Odds are good that it didn’t start with jet ski rides in the Caribbean or shopping trips to Victoria’s Secret. Instead, the cancer charities that headlined in a May 19 New York Times article likely started slipping in more subtle ways. Fudging on a couple numbers here, swiping the credit card there, “borrowing” the agency’s car—it starts with small things. Then one day, the agency looks like the nonprofit version of Enron.
Of course, DBA blog readers like you will likely never end up in the news associated with a nonprofit scandal. But the truth is, little lies, cheats, and steals are a gateway drug to bigger ones. Stories like these erode the sacred trust that our donors and communities have in nonprofits. They hurt the whole sector by discouraging donors from giving and making it increasingly difficult to establish and maintain donor/foundation trust.
Sadly, warnings like “Be vigilant when giving to charity” from South Carolina’s Secretary of State Mark Hammond are necessary. At the same time, nonprofit leaders need to “Be vigilant when leading a charity.” It all starts with the culture that we set up within our organizations and with our peers in the nonprofit sector. Here are a few thoughts on how we can establish a vigilant culture:
- Personally make the “decision before the decision.” Before temptation is even in front of you, decide how you will handle it.
- Frequently discuss the values and ethics of your organization and the nonprofit sector with your board and staff.
- Value transparency and accountability. Post your accountant’s audit to your website. Participate in accountability programs such as the BBB Wise Giving Alliance or the Evangelical Council for Accountability. Answer donors’ questions in an honest and non-defensive manner.
- Encourage your local chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, your state nonprofit association, and other nonprofit associations you may participate in to discuss and promote ethical practice of fundraising, programming, and general nonprofit management.
- Remember to observe the Donor Bill of Rights. In fact, posting it in your office is a good thing to do. We can’t get sloppy. Using donors’ funds the way they intend is critical.
- Ensure you have policies to govern conflict of interest and the protection of whistleblowers. While policies in themselves will not prevent trouble from presenting, they can set a common standard.
- Finally, lead with the vision and mission of your organization. We do really important work relieving suffering, protecting the environment, empowering leaders, and inspiring our community. Never lose touch with that critical mission.
We are all susceptible to temptations in our work. The stress of deadlines, finances, and pressure from staff and the board can all quietly erode our defenses. But with vigilance and determination, we can protect the sacred trust and privilege we are called to.
It all starts with culture. It all starts with you.
How do you remain vigilant? Do you have an ethics story to share? What are your questions about ethical practices? Please share your story, question, or comment below. You are also welcome to send your questions directly to one of our consultants at DBA. Contact us here >>