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A Quick Reminder on Why Trust Matters

Resource Center - Foundation

Janice Gow Pettey, EdD., CFRE, Chair Emeritus of AFP’s Ethics Committee

Related Resource: Ethics Hot Topic Page

A recent Gallup survey reports that trust in Congress has hit an all-time low.

In the survey, only 10 percent of respondents said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the legislature, down 13 percent from the year before. 

Other national surveys taken in the same time-frame indicate that public trust in nonprofits is significantly higher than their confidence in business or government. Of course, some might note that the bar is set pretty low for nonprofits if public confidence in Congress is at ten percent.

Public trust is essential to the health of the nonprofit sector.  It’s hard to imagine raising money in an environment where our donors question the integrity of our work.  We shouldn’t wait for public opinion polls to tell us that we are floundering when it comes to integrity and good stewardship.  Rather, we need to hold ourselves accountable to maintaining and demonstrating our commitment to public trust. 

A recent study conducted by The Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting named the 50 Worst Charities in the United States.  To qualify for the “worst” distinction, public financial records were analyzed and those organizations reporting the highest percentage of charitable funds directed to paid solicitors, rather than to the charitable work of the organization, rose to the top of the list.  It is not difficult to imagine the erosion of trust from those donors who gave to these organizations, because, again trust is the capital of the nonprofit sector. 

In addition to loss of trust, we find ourselves wading in the murky waters of percentage-based compensation, lack of transparency, and the appearance of impropriety.

Ethics Apples to EVERYONE

Ethical behavior is rooted in values, both personal and institutional.  As individuals, our values are learned in various ways—home, church, culture, community—and values are communicated and practiced differently.  A significant component in ethical decision-making comes through seeking to understand, listening to varied opinions. 

I’ve spoken to dozens of AFP chapters and organizations on ethics, and the importance of engaged thoughtful discussion is always a take-away. Ethics does not need to be the stuffy, “it doesn’t apply to me”, topic.  It’s not like you get up in the morning and say, “I’m going to be ethical today.” 

We need to hold ourselves accountable to maintaining and demonstrating our commitment to uphold public trust. One way to accomplish this is to walk the ethical talk—show by example what ethical behavior in the nonprofit sector looks like.  My new book, Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy (Wiley 2013), is intended to serve as a guide to ethical decision-making and regulation for nonprofits.  There’s a lot of ethical ground covered in this book provided by experienced practitioners who write each chapter.  Their knowledge and understanding of ethical fundraising is formidable.

In the book’s foreword, AFP President and CEO Andrew Watt—also a contributing author—writes, “All of the organizations that we work for...have one thing in common: we work to create an environment in which all of us can be proud to live, side by side, with our fellow human beings.  We are under pressure to deliver...and people under pressure, organizations under pressure, need to deliver results and deliver them fast.” 

We may be tempted to take shortcuts, to look the other way.  Ethical behavior may be seen as an inconvenience standing between success and us. As fundraisers, we have chosen to work in the field of charitable giving whose sibling is philanthropy.  It’s important to remember that the word “philanthropy” refers to the love of humankind, not the size of the contribution.

For all AFP members, ethical standards and principles are the foundation for maintaining that public trust. In assuring so, every member of AFP is required to sign and adhere to the AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards. To make certain that philanthropy merits the respect and trust of the general public, AFP along with other fundraising organizations declare that all donors are privileged to the AFP Donors Bill of Rights. If you’d like to make sure that you are following the most ethical path possible, test yourself with the AFP Ethics Assessment Inventory—AFP’s first-ever self-assessment tool.

Note on Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy: The royalties from the sale of this book are given to the AFP Ethics Education Fund managed by the AFP Foundation.

Note on the author:  Janice Gow Pettey is the author/editor of: Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy (Wiley 2013), Ethical Decision Making (Wiley 2008) and Cultivating Diversity in Fundraising (Wiley 2002).  She can be reached at

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