Assessing Ethical Situations – Part 1 of 3

October is Ethics Awareness Month at AFP Global. When I first started presenting at conferences, I delivered sessions

October is Ethics Awareness Month at AFP Global. When I first started presenting at conferences, I delivered sessions on ethics called Ethics Jeopardy. It’s a game inspired by the game show Jeopardy that was originally created in 2009 by Trish Mongeon, CFRE. She’d noticed the game was used to teach a variety of topics and figured the model could be used to make learning about ethics more fun and engaging. 

Interestingly, fundraising professionals can often be heard saying “Oh but I’m very ethical, why attend an ethics session?”. The problem is that oftentimes, it’s not the person that’s unethical but the situation, or another person. How we respond to ethical situations is what can make or break an organization or its 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. The posts for the rest of the month will focus on a simple step-by-step process to help you make the best possible ethical decision that was inspired by Janice Gow-Pettey’s (ed.) book Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy: A guide to ethical decision making and regulation for nonprofit organizations.



  • Clarify the problem

As a starting point, aim to identify the driving forces of the ethical situation while maintaining objectivity.

Questions to ask:

–  What does the person want?

–  What are their expectations?

–  Can I keep my feelings in check?

  • Identify the key, competing values at stake

Identify and rank the values at stake.

Questions to ask:

–  What are the values at play?

–  What values are important to the actors in the situation?

–  Which of the organization’s values are at stake?

  • Identify the players and stakeholders

Be clear about the important players in the situation.

Questions to ask:

–  Who should have a role in the decision-making process?

–  Who are the most vulnerable stakeholders?

–  Who stands to lose or gain from this situation?


Now that we have established the basics of the situation, next we have to examine it to better understand everything before we come up with possible solutions. Come back over the next 2 weeks as we explore the rest of the Ethical Decision-Making Tool to help your organization navigate these sometimes delicate situations. 

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