Ethics requires asking tough questions

By Doug White

Ethics scandals never take a day off.

More and more, we read and hear of people in high places who act badly. Not just illegally, but badly.

This is true in all three sectors — business, government and nonprofits.

The groan within us is often one of expectation when it reacts to government and business leaders, but it feels different – betrayal? – when people at charity are accused of acting unethically.

Legislators want to fix things, but ethics and the law are different realms.

The law is an impotent tool, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to use it to fix an ethical problem. While we must always be obedient to just laws, nothing with legal clout forces obedience to ethics.

Although a few obvious wrongs can be corrected by changing or tightening up legislation, the real force resides – as such force always does when it comes to ethics – within ourselves, within the community of charities and their donors.

The English jurist Lord John Fletcher Moulton characterized ethics as “obedience to the unenforceable.”

So many people think of ethics as a discipline – inferior at that – along with others in the fundraising world. Another checkbox.

Although ethics is in everybody’s vernacular, it’s usually in the form of lip service: “Yes, I’m ethical. Are you? Of course you are. Nobody here stole any funds. Nobody here coerced an elderly donor to hand over her estate. Let’s move on.”

But that’s not what it’s all about. Not doing what’s obviously wrong is hardly an accomplishment on the scale of goodness.

We have to instead learn to examine awkward situations so that we are confident that our decisions are valid. In the end, the intellectual rigor applied to determining a course of action is far more important than the course of action itself.

That doesn’t mean the action is unimportant.  It means the importance of the process needs to be elevated.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the philosopher John Dewey wrote, ”A moral principle is not a command to act in a given way: it is a tool for analyzing a special situation, the right or wrong being determined by the situation in its entirety, not by the rule as such.”

Acting ethically means an enormous amount of work – from the board members to the office assistants – that far too few charities have undertaken.

Ethics is not some soft underbelly to something else that’s really important.

It is what is really important.

Doug White, an independent consultant in Washington, D.C., is chair of the ethics committee of the planned giving council in Washington and the author of “The Art of Planned Giving” (John Wiley & Sons, 1996) and “Charity on Trial,” scheduled for publication this fall by Barricade Books.

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