Don’t be ambushed by your first ethical decision

publication date: Nov 4, 2013
author/source: Laura Champion & JJ Sandler

As students we were warned: There will be big decisions in fundraising that are not black and white, so be sure you have a strong personal code of ethics – a code that will act as a moral compass when something just does not feel right. We listened carefully, but we assumed that these types of issues would not present themselves until much later in our careers and that we would have time to work our way through the smaller questions before we got to the big questions.

We were very wrong. Here’s what happened to one of us:

Five weeks into my career, a situation has already emerged, one that made me feel uncomfortable and second-guess who I am as a fundraiser and as a moral person. The details are not as important as the steps to my final decision and how I came to make it.

The situation presented itself on a Friday afternoon and I had until Monday morning to figure out my response and next steps.

  • Friday night: Spoke to partner to understand what the story sounded like from an outside perspective.
  • Saturday: Reviewed AFP Code of Ethics and my Humber College notes, and spoke to a fundraising mentor.
  • Saturday night: Stopped the thought process and switched gears to allow for the opportunity to come back to the issue with fresh eyes.
  • Sunday: Self check-in and thoughtful reflection followed by another discussion with partner.

The result? I still did not have a proper answer because I did not have enough information. I had worked my way through 85% of the problem only to find there were missing pieces. So it took another meeting on Monday morning to solidify what I had felt all along – the answer was always there.

The whole process made me feel scummy for considering all my options and for being involved in a situation I knew to have some ethical violations. I had not intentionally done anything wrong but had walked right into the middle of something that I now had to intelligently reason my way out of.

Did it make me feel better to make the decision in the end? You betcha!

Did it mean that I immediately stopped thinking about it and what might have happened if I had gone another way? No.

 I think that this decision is one that I will carry with me for a long time as a route marker for future decisions. This first decision was heavy, tiring and uncomfortable, but I know I will come out of the other end stronger and a more ethical fundraiser.


There is a large divide between theoretical ethics and how they are practiced in the workplace. Watching my colleague struggle with this decision caused me to question my own ethics. Would I have taken the same approach to addressing this dilemma? Would I have used others as a sounding board to justify my conclusions? Would I turn to the AFP Code of Ethics, pouring over the anecdotes of individual policies to enlighten my internal morality?

To be honest, I do not have an answer because I was not in my colleague’s situation. I do not know how I would react, if I would make a logical and rational decision or would I trust “gut” instinct. Ethics are an incredibly personal issue and are shaped by how we grew up. I am not going to have the same ethical compass as my colleague because we were raised in different environments and have different life experience. We are fortunate as new fundraisers to have tools at our digital fingertips that will help make some of our decisions easier.

Both the Association of Fundraising Professionals and Imagine Canada have written codes of ethics, guiding principles on which the professional practice of fundraising has been developed. They have been written and decided upon by practitioners that have had the experience and been through enough to know how we should conduct ourselves in a manner befitting the organizations and populations we serve.  The danger for the profession comes from those fundraisers that are either negligent or oblivious of these codes.

Ethics are something we cannot avoid in our line of work. As stated earlier, they are personal and shaped by how we developed as individuals. I encourage you to find the line that you would not cross and adhere to it. Learn what you are willing to do because ethics are filled with varying shades of grey. The codes of ethics that have preceded you are meant to help you come to your own decision – and do not be fooled, because it is your decision. No-one will make it for you. 

So new fundraisers – the big decisions are coming, and you will likely find there is not a “correct” answer, just one you are the most comfortable with. We found it useful to have a group of people in our lives, fundraisers and not, whom we could consult with the utmost of confidence that they would give us their opinion in its purest form. Find these people in your life. You will be glad you have them.

And to the mentors and confidants that we as new fundraisers look up to, you are the rocks to which we cling. It is too easy to be swept out to sea by these big decisions and without you we will drown. Patience and a gentle hand are all that is needed. We are good kids; we will figure it out.

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