Who do you Trust?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 11th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Election season is looming and I’m thinking about ethics (why would that be?)

Trust:  a simple word, but a complex phenomenon and not easy to win and maintain.   Yet I am reminded on an almost daily basis how much nonprofits take it—yes, the very lifeblood of their organizations–for granted.  I am amazed at how easily they trifle with it, ignore it, presume its steadfastness while doing things that blatantly dare others to challenge it and then open the doors wide so that it is so easy to see.

trust puzzleWhat got me started this time was reading a discussion board exchange that a group of my graduate students were having about the pink collar and glass ceiling that exists in the nonprofit sector.  The group of four—all women and with varying years of experience in the nonprofit sector—had easily noticed the disproportionate representation of females in the ranks of nonprofit employees.  Having limited exposure to mass numbers of nonprofits, they were unaware of what happens to that ratio of female to male at the level of executive director—until one of the women shared a 2009 report, “The White House Project Report:  Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” on the status of women in the workforce, including in the nonprofit sector.  As discussed in a previous post, that ratio flips at the executive director level and widens greatly as the operating budget of the organization increases:  the bigger the budget, the more likely there is a male at the helm.  We see similar patterns with people of color, and in particular women of color.  A Gallup poll five years later, and commissioned jointly by The Chronicle and NYU’s Center on Philanthropy and Fundraising, didn’t find any changes of note.

The disparities at the top of the organizational chart are no different in the for-profit world than the nonprofit world.  But the responses are very different:  the for-profit sector has been talking about this incongruence for decades—and trying to do something about it.  They have called it out; they have designed programs to try and redress the situation; they expend dollars on making change.  And what have nonprofits done?  A whole heck of  a lot of nothing!  Sure, some of the mega nonprofits—universities and hospitals and the superstore human service organizations—pay some attention to the situation.  But the non-mega nonprofits—which means the 80% of the sector with budgets under $1M?  What have they done?  Just ask yourself:  what has your organization done?

This is a trust issue for the sector as a whole.  How do we claim to be the sector that works to better our communities, improve the quality of life for all, and champion the underdog while we do (next to) nothing and the nasty for-profit does it all?

But if you are feeling tired and don’t want to take on the problems of the whole, tackle your own problems.  Have you run your nonprofit through the series of four or five steps that any number of websites tell others to do to check out the “goodness” of a nonprofit?  Or, you could check out Grantspace’s “What do I do if I suspect a charity is a fraud?” and see how you fare.  Or, you could have a discussion at both the board and staff levels (or as one) as to what your organization’s standards are for maintaining itself  as a trustworthy organization.

Or, you could make sure that you don’t make imprudent decisions that assail your organizations strength of character and, in turn, harm your “trust” factor.  Here are just a week’s worth of examples that happened more than once in that time frame.

  1. People do make dumb mistakes and thus, aren’t evil people, and everyone deserves a second chance, think carefully as to where on the organizational chart you give people those second chances. But enough of the headlines that scream about the illegal wrongdoings of nonprofit leaders in high places only to learn that it wasn’t the first time they did such things or there were warning signs that had they been addressed when they first appeared never would have made it to the level of public headlines.  Negative headlines and trust don’t mix!
  2. Raising more money than you have the possibility of using while failing to educate the public about your cause and mission. What do folks now better understand:  ALS and what the ALS Association does or what is the human reaction to having a bucket of ice water dumped over your head?  (In fact, I didn’t even know what organization was behind the challenge and had to search it in order to include it in this blog.  How’s that for raising awareness?)
  3. Using interns as cheap, unskilled labor rather than paying them and teaching them marketable skills that will get them permanent, paying jobs. Nothing says more about the absence of a robust organization than a revolving door of undergraduate interns who leave having served the organization but not having been served themselves.  Internships are only valuable when it is a win-win for both organization and student (and, yes, internships are for current students), where the win for the student is more than simply a line on a resume.

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.