Dust Off Your Ethics

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 14th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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It appears that ethical behavior is fast becoming an endangered species.    And although I am not pointing the finger just at nonprofits, as a lack of ethical behavior does not favor one economic sector over another, it is where I work and where I come up against it way too often.

I certainly don’t want to present myself as the final authority of what it means to be ethical, but we’re really talking about basic common sense.  The minimum standard of ethical behavior is compliance with the law.  Thus, being ethical is being law abiding.  But being ethical is so much more than simply abiding by the law, as there are places where the law doesn’t intercede or where the law is but the mandatory minimum.  Being ethical demands that a person goes beyond the law, does more, has a higher standard, her/his set our own definitions of right and wrong.

Recently, a “politically connected” nonprofit (the media’s description) in Philadelphia was accused by the state of playing footsies with a politician and, in essence, funneling money to the politician’s friends and causes.  This politically connected nonprofit had two of the politician’s “friends” on its payroll though these friends were doing no work for the nonprofit.  This politically connected nonprofit applied—well, it didn’t, really, as a state employee apparently filled out the grant application, so the nonprofit’s name was used—for a state grant that was then passed through to a for-profit.  In return, the politically connected nonprofit received $50,000 for its efforts.  (It should be noted that previously the for-profit had applied for state money on its own to do this project and was turned down.)  Count the ethical mistakes.  Start with people on your payroll who aren’t actually doing any work for your organization; passing money that was meant for nonprofits through to a for-profit.

This is where adhering to basic common sense would lead to simple ethical behavior.  A standard definition for payroll is a list of employees receiving wages or salaries; an employee is one who works for another.  There is a quid pro quo in the relationship of employee to employer:  one works the other pays for that work.  Basic common sense should lead one to question the appropriateness and ethics of treating someone on the payroll who does nothing to receive his/her compensation exactly as you do all the others who work hard for that compensation.  In the world where organizations rise and fall on the accusation of misuse of restricted funds, how does a nonprofit not know that giving funds that are supposed to go to nonprofits for furtherance of their mission to a for-profit entity is simply wrong?  How does every ethics sensor not ring off the charts?  And what did it gain the politically connected nonprofit?  Lots of scathing media coverage, for starters.

When Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter sentenced Philadelphia Senator Vince Fumo to 4 ½ years in prison for his 137 counts of fraud and obstruction, when federal guidelines had prosecutors thinking he was facing 21-27 years, he remarked, in response to criticism of his decision, “There’s been a whole lineup of Philadelphia politicians that have gone to jail, and it doesn’t seem to deter crime.”   It is a nice little twist that a part owner of the for-profit that received the money passed through the nonprofit is one of those former Philadelphia politicians who spent time in prison for misdeeds while a politician.  He apparently learned a lot!

But violating ethics goes beyond doing things that will call people’s attention to you, make headlines, and perhaps cause your downfall.  It is unethical to take people’s ideas and make them your own.  It is unethical to present yourself as knowing more than you do and accepting money in the process.  It is unethical to say you can help but then do what is not in the best interest of those you say you will help, but rather doing what is in the best interest of yourself.  It is unethical to give people what they want when you know, because you truly have that expertise, that doing so will, in the long run, harm them and those they serve.

It is a perception, fed by omnipresence and instantaneous nature of the internet, that unethical behavior is on the rise?  It doesn’t really matter because the reality is that there is a lot of questionable behavior going on.

Rightly or wrongly, as I have said before, we in the nonprofit sector – whether we work (and volunteer) for, or with, nonprofits – are expected to live by a higher standard than the rest of the employed, in the same way that police are expected to live by higher standards.  Neither is fair nor realistic, but both are a reality.  And quite frankly, we seem to be doing a lousy job at this, whether our behavior rises to media coverage or is simply observed and noted by colleagues.

As we approach the start of a new year, a time when many people make resolutions for what they want to do differently in the coming year, I have a suggestion:  dig up and dust off your code of ethics.



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