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The Ethicist
September 6, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Is It OK to Ask Family and Friends for Donations to My School Team?

My high school team held a fund-raiser, sending letters to friends and family asking for donations. The parents of some of my teammates had qualms about this, saying it was like asking others to pay their sons' expenses. Is that a valid reason not to participate?
JOSHUA SUNG, Plainsboro, N.J.

WELL, OF COURSE you're asking other people to pay your expenses: That's what a fund-raiser does. Similarly, when you receive a solicitation letter from the Red Cross or the A.S.P.C.A. or a political candidate, you're being asked to help pay somebody's expenses. And like those groups, you're not forcing anyone to contribute.

Those you appeal to can decide whether your team is a worthy cause. Some people may donate out of altruism; others because they believe youth sports benefit the entire community, not just the athletes themselves. But as long as your fundraiser is legal, transparent, and free from conflicts of interest and unreasonable pressure on potential donors, there's no ethical bar to any family's participation.

There is, however, an argument against this kind of financing: It undermines the idea that sports should be part of the school budget, paid for out of public funds. Your team's actions could encourage local officials to rely on private money. Hence your fund-raising may have short-term benefits but threaten school sports in the long run.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 6, 2010)