Ethics Start at the Top

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 4th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Ethics, smethics (yes, I’ve blogged about this before).  Increasingly, and sadly, that appears to be what the nonprofit sector thinks of ethics.  Something to rhyme with, but nothing to take seriously, as evidenced by story after story, from every corner of our country, of organizations operating unethically.

Pulled from headlines just in the last several weeks:  nonprofits operating as a family business, too numerous to mention, and then making loans to family’s private business (Footings, in Monroe, New York); executive director embezzling $500,000 with the aid of her daughter (Jefferson County (Alabama) Committee for Economic Opportunity; a nonprofit that cannot account for over $320,000 in federal aid (The Light City Church, New Orleans). 

But my Masters in Nonprofit Leadership students, who currently are having a discussion on ethics that just won’t quit, have given me heart.  As the current and future leaders of the sector, the questions that they are willing to ask, where their predecessors and current superiors weren’t so willing to go, give me hope that the sector that was thought to be more moral than the for-profit sector might truly become so.  They all recognize that being an ethical organization starts with ethical leaders—the executive director and board members.  They also now understand that an ethical organization can only remain so if there are a few “supports” in place:  a clear and explicit Code of Ethics; regular and frequent reminders of the content of that Code; accountability for abiding by that Code; and, consequences for failing to uphold that Code.

But any Code of Conduct, sorry to say, simply states the obvious.  It doesn’t dig deep, and that is what this class is doing.  They are taking things many steps further, not stopping with the oh-so-obvious situations of the above examples.  No, they are asking the really tough questions of what is and isn’t ethical and just where does the responsibility to be ethical start and end.

These are their examples, all real situations.

Case #1:  A recreational and educational organization serving children leases some of its land to a phone company for a cell tower.  The rental income is an important and valuable revenue stream for this organization that operates on over 200 acres of open space.

The students’ questions:

  1. Do we know about the practices of this business to which we lease land?
  2. Cell phones use rare earth minerals mined in far-away places in terrible conditions.  Are we contributing to the hard lives of others?
  3. If supporters of our organization become aware of our organization’s financial relationship with the cell phone company and the social justice issues surrounding the company’s product, how might that impact our organization?
  4. Does our nonprofit have a responsibility to try to change the way the cell phone company operates?
  5. If there is not one cell phone company that is better than another regarding the environmental impact, then we don’t have much choice.  But, if some company did tout such “green” sourcing, is it “greenwashing” or is it truly better?
  6. If we have no better alternative, if all providers are equally “bad,” is it still unethical, or are we just stuck?
  7. If we refuse to lease the land to the cell tower company on ethical grounds but continue to personally still use a cell phone, are we hypocrites? 

Case #2:  An animal shelter, used to housing cats and dogs, received a donation of parrots that had been seized by authorities.   Parrots have different ownership needs than dogs and cats.  The animal shelter charged a higher adoption fee than for cats and dogs and did not do what many deemed an appropriate screening of the adoptive families.  They were viewed, at least by animal lovers, as forsaking the best interest of the parrots in favor of making a quick buck.

The students’ questions:

  1. If the goals are good—gaining money to sustain the on-going work of the mission and getting the parrots a home, but the approach less than ideal (not doing proper screening of the adoptive families), does the unethical means justify the positive end?
  2. Is it not ethical to use legal means to seek money to support our mission?
  3. Is the mission—protecting animals and protecting the community we serve (our future adopting families)—more important than doing something quickly, but not illegally, in order to bring in needed resources for pursuing our mission? 

Case #3:  A food bank receives a donation of baby food in glass jars.  It is not allowed to distribute food in glass jars because the glass may chip, get into the food and harm the baby.  But the food bank still accepts the donation and the donor still gets to claim a tax deduction.  Similarly, a food bank gets a donation of fresh produce that is on the verge of turning.  If the produce cannot be distributed quickly enough, the food will be trashed.  But, once again, the donor still gets the tax deduction, regardless of whether 10, 100 or all of the pounds of food go to people in need.

The students’ questions:

  1. Given our mission, is it ethical to throw away food?
  2. How much risk should we take when it comes to feeding people? We try to make sure that all the food we give out is safe, but if 1 in 1000 jars of food has a chip?  Should we throw out the whole lot?
  3. Is it ethical for a company to get a tax break for all of the food donated when none or only a portion is actually used?
  4.  Are we being unethical in accepting food that we know we will not be able to distribute because we don’t want to risk offending the donor who has given us many donations of very usable food, and bite the hand that feeds us (pun intended)?
  5. Is it ethical for a donor to give something to a nonprofit (be it food–or clothing, furniture, electronics, etc.) that s/he knows is not useable?  After all, donating to a nonprofit is not how to clean out the pantry, refrigerator, attic, garage. 

While it might be possible to dismiss these questions as coming from students engaged merely in an academic exercise – or, being even more cynical, just trying to earn a good grade – and in the real world these questions would never be raised, I would have to disagree strongly.  As a group of students, they recognize that working in our sector is not for the feint of heart.  And they are not willing to lighten their loads by sidestepping the tough and important questions, especially when it comes to ethics.  Would that all nonprofit leaders were cut from the same cloth.

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.