Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ethics in Nonprofits

While in the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) web site the other day I decided to pump the term “nonprofit organizations” into its search box.  One of the articles listed in the results was from 1998.  Heck, I didn’t realize PMI was carrying articles about nonprofits way back then.

Specifically, the piece, entitled “The Ethics Audit for Nonprofit Organizations”, was written by Schaefer & Zaller and was in the April 1998 edition of PM Network – which is one of PMI’s publications.  Here’s a quote:
“…if its actions and motives seem to send a different message than its core values would suggest, it begins to sink into ethical chaos and lose its credibility.”

The article focuses on conducting ethics audits so divergence from stated core values can be detected quickly enough to do something about it.

However, as in many types of situations, the thing we need to do is hardest when we need to do it the most.  Or, stated another way, we tend to go back to old patterns under stress.  This is true whether you’re trying to quit smoking, to change the way you handle anger, or any of a million other things.

This was an issue I helped people deal with daily early in my career when I was a group therapist.  Folks who were trying to kick habits such as destructive thinking or behavior patterns were most likely to revert back to them when they were stressed.  Let’s face it – when pressure is high we go with what we know.

The interesting thing is this is true of organizations too.  They might try to improve themselves, but when the needle on the pressure gauge jumps they go back to the coziness of the familiar – whether it’s the right thing to do or not.

So if nonprofits had an issue with ethics in 1998 when the economy was a lot healthier than it has been since the crash of 2008, how likely are these organizations to be able to increase ethical behavior now?  In fact, the things I’ve seen would appear to indicate they are thinking only of survival – at any cost.  And yes, that means ethical behavior takes a back seat.

Here’s something to think about:  If you need to short-change your nonprofit organization’s core values in order for it to continue, should that organization still exist?


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