We Can Do Better

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 6th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Here’s a new year’s resolution that doesn’t show up on the routine list  of working out more, spending less , being a better person.  But it should be one of the ones that you don’t break—ever.

Everyone must adopt a code of ethics and live by it, no ifs, ands or buts.  I’m almost embarrassed to be writing this, to be suggesting that people in the nonprofit sector don’t routinely operate from an ethical base.  After all, we are supposed to be the “good guys,” the decent ones, the ones who are good because we do good.  All too often, though, this seems to happen while lying through our teeth, sidestepping the truth, telling only what we think others want to hear while deciding for them what they don’t need to know.  Turns my stomach, actually.

Over the holidays, I was introduced to a television show that is currently in its fourth season.  (That tells you something about my television watching habits.)  The show is “Leverage,” where a group of four criminals lead by a mastermind non-criminal use hacking, fighting, grifting, and thievery to avenge the wrongs done by greedy, ruthless, unethical people to give back to their victims who are without redress—or where the only redress is an iffy one through a system that will take way too long to review their grievances.

They are modern day Robin Hoods who use criminal behavior to avenge others’ criminal and unethical behavior in order to make things right for the victims!  Yup, here two wrongs do seem to make a right.  The characters of Leverage have a very clear code of ethics; when they stray or start to stray, the others in the group quickly call them on it.  (It may come as a surprise to some, but criminals most definitely have a code of ethics of their own; it may not be yours or mine, but it is theirs.  Some codes say never use guns, or victimize the elderly; all have child molesters as the scum of the scum who deserve whatever they get).

Regrettably, it seems that those of us in the nonprofit sector have to be reminded that we, too, must have a code of ethics by which we live our professional lives (and, I would hope, personal lives, as well, but that’s not my purview in this blog); and our peers, and bosses, must call us on it should we start to stray.  So, if the shoe fits, consider yourself called!  Perhaps we have enjoyed, a little too heartily, pointing the fingers of one hand at the greedy, dishonest, manipulative bankers who many believe brought down the economy while all too frenetically patting ourselves on our backs with the other hand.  All as we walk into the board meeting knowing we will distort reality “a tad” so the board won’t know, or agreeing to do what a client wants even though best practices say that what is wanted is far from the right thing to be doing, or saying your board member donation is truly a stretch gift while we give to another charity three times as much, or chasing money instead of chasing mission, or telling a grantee to go left when center is really what is “right” and best.  Too often I see individuals’ end goals trumping organization good and–ethics.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost sight of professionalism, favoring doing what is best for me at all costs over being a professional.  A somewhat fungible concept, I, and apparently quite a few others, think that David Maister hits a key element of professionalism when he says it is “never compromising your standards and values.”  This, of course, assumes first and foremost that you have a clearly defined set of standards and values and that your organization does, as well (its core values, is a good place to start).  It might include such basic things as honesty, integrity, doing no harm, bringing no shame to more complicated things such as protecting the dignity of all, courage and walking the walk.  And then, of course, it requires that we hold ourselves accountable to those standards and values.  Not compromising.  Strong language, that!

In 2012, let’s see the sector that does good truly do so by being good, ethical and professional.  It would be terrific if all involved, from mission-driven organizations and their employees to funders to consultants and vendors, agreed to commit to being truthful and candid, as opposed to expedient and self-serving; courageous, and follow the perhaps more difficult, yet right and less convenient path rather than the easy one;  risk-takers and say no when saying yes would compromise integrity, best practices, the best interest of others rather than enhance self-interest; and respectful, such that we value the importance of bringing benefit to others (and organizations) even if it means we, ourselves, do not benefit.  And my list could go on and on.

The important thing is that we all have such lists, such values and standards which we do not bend, no matter what.

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.