Ethical Standard Deep Dive: Standard 18

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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. AFP Ethics Committee Chair Robbe Healey, MBA, NHA, ACFRE explores Standard 18.

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Standard 18: Members shall adhere to the principle that all donor and prospect information created by, or on behalf of, an organization or a client is the property of that organization or client.

Robbe: There are several ways to look at who owns the outcomes produced as a result of the work you do every day.  The extremes of the opinions seem to be, “I did the work, so the programs, policies, prospect lists, etc. belong to me.” The other is, “My organization hired me and paid me for my time so everything I did on my organization’s time belongs to the organization that paid me.” 

Standard 18 is very clear that “all donor and prospect information created by, or on behalf of, an organization or a client is the property of that organization or client.” So, the outcomes produced as a result of the work you do every day belongs to your organization.  If you move to a new position in a new organization, how do you draw the line? After all, your memory and experience will move to the new position with you.

Some lines are very easy to draw.  For example, you may not remove intellectual property such as lists or donor files and take them with you to your new position. This comes as a shock to many search committee members expecting to hire a development officer with a lengthy list of highly qualified prime prospects. After all, those search committee members may work in professions where it is not uncommon for individuals with a strong book of business to be recruited away and invited to join a new firm with the expectation that their client list accompanies them. 

But, if the search committee member is asked, “If the person you hire is recruited away from you in 5, 7, or 10 years, do you expect that individual to remove the lists and files they will have developed while working for you?”  My experience is they say no and begin to see the practices of our profession in a different light.     

Where it may become a bit fuzzy is when a donor may try to follow you, or if your new and former organization have overlapping donor lists. If or when this happens, talk with your executive director or CEO. Describe the situation, reiterate your ethical concern and make sure another individual in your new organization works with the donor(s) in question.

There is nothing illegal in this case, but there is risk that you are perceived as leveraging information you gained while working in your prior position at another organization—even if that is not the case.  Better safe than sorry! 


  • Members shall not transfer or utilize donor and prospect information except on behalf of that organization or client.
  • Members do not physically or electronically remove or transmit information from the possession of a nonprofit organization or client without prior explicit consent.
  • Members encourage the nonprofit organization with which they have a professional relationship to develop written policies concerning the confidentiality of their files and the requirements for gaining access to them.
  • Members whose organizations lease, sell, rent, or exchange their donor lists encourage the authorization of specific agents or employees who can negotiate and sign appropriate contracts for such transactions.
  • Members do not imply information about specific prospects and donors they have learned in the course of work for one organization that would be a benefit to another as a consequence of their employment.
  • Members respect the wishes of donors as to anonymity and the confidentiality of particular details of specific contributions. The member understands that the relationship between donor and development officer is based upon trust.
  • This standard does not apply to information that is in the public domain.

Examples of Ethical Behavior

  1. Encouraging one's organization to develop board-approved policies covering the use of donor lists and who may have access to them.
  2. Refusing the request of a board member or appointed official who asks for lists of donors to one's organization for use by another organization on whose board he or she serves.
  3. Clearly stating, when interviewing for new employment or presenting a consulting proposal, that donors with whom the member has been previously involved are not portable and will only be involved with the new organization if they are, or can become, through their own personal involvement, part of the new organization’s natural constituency.
  4. Providing and signing a confidentiality agreement with the appropriate parties.

Example of Unethical Behavior

  1. Disclosing confidential information to unauthorized persons.
  2. Providing donor or prospective donor files to another nonprofit, client, or business entity without permission of the owner or organization.
  3. Approaching a nonprofit or a potential or current client with another organization’s donor files.
  4. Marketing as an organization's "exclusive" property, lists acquired from other organizations or individuals.
  5. Revealing the identity of an anonymous donor to others without the authorization of the donor.

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

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