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Ethics Resource Committee: Q&A with Valerie Campbell

October 9, 2017

AFP Greater Toronto Chapter hosted its (now) annual Ethics Panel last spring, focusing on "Your Ethical Leadership from Arriving to Departing an Organization." After receiving rave reviews, we are thrilled to bring it back for Congress 2017! To give you a sneak peek at what’s in store, we sat down with the Panel’s moderator, Valerie Campbell, chair of the AFP Greater Toronto Chapter’s Ethics Resource Committee.

Q: What ethical considerations should be top-of-mind for fundraisers in today’s environment? 

VC: That’s a very interesting question because the more the Ethics Resources Committee (ERC) reflects on the key ethical issues in our sector, and as we try to understand and respond to the needs and feedback of our members, we realize that ethics is an everyday experience.

Your ethics guide you in every decision you make, small or large. When it comes to ethical dilemmas, one of the key insights gleaned from the 2016 panel was that an ethical dilemma often arises as the result of cumulative—and compounding—poor decisions made in response to challenges. It is important to remember that poor decisions are often made because of a lack of understanding of best practices or financial illiteracy, or even fear. I think it is fair to say that it is rare when someone in our profession intentionally acts unethically. 

The issues that the ERC is hearing the most about can be categorized along the lines of typical or historical issues, as well as emerging issues. Typical and/or historical issues relate to the topics that have been more openly discussed, while emerging issues seem to be those that are coming to light in new ways. Here are a few examples, which are just a beginning to this important discussion:

  • Typical and historical issues appear in the areas of gift agreements, financial reporting and transparency, and use of funds being consistent with promoted needs.
  • Emerging issues are being seen in the areas of compensation (this has been a typical and historical issue, but there are new concerns around transparency around types of executive compensation beyond pure salary); bullying and intimidation by boards and senior executives; understanding the concept of public trust; and recruitment (e.g. expectations of some hiring charities that new fundraisers will “migrate” donor relationships from past employers to new employers and/or fundraisers promoting their ability to do so during job interviews.) A final issue is lack of transparency or outright misrepresentation by charities when they are hiring.

The biggest ethical consideration is to cultivate an awareness of your own “ethical self” so that you have an ethical “reflex” in order to both identify issues in real time, as well as take action. The biggest issues arise as a result of non-action in the earliest stages, again typically because of lack of understanding or fear. 

Q: The panel you are moderating focuses on ethical leadership.  What makes this topic particularly important this year?

VC: This year’s panel is based on the previous two years. We are trying to create a layering of knowledge and education to help deepen people’s understanding and confidence in the ethics arena. The first year provided an "outside looking in" perspective whereby donors and volunteers shared their views on what it is like to experience ethics in the charitable sector. The purpose was to develop this important notion of who we serve, and understanding the concept of “the other”—that is, who might be affected, how, and the impacts, as a result of poor ethical decision making.

Last year, we went a step further to demonstrate ultimately what leads to ethical dilemmas, and trying to identify them and take action before they get out of control and actually become legal problems.

Bringing all that together for this year, the goal was twofold: first, to respond to feedback to continue to delve ever deeper into the issues, provide case studies, and expertise to gain advice. Second, we wanted to empower people to become conscious ethical leaders to take stands where needed, promote a high values organization, and feel really good about themselves in their profession.

In the face of increasing competition, continuing polarization of wealth and giving, the emergence of social enterprise, and (in some cases) a focus on dollars above mission, ethical leadership will define organizations, their reputations, and their success. In fact, we believe ethics will become the defining factor of our sector in the near term. 

Q: If you could provide one tip to fundraisers to keep them on sound ethical ground, what would it be?

VC: I believe the answer is really quite simple, and it comes down to two things we all learn as children: follow the golden rule, and listen to your gut.

If you want to go further, here are a few key practical actions: 

a)     Educate yourself! Become familiar with the basics such as AFP’s Code of Ethics and Donor Bill of Rights. Go a step further and read Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision-Making in Fundraising.

b)     When in doubt, talk with someone.

c)     Take a fact-based approach. We all make judgments and have a particular lens, so be objective when assessing what you believe to be an ethical dilemma.

d)     Try to talk it through. The mantra of the Ethics Resources Committee is to “enliven the ethics conversation.” The more we talk, the more light we shine on the good work we do, and the more we build trust and therefore success—which is what ethics supports in the first place.