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50 Years of the AFP Code of Ethics

For 50 years, the AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards has served as the cornerstone of fundraising, identifying and promulgating the high standards that make ethical fundraising possible 

And as the giving season gets into full swing, AFP will be celebrating the 50th anniversary throughout the rest of the year, reminding members—as well as donors and others—why the code is so important.

But maybe you’re wondering, what exactly are we celebrating, and why? After all, we know that the code simply tells us what we can and cannot do, right? Right?

When the founders established the National Society of Fund Raisers (now AFP) in 1960, one of their first projects was to create a code of ethics for the profession. Why? Not because other professions had them, but because trust is the essential foundation for philanthropy and the entire voluntary sector of our democratic society. Donors give to organizations they trust—organizations that do what they say they will do with the donors’ money.

“Too often, the issue of ethics only comes up in a negative light, such as when there’s a controversy,” said Andrew Watt, president and CEO of AFP. “But ethics is exactly what makes philanthropy possible. It allows us to be professional fundraisers. We should celebrate ethics—and the trust—that allows us to create connections with donors, which in turn leads to inspiration and impact.”

The Code doesn’t just lay out what fundraisers can and can’t do. It creates a vision for how we want philanthropy—and our society—to look like and operate both now and into the future

"Like any set of laws for a country, the code provides the structure for the type of open and honest behavior we as a sector all desire,” said Jay Love, CFRE, chair of the AFP Ethics Committee. “Trust by donors is truly built upon such open and honest behavior.  Without donor trust, funding for a vast majority of nonprofit missions will all but evaporate.   The Code is that essential building block for the underlying structure now and into the future.” 

A Few Simple Principles Form a Critical Benefit

When the AFP Code was adopted in 1964, it marked a major step in the formation of our profession. Today, members consistently list the code as the most important benefit of AFP membership.

Although the Code encompasses some 25 professional standards, they basically stem from a few simple principles: 

AFP members: 

1.         Work to advance the missions of the organizations that employ them.

2.         Put their organizations’ interests ahead of their own; they do not self-deal.

3.         Behave honestly in all dealings.

4.         Obey the law.

5.         Avoid any conflicts of interest or even the appearance of such.

6.         Are open and transparent in their dealings.

7.         Are truthful about their qualifications, purposes of solicitations, and fundraising results.

8.         Do not accept compensation based on a percentage of funds raised.

9.         Protect the confidentiality of donor information.

10.       Put the interests of donors ahead of those of all others.

Unlike many codes of ethics, the AFP Code of Ethics is enforceable. It not only establishes standards for ethical behavior and guidelines for determining what is and is not ethical behavior, it sets up a formal procedure by which anyone can lodge a complaint alleging a code violation by an AFP member. And much like a court of law, the Code prescribes a due process procedure to investigate, hear, and adjudicate the allegation, and, if necessary, impose a sanction. The ultimate sanction is permanent revocation of AFP membership and withdrawal of any AFP-sanctioned certifications.

Inspiration and Empowerment

While enforcement is an important part of the code, Watt focuses on the inspiration and the empowerment that the code provides to fundraisers and donors alike. “People give hundreds of billions of dollars to charitable causes every year voluntarily, without coercion and without expecting anything in return,” said Watt. “That’s extraordinary, and it’s possible because of ethics. How inspiring is that?” 

In the end, the 50th anniversary of the Code of Ethics really is a big deal. It forms the core of our profession and distinguishes AFP members from those who do not adhere to such high standards. 

Over the next few weeks, the eWire will feature several articles describing the thinking behind various aspects of the AFP Code and its enforcement process. Plus, we’ll be asking members to send in stories of how AFP’s Code of Ethics has helped them—or inspired them—in their work.


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