Ethical Standard Deep Dive: Standard 17

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Throughout the month of October, members of the AFP Ethics Committee will be addressing each of the standards in our Code of Ethics. Today, Claudia A. Looney, FAHP, CFRE looks at Standard 17 and the treatment of confidential information.

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Standard 17: Members shall not disclose privileged or confidential information to unauthorized parties.

Claudia: I am struck by how often ethical practices and decision-making cross our desks.  We make choices every day on ethical issues. 

Take for example, Standard 17 and not disclosing privileged or confidential information, no matter the nature of your relationships with others.

I recall the day when a prominent board member of the California Institute for the Arts, where I was vice president for planning and advancement., pulled me aside with a direct message that I was not to discuss his gift with my husband. The issue was that the board member was also on the Claremont Graduate University board, where my husband was vice president for advancement.  The board member's message was clear.  I was to honor the fact that his giving was confidential. I was not to share his giving history with my husband.  That conversation has stayed with me throughout my career.

As fundraisers we are privileged to know confidential information. We may believe that such information is public and can be found on the internet.  But it is not up to us to say, "It is known anyway, so I can share this."  We instead are called upon to demonstrate concern and act in the best interest of our organization's donors.


  • Members do not discuss any information about prospective donors or donors outside the work environment, and they discuss it within the work environment only as appropriate.
  • Members honor and protect donors’ rights to anonymity.
  • Members ensure that prospective donor and donor information is collected lawfully and presented factually.
  • Members balance the obligation of their organizations to collect, record, and make public information with the right of prospective donors and donors to privacy.
  • Members seek and record only information that is relevant to the fundraising efforts of their organizations. Such information is accurately recorded in an objective and factual manner and verified or attributable to its source.
  • Members ensure that the collection and use of information are done lawfully. Further, nonpublic information is the property of the organization for which it is collected and is not to be given to persons other than those who are involved with the cultivation or solicitation effort, or those who need that information in the performance of their duties for that organization.
  • Members ensure that information, including research, about prospective donors and donors are stored securely to prevent access by unauthorized persons.
  • Members give special protection to all giving records pertaining to anonymous donors. Those donors are informed of the organization's policies regarding access to such information, especially who is to have knowledge of the donor's identity.
  • Members are respectful of the fact that information about donors and prospective donors is the property of the organization for which it was gathered and is not to be taken to another organization.
  • Members urge the development of written policies at their organizations defining who may authorize access to prospective donor and donor files and under what conditions.
  • Consistent with applicable law, members urge the development of written policies at their organizations defining whether and in what manner to make public information regarding contributions.
  • The provisions of Standard 10 should also be applied as appropriate in conjunction with this Standard.

Examples of Ethical Behavior

  1. Maintaining only those records and files that members would be willing to share with the subject if asked.
  2. Assuring prospective donors and donors that these files and records are used only for and by the member's organization.
  3. Storing records and files about prospective donors and donors in a secure manner to prevent access by unauthorized persons.
  4. Urging one's organization to develop written policies based upon applicable laws defining what information shall be gathered, and under what conditions it may be released and to whom.
  5. Personally retrieving files pertinent to the day's work and personally returning them to the protected site at which they are kept.

Example of Unethical Behavior

  1. Providing a donor's file to unauthorized individuals or organizations.
  2. Sharing donor information in a collegial or social setting with those not directly involved in the cultivation or solicitation of the donor.
  3. Sharing donor information with friends, relatives and colleagues not involved in fundraising, or in social settings involving volunteers or administrative or professional staff of their organization.

Supported by: 
The Claudia A. Looney Fund for Ethics in Fundraising
The Patricia F. Lewis Ethics Endowment Fund

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