding resulting from the telethon. The decision making framework provides a tool for analysis of the Heart Club’s dilemma. If organizers conduct a thorough legal inventory, they will likely note the applicability of the duties to practice reasonably competently, to seek informed consent, and to identify the agency’s primary clients.
In the present case example, reasonably competent practice provides the general standard by which the agency must conduct its fundraising. This includes management of the fiduciary responsibility connected with solicitation of funds from the public. The Heart Club’s organizers have taken an appropriate first step in fulfilling this obligation by affiliating with an experienced fundraising organization that can compensate for the organizers’ lack of expertise in this area. Fundraising is a discrete responsibility requiring competent methodology, attention to detail, and fiscal responsibility both to donors and recipients of donations.
From whom must informed consent be sought in this situation? The answer depends on the organizers’ creation of a professional relationship with one or more primary clients. The most critical professional relationship in this scenario is the one that the Heart Club has sought to create with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. After all, at the time of the Heart Club’s creation, money to be collected ostensibly was to be directed to their benefit, and that point has been plainly revealed to the public. It is important to remember that the duty to identify a primary client is as important a legal responsibility in community organizing as it is in clinical mental health practice. This point suggests that the Heart Club should not engage in funding efforts without the voluntary support of the families and the seeking of informed consent from them. The Heart Club’s duties to seek the voluntary support of survivors and gain their informed consent may be more difficult to accomplish than in one-on-one therapeutic relationships, but they can be satisfied just the same. This requires the concerted effort of the Heart Club to reveal fully its fundraising strategy and to obtain clear permission from the families to collect funds and to contribute these funds to programs that have been organized on their behalf. This can be accomplished, at least in spirit, through the holding of public meetings with families themselves or with the leaders of hurricane victim associations that have come into existence since the disaster occurred. The use of mass media may be instrumental in fostering communication between the Heart Club and its beneficiaries, given the scope of the fundraising effort undertaken by this agency.
Without first identifying the families’ immediate needs regarding support services, the collection of funds arguably was not carried out with adequate attention paid to this point. Moreover, at the initiation of the fundraising effort, organizers had no experience in fundraising, nor did they seek out the assistance of persons with this expertise. Given these facts, it is fair to conclude that the Heart Club’s efforts for the first three and one half years of its existence were not carried out with due regard for the legal responsibilities mentioned here. However, the agency’s current determination to regroup and organize its future fundraising strategy with the assistance of a firm experienced in this area provide it with the opportunity to satisfy its duties regarding the identification of its primary clients and the solicitation of informed consent.
If Hurricane Katrina victims are the Heart Club’s primary clients, then what association exists between the agency and the donating public? Although not strictly in the nature of a professional relationship, as that term has been used in this book, it is nonetheless a fiduciary association, akin to the contractual bond that exists between a service provider and a third-party payor or insurance company. Viewed in this light, the Heart Club has a responsibility to use fair solicitation techniques that include openness and clarity in identifying the purposes to which donated funds are to be applied.
In acknowledging hurricane victims as the Heart Club’s primary clients, organizers should carefully consider whether broadening the agency’s mission to include other needy persons and groups is a wise decision. Clearly the agency’s efforts have historically targeted solely hurricane victims, and it is certain that its ability to raise funds through the years has been heightened by its public association with the Katrina tragedy and its aftermath.
In completing the legal inventory, Heart Club organizers should evaluate the impact of federal and state policies governing trade practices and funds solicitation. This evaluation is likely to support the result mandated by informed consent and competent practice standards: Money solicited for Katrina survivors must be earmarked expressly for those persons and programs that directly support them.
A supplemental review of ethical, regional, and cultural factors enriches the legal inventory in this case scenario. It reveals that persons touched by human tragedy are sometimes motivated to help alleviate its effects regardless of the cost. Therefore, it is not unusual in such circumstances to find individuals of modest means pledging donations out of a sense of emotional attachment to victims. This phenomenon is heightened by the use of mass media to solicit donations. Therefore, the use of a telethon to seek donations must be planned sufficiently competently to ensure that the information shared with the public is accurate and that prospective donors are not exhorted to donate money to an extent inconsistent with their own family budgets. In this regard, telethon viewers are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, they are particularly vulnerable to any T.V. fundraiser in which a newsworthy event is used to inspire donations by the public. In less populated areas, people tend to rely particularly upon the media to obtain news and public information, and also to choose charities they wish to support. These considerations make it clear that the fundraisers in the present example have a special responsibility to their community to be honest and fair in their efforts.
Finally, pragmatic considerations compel the conclusion that fund solicitation planned for a particular purpose—in this case to aid hurricane survivors—must be dedicated to that purpose. It is patently unreasonable for organizers to plan a telethon to aid Katrina victims and even consider diverting funds from the telethon to other purposes. Although it is true that there is a multitude of social problems experienced by persons in the South and elsewhere, this fact alone cannot justify the diversion of funds and the resulting violation of immediate professional duties owed to primary clients—in this case, hurricane survivors. To do otherwise would be to mislead the public. In practical terms mismanagement of the telethon and the diversion of monies from its intended recipients compromise the Heart Club’s public credibility, and may hamper its future ability to raise funds.
The ethical and legal problems created by this scenario, inspired as they are by a recent national event, are intended to alert the professional decision maker to the utility of a law based framework in the resolution of mental health dilemmas and legal problems both small and large. The scenario stands as a model for the maintenance of a community focus in all daily practice decisions. With respect to each important choice made by every mental health professional, this approach surely is the most effective way to champion both the client’s best interests and the community’s shared values.