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Ethics Is Not A Game Of Jeopardy

Resource Center - Foundation

By Ligia Peña, CFRE and Leah Eustace, ACFRE

 ligia pena
 Ligia Peña, CFRE
 leah eustace
 Leah Eustace, ACFRE

At the recent AFP International Conference in San Antonio, we were blessed with an early morning time slot on the last day of the conference to talk about ethics. In other words, we half-expected that nobody would show up. But, with some strategic bribery (chocolate and free pens), and a new twist on what some might consider a dry topic (we turned ethical issues into a fun, and noisy game of Jeopardy), we had a full house.

Despite the laughter and competitiveness, the game allowed us to tackle some of the complexities and confusion inherent in any discussion around this topic. For example, when we talk about ethics in the nonprofit sector, we often hear professionals say “Oh but I’m very ethical, why attend an ethics session?” The problem is that often, it’s not the professional that’s unethical, but the situation or another person. How we respond to ethical situations is what can make or break your organization or your reputation.

The grey zone that exists in ethics is when you find yourself pinned between two equally important values. For instance, truth and loyalty are two indisputable values that are fundamental in our sector. Now imagine your board chair/boss asks you about how the staff are reacting to the organization’s executive director’s decision on a particularly contentious topic. Do you tell the truth, or do you remain loyal to your colleague and say nothing?

These are the types of grey zones that can land us in hot water and risk hurting our organization. Inspired by Janice Gow-Pettey’s (ed.) book Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy: A guide to ethical decision making and regulation for nonprofit organizations, here is a simple step-by-step process to help you make the best possible decision.

The ethical decision making tool 

  • Clarify the problem: Identify the driving forces and maintain objectivity. What does the person want and can you keep your feelings in check?
  • Identify the key, competing values at stake: Identify and rank the values at stake. Which of the organization’s values are at stake?
  • Identify the players and stakeholders: Who should have a role in the decision-making process? Consider the most vulnerable stakeholders. Who stands to lose or gain from this situation?
  • Identify the most plausible alternatives: Be sure to include the “less popular” alternatives.
  • Imagine the potential outcomes: Discuss both short-term and long-term outcomes as well as best-case, worst-case scenarios.
  • Evaluate the potential outcomes: Consider the positive and negative potential for each outcome.
  • Decide on a course of action: Act thoughtfully and deliberately.
  • Test the decision

Consider using the five “C’s” criteria for fundraising: 

  1. Consistency: the trust constituents develop in institutions and individuals resulting from a pattern of regular and predictable behaviour.
  2. Coherence: the guiding principles and standards that reflect unity and harmony, which provide a common point of reference.
  3. Continuity: a person’s past or an organization’s history, which provide the ethical backdrop for assessing present and future actions.
  4. Communication: direct and candid conversations with constituents and colleagues that prevent misunderstandings and create an environment where ideas and decisions can be shared, analyzed, challenged and sharpened.
  5. Conviction: the basic beliefs contained in the organization’s mission statement.
  • Share the decision with someone else: Make it part of team meetings to discuss the situation and the decision made so everyone can sharpen their skills and understand the repercussions of the situation.
  • Implement the decision: This is the most delicate part, and remember that there will always be someone who won’t be happy. Be firm but compassionate.
  • Evaluate the results or consequences: Reviewing results and intended or unintended consequences provide additional learning opportunities in ethical decision making.
  • Modify policies and procedures: Regularly review policies and procedures for consistency with organization’s ethical values. For samples, visit the AFP’s Resource Centre.

Many of us rely heavily on AFP’s Code of Ethics to guide us in our decision-making, but, more often than not, the exact situation that you’re facing is not addressed verbatim in the Code. It’s therefore incumbent on us to understand the broader context and rationale for ethics, and to foster an ethical culture throughout our organizations.

How might you initiate this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Dedicate five minutes at every staff, volunteer and board meeting to discuss one of the standards in the Code of Ethics, using real-life examples.
  • Spend 30 minutes playing Ethics Jeopardy with your whole staff team.
  • Make sure every member of your organization has read, and understood, the Code of Ethics (the long version is particularly helpful as it contains many examples of ethical and unethical practices)
  • Keep your ears open and take every opportunity to discuss ethics with your colleagues (for example, if you notice that a colleague has tweeted a negative comment about your executive director from their personal account, treat it as a chance to educate him or her).

And don’t forget that as a member of the AFP, you can write to or call the Office of the President for advice. Your enquiry will be handled in complete confidentiality. Good luck and don’t forget to review your policies.

Ligia Peña, M.Sc., is a multi-lingual fundraiser with over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector. She is currently the director of development at the MOSD Foundation and is passionate about philanthropy, volunteering and ethics. If you want a copy of the Ethics Jeopardy game, email Ligia at 

Leah Eustace, M.Phil., is chief idea goddess at Good Works in Ottawa. In her spare time, she’s chair-elect of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada and co-chair of the AFP Inclusive Giving Project, and served as past-president of the AFP Ottawa Chapter. Contact her at

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