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Developing a Code of Ethics

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This is part of a special series, brought to you by the Standards for Excellence Institute, to provide nonprofit leaders with a brief nonprofit governance and management tip weekly over the course of 2020. We hope these short tips will be helpful to you and the nonprofits you serve. If you have suggestions for future topics, please forward these to

Back in the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of working with the volunteer taskforce that ultimately developed and released the Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector in 1998.  The group had all the hallmarks of an exemplary  volunteer team—incredibly dedicated, extremely knowledgeable, and willing to roll up their sleeves to get the job done!  I learned so much from this group and I’m grateful for their service. Quite a few of these volunteers still support the Standards for Excellence program in various roles. 

One of the projects this taskforce completed was a large-scale review of all of the existing codes of ethics that we could find from a variety of professional industries, the government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector.  Volunteers completed a substantial amount of homework to collect these codes. In these pre-internet years, finding such documents took a lot more work than it does today!  The volunteers read each one, studied the topics addressed, and completed a matrix to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the various codes   It was a terrific undertaking that resulted in one of the most comprehensive code of ethics for nonprofits that exists today.  


First Standards Code developed      First National Standards Code Developed

Images from L-R: The cover of the very first Standards for Excellence code (circa 1998) and the first national edition of the Standards for Excellence code (circa 2001)


Having a code of ethics for the entire nonprofit sector is helpful to outline how nonprofit organizations can and should govern and manage their work.  It is also important for individual nonprofits to have their own code of ethics to guide its work and decision-making.  The Standards for Excellence states that nonprofits should “ensure that they have an explicit and clear set of ethical principles and, as appropriate, operational or program standards that have been discussed by their board and staff and that are transparently clear to all stakeholders.”

More information is available in the Standards for Excellence educational packet on developing a code of ethics which includes discussions of the reasons for having a code of ethics, how nonprofits can put their values into practice, types of codes of ethics, training on the ethics code, and steps to developing a code of ethics. 

This educational resource packet and the full series of all packets  - including sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management - can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner, one of the over 150 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

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About the Author: Amy Coates Madsen

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-two years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management. She has held positions at the Trenton lobbying firm of the Princeton Public Affairs Group, and the Public Policy Liaison Unit at the world headquarters of Catholic Relief Services. Amy received her Master of Arts in Policy Studies degree from the Johns Hopkins University – Institute for Policy Studies in Baltimore, Maryland; and her Bachelors degree from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Amy is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Amy serves on the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities (ACT). Amy is a former member of the Disaster Action Team of the Central Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross and is qualified to provide disaster preparedness training to children and adults. She has also served as the former President of Central Maryland CAN TOO and was a member of the Board of Trustees of the largest United Methodist Church in Baltimore City. She serves on the board of her children’s preschool PTA and is a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. Amy is currently leading an effort to establish an endowment for the Virginia Tech University Honors Program.