Ask the Ethicist: How Can I Create Policies to Avoid Negative Publicity?

Dear Ethicist,

Another day, another college scandal. I have kept up to date on the University of Alabama School of Law donation scandal, as well as the Varsity Blues FBI case regarding admissions fraud. It seems every time I turn on the news, there’s another thing to be concerned about in our fundraising sector. As a prospect development professional, this has me wondering what, if anything, we can do to prevent such scandals from happening. We do not directly impact admissions work, nor do we directly impact the ultimate decision to return a donation. What do you suggest?


Roll Out of the Headlines


Dear Roll Out of the Headlines,

The Ethicist absolutely empathizes (and sympathizes) with you and all of those in our fundraising world when such scandals make the headlines. As prospect development professionals, we believe instead of living in fear of making the headlines, we should do everything within our own control to mitigate such risks for our organizations. A scandal impacts all of us — frontline fundraisers, prospect development professionals, donor relations professionals, admissions counselors and our entire nonprofit sector.

We suggest using the newly updated Apra Ethics and Compliance Toolkit and review the following with your organization:

  1. What is the communication policy within the organization? What is acceptable for written communication, in terms of discussing prospects, donors, and/or the nature of a gift? Does the policy reflect how the organization AND THE DONOR might feel if a light were shined upon such communications? How do we as prospect development professionals support such policy?
  2. Are prospect development staff aware of the gift acceptance policy at your organization? Is there a vetting policy (i.e., due diligence procedures regarding scandals, lawsuits, criminal behavior, etc.) prior to accepting a gift and/or prior to advancing the relationship with a prospect for a transformational gift? What are the triggers that would cause concern or require additional research about a potential problematic prospect?
  3. What policy is in place regarding need-blind vs. need-aware? Where is the separation of admissions and fundraising? Is prospect development involved and for what purpose?
  4. Does your organization have policies, and are staff trained on those applicable policies? If there are no policies, why?

We in no way suggest any prospect development professional was responsible for, or involved in, any of the controversies mentioned in your submitted question. By practicing good data stewardship, prospect development professionals are instrumental in helping to mitigate risk to our own organizations, and this will help us all stay out of the headlines — at least the ones that keep us awake at night.


The Ethicist


Do you have a question for the Apra Ethicist? Send a note to Connections Managing Editor Kristin Fields ( for consideration.


This article relates to the Relationship Management domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.

Interested in learning more about policies? Check out this webinar: Strategizing Stewardship and Donor Management for Major Gift Donors.

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