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Nonprofit communication must be ethical

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John Borrillo

For all the talk about the importance of organizational mission in the management of nonprofits, too little attention had been paid to the ways in which the mission is communicated to stakeholders and to the general public.

It is clear that without a formal mission statement, nonprofits cannot justify themselves to government regulatory authorities, or get funding for the work that they do.

But, as someone who has worked in the nonprofit field for many years and who teaches public communication to current and prospective nonprofit leaders, I find that an increasing reliance on certain communicative practices that have been appropriated from the realm of business and mass marketing presents serious ethical issues.

Take for example the growing emphasis on “selling” and “marketing” nonprofit organizations.

What could be more important to any organization’s growth and success in a competitive funding environment?

The glossy brochure, the catchy tag line, the carefully constructed portfolio of success: All are designed to achieve institutional advancement through image control.

The problem is that, for nonprofits, there are considerations that go beyond organizational interests.

One such consideration is the ethical pitfall of communicating in ways that may be misleading or outright deceptive.

In the nonprofit realm, where vital public services are typically being provided to vulnerable clients, there can be no principle of “buyer, beware”; there must be public trust built upon good faith.

This all sounds terribly pious and unworldly, I know. But there are alternatives to the embrace of spin.

For one, there can be a renewed emphasis on ethics in nonprofit communication, on argument and reasoned discourse, and on responsible rhetoric, as opposed to image and gloss.

Reputations can be developed and recognition gained through ethically-informed best practices.

And in the current climate of cynicism and distrust, there is surely no better way to achieve uniqueness, to gain a competitive advantage, than to strive for the rarest of outcomes nowadays — honesty and transparency.

The mission statement is a good place to start.

Does it express not just what the organization wishes itself to be, or how it wants to be seen, but what it actually does?

Or is it strategically vague, a seductive set of platitudes, an advertising slogan rather than a true statement of value and purpose?

John Borrillo teaches public affairs and administration at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York.

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