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Ethics requires backbone, not compass

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Tim Delaney

Tim Delaney

Tim Delaney

The adage claims, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

When it comes to ethics, the last decade’s seemingly endless scandals reveal individuals knew the right way, but lacked the all-important will.

The decade’s business-sector ethics scandals started with the collapse of Arthur Andersen, an institution built on public integrity, continued through the trials about excesses at Enron, Tyco and WorldCom, and press on today with bankers misusing taxpayer dollars to fund astronomical executive-compensation packages.

In the government sector, a variety of scandals forced the premature departures of several governors, and multiple members of Congress were convicted of corruption.

Sadly, the nonprofit sector didn’t fared much better.

Scandals touched the meek — children abused by priests and investors abused by the Baptist Foundation — and torched the mighty, such as American University and the Smithsonian Institution.

Power of symbols

As a lawyer who ran an ethical leadership center that taught thousands of government officials and nonprofit leaders, I noticed the most common symbols used on ethics-related documents are a “moral” compass or a torch to shine the light.

Both suggest showing the way.

But as someone who prosecuted the removal of elected officials for breaching the public trust, sued corporations for misdeeds, and otherwise saw the ugly underbelly of scandals, I am convinced that a better symbol would emphasize having the will to do the right thing.

The scandals didn’t sneak up because of a lack of knowledge.

Arthur Andersen, elected officials and the Catholic Church had plenty of codes that told them the difference between right and wrong.

Nor did the scandals erupt because of a lack of resources.

Corporations, governments, and even the Smithsonian had access to plenty of lawyers.

The scandals occurred because of a lack of will: Leaders lacked the courage to do the right thing.

End the scandals

So what should nonprofit leaders do to end the scandals?

Take five simple steps.

* Claim ownership of the ethics issues in your organization.

Don’t pass the buck to someone else. Take the attitude of “not on my watch” and protect your organization’s reputation, and your own.

* Elevate ethics.

Let others throughout your organization know that ethical behavior is valued and unethical behavior will not be tolerated.

Devote five minutes of every staff meeting to a discussion about ethics.

Provide training for employees and volunteers, including board members.

Everyone deserves and needs to know what is expected of them.

* Eliminate temptation.

Research supports common sense: When individuals have great needs, they may feel compelled to do things they normally wouldn’t.

In these brutal economic times, your best employees and volunteers may feel forced to do the unthinkable.

Protect those valued people by making sure your systems eliminate temptation and thereby prevent abuses.

* Ask for help.

A two-step process will wipe out 99 percent of all ethics scandals.

First, if you are unsure, ask.

Second, if you have to ask, don’t do it.

* Pick your symbol.

Whether you pick a backbone, or the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz who had the courage to do the right thing when he had to, or some other symbol, keep a physical reminder in your office to remind you to do the right thing.

For me, I keep an empty chair nearby.

Why? That’s a story for another day.


Tim Delaney is President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, a network of state and regional nonprofit associations serving more than 20,000 member organizations. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Council.

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