Ethical Standard Deep Dive: Standard 5

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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. Standard 5 is the focus today, with commentary by Janice Gow Pettey, Ed.D.. 

< See All Ethical Standard Deep Dives

Standard 5: Members shall comply with all applicable local, state, provincial and federal civil and criminal laws.

Janice: Is maintaining an ethical stance equivalent to complying with the law?

This standard is thought provoking and one I often refer to in discussions about ethical behavior. If I don’t break any laws are my actions ethical? By violating law, are my actions unethical?

Laws are created to establish acceptable norms for behavior. Speed limits as an example establish a range for safe driving in certain conditions. Speeding in a school zone is in violation of the law, and if one is caught speeding, there are penalties. If I exceed the speed limit and I am not caught, I’ve still broken the law. I know why it’s important to drive slower in certain conditions but I’m in a rush. I know better but I speed anyway.

I am choosing to potentially hurt others or myself, and it’s my action that determines my decision. Fortunately, no one is hurt. Because I didn’t get a speeding ticket, I haven’t broken any laws. I however, know that ethically, I chose my immediate needs over safety.


  • Members recognize that compliance with applicable laws and regulations is a clear standard. Nevertheless, laws regarding fundraising are proliferating, and ethical practitioners, remembering the admonition that ignorance of the law is no excuse, must be alert to new laws.
  • Members consult the legal counsel involved with their own organizations. Most nonprofit organizations have access to legal counsel, either paid or volunteer. Member consultants and suppliers of fundraising services also consult legal counsel regarding their contracts and practices.

Examples of Ethical Behavior

  1. Undertaking personal responsibility for keeping up with changes in applicable laws and regulations.
  2. Recognizing that one's employer may not be in compliance with applicable laws due to lack of knowledge, and bringing this to the attention of appropriate organizational leadership.
  3. Ensuring that reports which are a part of regulatory requirements for which the member may have some responsibility are completed accurately and in a timely manner.
  4. Maintaining appropriate licensure, registration, or certification requirements.
  5. Filing copies of contracts where appropriate.

Example of Unethical Behavior

  1. Having knowledge of a law or regulation, knowing one's organization is not in compliance, and choosing to ignore possible remedial action.
  2. Completing reports that are a part of regulatory requirements inaccurately or in such a way as to distort fundraising results or costs.
  3. Having knowledge of legal requirements for consulting practice and failing to comply.

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

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