Who put the Moron in Oxymoron?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 3rd, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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My sister’s second career is as a fifth grade teacher in a Washington, DC public school.  She is just starting the unit on the Civil War, and this year, as she has done for the last four, she introduces the unit by talking about oxymorons.  Each year, some of her students know what an oxymoron is; some don’t.  She gives the usual examples, jumbo shrimp, good grief, sweet tart.  This year, she found a new example that we both found quite amusing:

This time next year, when she starts this unit, I may have a new one for her that neither of us will find funny:  ethical nonprofit.  Many decades ago, when I was still a “naïve young thing,” I would have been aghast at even the thought of the possibility that there were unethical nonprofits.   If the organization was a nonprofit, if a person worked or volunteered at a nonprofit, s/he/it was ethical.  Period.

It is like airlines who give you tea (drink it only when sick), no roll (generally the only edible thing in an airline meal), no dessert (50-50 proposition) just because you ask for a vegetarian meal.  We don’t eat meat, but, I assure you, there are plenty of vegetarians who indulge in other things that are bad for us!  Not all vegetarians are health fanatics; not all nonprofits operate from an ethical base.  I’ve come a long way—in both my eating habits and my view of the real world!

If fact, I’ve come so far along, that increasingly, I am finding fewer and fewer nonprofits that operate from an ethical base, and that the ethical ones are the exception rather than the rule.  How dare I say this?  Let me count the ways!

  1. It is completely and totally unethical to assume the position of nonprofit board member unaware of your roles and responsibilities yet go forward being a board member, pretending that you know what you are supposed to be doing.  This is how organizations end up with rogue executive directors, “misappropriated” money, bad press, scandals, etc.  Board members, please:  nonprofits are NOT in the land of make-believe; they are not a board game.  They are real organizations, with real purposes and money, and real successes and failures that have real consequences for the lives of so many.  Failure to know what you are supposed to do while continuing to “make it up as you go along” is ethically bankrupt!  If the shoe fits, correct it immediately.
  2. It is unethical to use a position of power to silence those who disagree with you, who question the propriety of what you are doing, who make you uncomfortable with what you are doing.  To wit, the board of the Heifer Foundation who fired its chief executive, Domingo Barrios, because he questioned possible conflicts of interest of four board members who served on both the board of the Foundation and Heifer International, the latter founding the former to raise money for it.  (An increasingly common occurrence, it should be noted:  a large organization creates a second organization with the sole purpose of raising its money.  That phenomenon is a whole other blog in and of itself!)  If one of the legal requirements of a board member is to always put the best interests of the organization of the board on which s/he sits ahead of personal and any other interest, how can serving on two such intertwined boards not, on a regular basis, present conflicts of interest and challenge the clarity of thinking when it comes to “best interests”?  The Foundation claims that it has “established policies in place to address potential conflicts of interest,” but if everything that the press has revealed is true, it seems those well established policies failed—big time.  I’d check your moral compass if it took a lawsuit to make you question the situation.
  3. It is unethical for a board member who is fundamentally opposed to a key responsibility of board members to remain on a board, all the time fighting—and not executing—that responsibility.  Board members:  if you cannot understand, for example, why board members must fundraise and refuse to do it, get off the board.
  4. It is unethical for there to be familial or other personal relationships between board members and staff members.  Oh, the conflicts it raises!  Remember item 2, above, and that legal requirement of putting the best interests of the organization ahead of personal interests?  When your spouse or child, parent or sibling is on the staff of the organization for which you are providing oversight, how can you truly put aside family ties and make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization when such decisions might adversely affect a family member’s financial and psychic health and well-being?  Seems so obvious, and yet it happens again, and again, and again.
  5. It is unethical to allow employees and volunteers, including board members, to remain in positions long after it has become known—and documented, if necessary—that the individual is not performing up to speed.  The ability to deliver on the promises of the organization’s mission—the whole reason everyone is there—is diminished exponentially with each incompetent and/or slacker allowed to remain in his/her position.
  6. It is unethical to provide better care, attention, nurturing, etc., to your clients than to your staff.  And it is heinously unethical to joke, albeit apologetically, about the poor wages paid nonprofit employees all the while doing nothing to improve that state of being.  Go out and raise some money; give a larger gift; do something to set this injustice right! Doing nothing should never be the response.
  7. It is morally corrupt—way beyond unethical—when the core values and culture of an organization not only tolerate but seem to accept people caring more about a formerly esteemed individual than about those harmed by that individual’s failure to go beyond the “mandatory minimum” of a job description or the law and pursue a basic tenet of morality:  protect children.   To wit, the alumni (and though not at this Town Hall meeting, students, faculty and staff) at a recent Penn State Town Hall meeting whose main concern for the University President was “Why’d you have to fire Joe?” Really?

It is true that there is nothing written anywhere that says nonprofits are supposed to be more ethical than for-profits.  It is just one of those expectations—as with vegetarians:  you do one thing that operates on a higher moral ground or is healthier, we assume all that you do all things on a higher ground or that are healthier.  Thus, because all that we do is done to benefit others—that theoretical higher moral ground–there is a strong expectation that we will do everything on a higher moral ground.  And the sad truth is that we just don’t.

The sadder truth is that if we each don’t immediately take control of ourselves and then our organizations, I will be offering my sister a new oxymoron for her fifth graders next year; and no one—our clients, our funders, the public–will be laughing.

Would you be interested in joining us for a conversation about nonprofit ethics?  If so, please email [email protected] with what interests you?

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.

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