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Growing our ethical skills

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Paul C. Pribbenow

Paul C. Pribbenow

Paul C. Pribbenow

As chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Ethics Committee, I work with a lot of fundraisers concerning ethical dilemmas.

A typical part of the conversation, after we’ve delved into the major issues, often involves the idea of how to get “better” at ethics.

While fundraisers have plenty of chances to develop direct-mail or online-fundraising skills, the area of ethics isn’t one that gets a lot of work and refinement until, unfortunately, an issue or controversy arises.

And “improving” our ethical skills isn’t always a great term to use because there is no fixed goal for ethics.

Rather, we must always be thinking about new ways to think about ethics, how it applies to our organizations and how we can serve donors and philanthropy more ethically.

For example, AFP has recently launched its new Ethics Assessment Inventory, an online tool that enables professional fundraisers to review their ethical values and to compare them to the organizations they serve.

It is a helpful step in giving fundraisers a resource for professional and personal reflection on ethical values.

But fundraising professionals still need additional resources in order to help them grow in ethical understanding and maturity. The good news is that many resources can be found, within ourselves and at our own organizations.

Craft an organizational or departmental ethics statement

Crafting an organizational ethics statement can be valuable, both as a finished document and for the process of reflection and collaboration it engenders.

We might begin by bringing together staff and board members to ask a series of questions about our mission, values and donors.

How do we view the links between our organization’s mission and the values of potential donors? How do we balance the dynamics of loyalty and honesty? What values do we espouse in situations where there might be the appearance of impropriety? How well do our gift-acceptance policies and practices reflect our community values?

Our conversations would provide important material for an organizational ethics statement and also would help create an organizational culture in which talking about ethics is encouraged and expected.

An ethics statement, aimed at describing and sustaining an organization with integrity, provides a forum for considering the cases where our missions and core values don’t always get practiced in our day-to-day lives.

Independent Sector offers a template for such an organizational code of ethics.

Administrative case rounds

Adapted from the concept of medical case rounds, where a case is presented to a group of doctors and nurses from various specialties for discussion, administrative case rounds bring together diverse administrative, program and board constituencies for discussions of cases that are of some common concern.

For example, I once used our development office stewardship plans and practices as a common theme for cross-departmental conversations.

Instead of bringing together just the usual suspects from the development staff, we also invited representatives from the president’s office, the dean of students’ office and the admissions office, to join in a conversation about what stewardship means for our college.

There were fascinating conversations that resulted in both a better stewardship plan and a better sense across our campus of how stewardship is part of our common work.

Perhaps the best outcome was the off-hand comment from one member of the discussion group that she now understood how much of her job involved stewardship. We had a convert.

Create ‘clearness’ committees

The basic premise of a clearness committee is this: A small group of people comes together to help an individual discover, or discern, the answer to a dilemma through questions that help the individual find the best guidance and power for dealing with problems.

The process is full of silence and honest, open questions. It is not an advice or brainstorming session. It is not a cure-all. But it can be a powerful way to rally the strength of community in the pursuit of wisdom, an important outcome in itself.

There are a lot of ways this approach can work for ethics and our organizations.

In “The Courage to Teach: A Guide for Reflection and Renewal,” Parker J. Palmer and co-author Rachel C. Livsey propose the clearness committee as a communal approach to discernment.

Their guide is important reading. In addition to the clearness committee “rules” and description, it offers various other ideas and disciplines for helping us and our colleagues prepare for reflection.

As you can see, the path to greater ethical “awareness and enlightenment isn’t necessarily a straightforward one we work on by ourselves.

But with these simple strategies, we begin to create communities of discourse in our professional associations and nonprofit organizations.

Not only do we expand our thinking about ethics, but we bring in others and enhance the importance of ethical fundraising not just within the profession, but within our entire organizations.


Paul C. Pribbenow, Ph.D., is president of Augsburg College in Minneapolis and chair of the ethics committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals International.

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