Advancing Philanthropy

Ethics: A Firm Foundation for Success – The Code of Ethical Standards

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Every day our work as fundraising professionals is shaped by the decisions we make. Those daily decisions about what we communicate to donors, how we solicit gifts, and what we do with the gifts entrusted to our organizations have ethical impacts. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Code of Ethical Standards provides a framework for the ethical advancement of our profession. As an AFP member, we acknowledge the Code and our adherence to it as part of our annual membership ritual, but how do we use it in our daily work?

The Code consists of 25 standards that fall into four broad categories: (1) Public Trust, Transparency and Conflict of Interest; (2) Solicitation and Stewardship of Philanthropic Funds; (3) Treatment of Confidential and Proprietary Information; and (4) Compensation, Bonuses and Finder’s Fees. As the vice president of development for Meals on Wheels PLUS for Manatee, I’ve relied on the Code to guide my decision-making. The following are real-life examples from several fundraising professionals, including myself, holding the Advanced Certified Fund Raising Executive (ACFRE) credential, as they describe their work related to the Code over the last year.

Public Trust, Transparency, and Conflict of Interest: Standards 1-11

I think it is safe to say that none of us want the words “police investigation” involved in our work as fundraising professionals. R. Scott Fortnum, M.A., CFRE, ACFRE, used the Code of Ethics, and his organization’s public adherence to it, as part of a police investigation.

Similar to how our organizational policies, like a gift acceptance policy, set boundaries for the types of gifts we can and can’t accept, the Code offers similar guidance on how we treat confidential and proprietary information.

As the president and chief executive officer of Canada-based Children’s Health Foundation, Fortnum has intentionally rooted the guiding principles of the Code in the daily work of the Foundation. When the child of a long-time donor called and said their mother was not mentally competent and asked the Foundation to return a large donation their mother had made, Fortnum and his team were prepared. “Regardless of the fact that the child did not present Power of Attorney or any documentation confirming relationship with the donor, we were able to show the police, through our donor records, that the gift in question was a typical annual gift for this individual,” Fortnum stated. “The years of relationship and detailed notes on each phone call and meeting gave no indication of any issue. One of the things we have been trained to look for is significant changes in behavior or gift patterns. These were not present. We also provided the police documentation that we follow the Code of Ethical Standards and specifically referenced Standard 4. Our records, along with the Code and the seriousness with which we embraced it, helped the police to determine that no fraud was present,” he added.

Utilizing the Code as a baseline establishes a firm boundary for organizational leadership to measure fundraising strategies against.

One of the main constants in 2020 was change. As the world was coming to grips with the far-reaching impact of COVID-19 on nearly every facet of our daily lives, the guidelines and information regarding the pandemic were changing by the moment. These constant changes made it hard to know what to expect day by day, making communication with our supporters challenging. Aaron Sanderson, M.A., FAHP, ACFRE, utilized the vast uncertainty of the global pandemic as a springboard to build stronger relationships with donors and garner public trust. As the senior vice president and chief development officer for Kids Help Phone in Toronto, Ontario, Sanderson noted, “During a year of great uncertainty, there has never been a more important time to work at actively building trust with donors and the public. That means sharing when things are good and when things are bad, including our worries and even our mistakes. It felt weird to say ‘I am not sure’ to donors when so much was at stake, and I would normally reply with definitiveness—it felt embarrassing, even. But I think many of the donors I worked with appreciated the honesty and transparency and gratefully received updates when I knew more. It was a cause-before-self moment, often.”

Solicitation and Stewardship of Philanthropic Funds: Standards 12-16

afp code of ethicsIn my position as the vice president of development for Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee, in the last year, I used the Code as guidance in garnering donor approval to restructure gifts. For the safety of our senior clients, volunteers, and staff, we suspended some of our programs during the pandemic. I reviewed restricted gifts for the programs impacted in alignment with Standards 14 and 16 in the Code. After we identified the designated gifts, the next step was to engage in conversations with donors to explain our plans and openly present our needs considering the pandemic. These transparent conversations built the bridge for our donors to provide explicit, written consent to repurpose funding to meet immediate needs and allowed for valuable and direct discussions about the importance of honoring donor intent.

If we had decided to utilize the funds in a different way without first opening the lines of communication and asking permission, would anyone have known that we did? Probably not, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. Our donors appreciated the transparency and knowing their gift was helping to meet immediate needs at a time when many wanted to help but were not sure the best way to do so.

Keeping Standard 12 at the top of mind, Sandra S. Byrd, ACFRE, director of resource development at Loudon County Habitat for Humanity in Lenoir City, Tennessee, took a straightforward approach to promote effective and ethical fundraising practices in the last year. “We kept our community informed about what we were doing and how we were doing it. We told them where we had needs, and we thanked them over and over for their support. We never exaggerated our position, nor tried to elicit sympathy—we just let them know how they could help, and they did,” she said. In a time of such high need, Sandra and her team stuck to the facts. By making clear, accurate, and complete information available to their constituents, they were able to meet their goals.

Treatment of Confidential and Proprietary Information: Standards 17-20

By the nature of her work as a consultant, Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, chief executive officer and co-founder of The Capital Campaign Toolkit, uses the Code to educate her clients about her role, and theirs, in ethical fundraising, particularly in relation to Standards 17 and 18. “I am frequently asked by prospective clients if I can help them ‘find’ donors. They are hoping I can connect them with high-net-worth donors from my contact list. Of course, the answer is always no,” she said. “These requests are an opportunity to explain that if I share names and contact information of people I’ve worked with at other organizations, those donors and organizations would be furious with me because this is a violation of donor privacy, among other things,” Eisenstein added. Similar to how our organizational policies, like a gift acceptance policy, set boundaries for the types of gifts we can and can’t accept, the Code offers similar guidance on how we treat confidential and proprietary information.

For vice president of institutional advancement Benjamin Mohler, M.A., CFRE, ACFRE, and his team at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, their work in fall 2019 to publicly embrace the Code of Ethical Standards served them well during the last year. “The September before the pandemic, our organization made a formal and public commitment to ethical fundraising. As Kentucky’s largest provider of postsecondary and workforce education, the idea was to help model the way for our state. That public commitment formally embraced what already existed within our organizational culture. Once the pandemic hit, that commitment represented something far greater,” he said. For many nonprofit organizations, the impacts of the global pandemic required fundraising professionals to identify new ways to raise necessary funds. Using Standard 19 as a guide, Mohler stated, “Our organization took a closer look at alternative sources of revenue. One opportunity we identified involved the use of constituent data. Using the Code as a framework, we were able to establish a policy for our Foundation outlining guidelines for appropriate data use and donor privacy.”

Compensation, Bonuses and Finder’s Fees: Standards 21-25

Individually, we have all been impacted, albeit in varying degrees, by what has transpired over the last year. Similarly, organizations within the social sector have been affected in different ways. For some organizations, raising funds became more challenging, while others saw increases in both the number of gifts received and the average gift size. For Fortnum’s board at the Children’s Health Foundation, adherence to the Code in relation to Standard 24 made them comfortable exploring options to work with outside firms. “We have had a very successful year despite the pandemic impact and expanded our staff and our fundraising methods utilizing tele-fundraising and door-to-door efforts,” he said. Utilizing the Code as a baseline establishes a firm boundary for organizational leadership to measure fundraising strategies against.

The framework in the Code provides a solid foundation for us to build our work and fundraising practice while also guiding us in the daily decisions we make as fundraising professionals. A regular investment of time to refresh our understanding of the various real-world applications of the Code is time well spent. To learn more, visit

Amy Towery, M.N.A., CFRE, ACFREAmy Towery, M.N.A., CFRE, ACFRE, is the vice president of development at Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee in Bradenton, Florida, and is celebrating her 16th year as a member of AFP. Special thanks to ACFRE’s Sandra Byrd, Amy Eisenstein, R. Scott Fortnum, Benjamin Mohler, and Aaron Sanderson for sharing their knowledge and recent experiences related to the Code with Advancing Philanthropy readers. To learn more about the ACFRE credential, visit Special thanks also to Michael Nilsen, AFP’s vice president of communications and public policy, and the AFP Ethics Committee for their contributions to this article.

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19 Sep 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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