Checking our Moral Compasses

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 8th, 2017 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I am always been dismayed by how dependent students are on their to tell them how well they are doing. Students are always stunned when I tell them that I would prefer not to give them grades at all, and they twist in the wind when I don’t offer them up specs on how a project should be done. What? I must determine this for myself? Ironically, it is the fault of our education system that we have created a population of people with little to no ability to determine, on their own, and in the vacuum of their own self (as opposed to comparatively against others), how much they have learned, how well they are doing, what are their own expectations and standards.

And speaking of standards and expectations. As someone who repeatedly experienced men’s inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace, I am stunned that it could take any male more than ten seconds, let alone ten years or more, to know that his behavior was unappreciated, offensive, incongruous, and, quite simply, wrong. Every male who ever did anything to me, or even in my vicinity, knew immediately that the behavior was unappreciated, offensive, incongruous, and wrong, and exactly what would happen if the action were ever repeated.

I learned to take care of it myself after discovering that my bosses were never going to be my allies. So I protected myself, and I did what I could to warn and protect my female colleagues. I didn’t need the higher ups to give me a policy, tell me what was right and wrong, acceptable or not. Over these last several months, the stories of women, in positions of power and influence, who allowed sexual misconduct to repeatedly occur while doing nothing, have turned my stomach, even more than the stories of men who did the same thing.

That Katie Couric could reveal in a 2012  TV segment, that Matt Lauer’s “most annoying habit” was that he “pinched me on the ass a lot” is a kick to the curb of every woman who was Lauer’s victim before and after 2012. And apparently there were may. Every person in a position of power at NBC, regardless of his/her sex, who saw or heard of that TV show segment when it was aired and did nothing, added another kick to Lauer’s victims, and are equally guilty.

But why did all of these workplaces, the ones we now know about, as well as those we don’t because the abusers aren’t public figures, have to wait until the top of the org chart decided enough was enough? While both the paid and volunteer leadership are supposed to define and then model the expected and accepted behavior of an organization, if it is bereft of a moral compass and the chutzpah, to go with it, what is the moral obligation and responsibility of the rest of us?

The nonprofit sector is not immune from the behavior that has been outed in Congress, Hollywood, the media; they just do not have the names that draw the media’s attention. But, rest assured, we are far from pure. So, the question remains: what are you doing about it? When was the last time your sexual harassment policy was reviewed? Is your reporting procedure transparent? Accessible? Does it create a safe place where allegations will be heard and taken seriously? If not, you have work that must be done swiftly and carefully.

There is yet another challenge looming on the horizon that could also test those nonprofits missing a moral compass. While the Senate version of the tax reform bill took out the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, it remains within the House version. What the reconciled bill will look like remains anyone’s guess. Though, should repeal of the Johnson Amendment not make it into the tax reform bill, there is already a bill in the House Ways and Means Committee that would, in essence, repeal the Johnson Amendment for all 501(c)(3) organizations. But just because the repeal means we could engage in political activity and explicit endorsements of candidates and legislation, should we?

Though the impetus for the Johnson Amendment was not the purest of motives, its ultimate wisdom allows room to forgive its origins. Thus, for the last 63 years, the law has protected many nonprofits that wouldn’t have had the good sense—and moral fortitude—to protect themselves. And I see this repeatedly, by the questions I’m asked as to why nonprofits can’t be involved in the political fray. Those questions go from being delivered with a tone of indignation and injustice to statements of understanding and relief. And I see it in the reactions I get from board members when I tell them their gift acceptance policy must not only specify the kinds of gifts their organization will accept, but also from whom. This statement always evokes laughter and head nodding as at least one person says, “We will take anyone’s money; we aren’t proud.”

This isn’t a question of pride, or need, but a question of protection and what is best for the nonprofit, its reputation and, therefore, its financial sustainability. Certainly this past year has clearly illustrated the ability of politics to polarize and divide. One of the first frantic calls I received after the election last year came from an executive director who had just spoken with one of the organization’s consistent, mid-level donors. He had called to inform her that he would no longer be giving to the organization as a result of seeing the Facebook page of one board member who had been very forthright in her views of the election outcome, which ran contrary to his. Imagine the reaction, and the potential breadth of that reaction, if a nonprofit came out and endorsed a specific candidate for political office?

Imagine what is happening for a nonprofit that is driving vans given to them by the same State Senator whose ads for his bid to be the Republican candidate for governor now grace these vans (I’m not making this up). How will the donors to this organization react to that? But why even step into that fracus? While the Johnson Amendment has protected everyone for these many decades, it is likely that, one way or another, it will not be available in the future. Will those laughing board members, with the guiderail gone, and with no ability to judge smart from not smart, to set standards for should and shouldn’t, lead their nonprofits down a disastrous path?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.