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Ask an Ethicist: Can money raised for a charity 5K be used to pay entry fees?

Spring is around the corner, and that means all kinds of worthwhile charity 5K races. Many of these races have a reasonably priced entrance fee, but they also encourage runners to raise money for the charity. What if you create a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for that charity and want to pay for the entrance fee from the money that was raised? Is that ethical? Today's column looks at this dilemma and offers some advice.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, Ask the Ethicist, aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website

Francisco Javier Lopez HeadshotQuestion: I want to run in a race in the name of a charity and create a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for that charity. Would it be ethical for me to use money that was donated to pay my entrance fee?

The ethicist responds: 

Everybody would agree that donated money must ultimately be used to benefit the charity in question. To pay for an entrance fee that allows you to run a race and start a crowd-funding campaign is not directly benefiting anyone in the short-run, but it could have positive effects in the future. Given that your final goal in running the race is to benefit people, you are ethically justified to use money from the charity to run the race assuming that you are transparent with the charity and inform them of your intentions. Ultimately, the charity’s rules should govern your decision. However, from an ethical perspective, it is not only goals that matter, means are also important. The motivations and steps that you make to pursue your goals should be attended to by taking into account three different ethical perspectives: the individual, the communitarian and the transcontextual.

Regarding your attitudes and goals, your main objective in paying for the entrance fee is to run the race and raise money for charity. Your purpose for participating in the race is not to merely have fun or set a personal record. Rather, your purpose is merely to benefit other people through the money you will raise. I say “merely” because helping others should be the only motivation behind your crowd-funding campaign. Actions are ethical when they are informed by good motivations, such as altruistic reasons, as opposed to egoistic motivations. If you are starting your crowd-funding campaign to obtain a spot in a race that is restricted to participants from charities, then your action is unethical. Your helping others is then a means to get a spot in the race, not the motivation of your actions. However, if you desire to run the race only for the sake of helping people, I would argue that not only is your action ethically correct, but it is morally praiseworthy.

Morally praiseworthy actions are normally referred to as "supererogatory actions." Most ethicists, such as Immanuel Kant, regard supererogatory actions as not morally required because they embody extreme goodness and usually require sacrifice. Only a few people, under certain conditions, act in a supererogatory way – including those we call heroes. For instance, Spiderman’s decision to sacrifice his personal life in order to promote other people’s good is a supererogatory act. According to that perspective, your action is not unethical but just the opposite.

From the second perspective, your action could be evaluated in light of its effects on the community and of values shared within it. You might be conflicted because paying the nominal race entrance fee will use funds that could be instrumental in bettering people’s lives. However, this is only in the short term.

In the long term, you would be producing greater good by starting a crowd-funding campaign. The funds generated from the campaign could produce a more significant difference in the lives of people for whom the entrance fee was intended to help. Moreover, by starting your own crowd-funding campaign, you would be caring about the well-being of your community. In doing so, you would embody some of the virtues and values that most communities regard as valuable, such as benevolence, fraternity and civic responsibility.

Such values are pivotal to both the existence and the well-being of communities. Therefore, your action is not unethical from a communitarian perspective. It is in line with the ethical values that protect and improve the well-being of your community.

The political philosopher John Rawls defined society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.” Charities fall within this definition. In charities, cooperation is possible because there are guidelines and protocols that members are expected to follow. Disregarding these expectations, even if it is for a good cause, is unethical. Expectations generate obligations. Breaking obligations is not only unethical as such, but it is deceiving as well. Deception has a negative impact on communities’ well-being because it hinders social cooperation. People acting on their own instead of using the expected and agreed-upon channels of action is detrimental to the well-being and existence of our communities. They cease to be cooperative ventures for mutual advantage. Make sure that you follow the expected and adequate channels of action of your charity to get started with your initiative. Acting outside the rules, or bending them, is unethical from a communitarian perspective, except in cases of extreme violations of human rights, which lead us to the third ethical perspective: universalism.

The term “universalist” refers to several common principles that bind humans together. Such principles should be observed, regardless of what different communities regard as valuable. One such principle is the “respect for persons” principle. This principle tells us that we should respect and protect other human beings because they are members of the same species and share some common intrinsically valuable features, such as the ability to suffer pain or the capability to make autonomous choices that gives them a special value. Your intent to participate in the race and raise funds to help people is ethical because you are treating people the way they deserve to be treated.

All things considered, the act of paying for the race entrance fee with donated money is not unethical.

Francisco Javier López Frías is an ethics co-funded hire in the Rock Ethics Institute and the Department of Kinesiology. He researches sports ethics and human enhancement, and is also interested in political philosophy, normative ethics and applied ethics.

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