Grounded in ethics

Set of values should guide nonprofits’ work.

By Jim Svara

[05.17.04] — Scandals in corporations, government and nonprofits make us conscious that any organization can abuse the public trust.

Often, the orientation to ethics is reactive and negative: Rather than considering what our positive values are and how to promote excellence, we focus on preventing abuse after unethical incidents occur.

Nonprofit organizations, as mission-driven organizations, may be confident that ethics will not be a problem.

It is easy to fall into a self-satisfied mode of thinking: “Since our purposes are noble, who can questions our methods?”

To change this mindset, Independent Sector has issued a model ethics code, and challenged nonprofits to raise their level of awareness and to adopt an engaged and pro-active approach to ethics.

A fundamental part of such an approach is to focus on the process of developing an ethics code, as well as the content of the standards.

A code of ethics that is disconnected from the life and work of the organization will not be effective.

“The process by which a code is adopted is as important as the code itself,” Independent Sector says, and “board and staff should be involved in developing, drafting, adopting, and implementing a statement that fits the organization’s unique characteristics.”

The model ethics code is built on a set of values that should guide the work of nonprofits.

It has sections on personal and professional integrity, mission, governance including board-staff relations and conflict of interest, legal compliance, responsible stewardship, openness and disclosure, program evaluation, inclusiveness and diversity, fundraising, and grantmaker guidelines.

If a nonprofit organization does not have a code and supporting practices, it should undertake the process of creating them with the intention of promoting good behavior rather than simply preventing bad behavior.

The nonprofit organization that has a code should take it off the wall and ask how well it is integrated into the culture of the organization.

Ethically-grounded organizations should be asking this question on a continuing basis.

[The Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University will hold a roundtable discussion on ethics codes and practices on June 16. To register, send email to]

Jim Svara is chair of the political science/public administration department at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

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