Since we’re getting near to the end of AFP’s “Ethics Awareness Month,” I thought today would be a good time to bring up the topic for discussion here on the Intelligent Edge. I have a couple-three questions for you:
- When was the last time you went to a session at a professional conference that was solely devoted to ethics?
- If you have a CFRE or other professional designation, were you required to take a certain number of hours of credit solely devoted to ethics?
- Apra has recently updated its Code of Ethics and Professional Standards. Have you taken a look at it?
If we front-line fundraisers, researchers, prospect managers, fundraising data scientists, and advancement service professionals want to be a member of our professional associations, all we have to do is pay our money and tick off a box on our membership card promising to follow our association’s ethical standards.
Sure, I’m ethical. *check*
We don’t normally have discussions about ethics until some nonprofit does something really bad and/or accepts money from some bad guy. Then everybody gossips about it for a little while and when there’s no new information we generally go back to business as before.
Some organizations might take the opportunity to look at (or update) their gift acceptance policies, and others might add due diligence research to the requirements for soliciting a major gift.
But generally we tend to avoid really deep and meaningful discussions about ethics. We don’t hash out ethical scenarios or discuss our organization’s belief systems.
Heather R. Hill, chair of the CFRE International board of directors and of the philanthropy think tank, Rogare, laments in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article about the Jeffrey Epstein scandal that professional conferences don’t feature ethics sessions because they’re not well attended. Perhaps they’re not well attended because professional conferences don’t feature them.
What is this stigma that ethics sessions have? Is it that they’re perceived to be boring? That they’re not ‘how-to’ enough? That it’s just a bunch of namby-pamby kumbaya stuff?
Or maybe it’s that people are actually really afraid to talk about ethics.
You see, my ethics might be different than your ethics. In fact, they probably are. There are some research sources that you might use that I might not because of my ethics. And vice versa.
And ethics are a big deal culturally, too. What an American perceives to be a perfectly legitimate piece of information to gather for prospect research purposes might send a red flag up the pole for their colleague in the EU or UK. I taught Research 101 in another country several years ago and the group’s culturally-agreed ethical standards were completely Wild West to me.
Why should we even try to talk about ethics?
If we start talking about ethics in conference rooms, or in our offices, we might start arguing. The space we discuss them in might not feel safe. And what’s it all for, anyway? It’s not as if a certificate of participation in an ethics class is required for practicing in our sector, right?
And that’s where I think the problem lies. We are creatures of finding the slide.
Calculus or study hall? From scratch or store-bought? Netflix or the PBS News Hour? What’s the path of least resistance?
Talking about ethics and doing case studies are hard discussions. I think they’re necessary ones because trust and integrity are the foundation of the fundraising profession. If donors can’t trust the people that run and represent the organizations, they’re going to stop trusting the organizations. They’ll take their support to an organization they can trust.
If nonprofit professionals can’t trust their colleagues to be ethical, the honest ones will find jobs elsewhere. We’re already dealing with twin crises of donor and staff retention. I’m not saying that these crises and our fear and loathing of meaningfully discussing values are related, but what if they are?
This month, when we’re supposed to be talking about ethics, what actual solutions can we find? Can we make one ethics session during each fundraising conference a plenary so that everybody essentially has to be in the room? Can we make a unit on ethics a requirement for the CFRE? What can the prospect development field do to make meaningful conversations about this happen?
What do you think we should do?