Are Nonprofit Ethics an Oxymoron?

Last week, I was a bit shocked by the article on ethics in the New York Times, “In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical.” They suggested that we are, as a society, becoming more and more unethical and need training to give us the skills to do what we know we should do.

I started to wonder if the nonprofit industry was any different. I know we hear about select scandals of embezzlement at huge nonprofits, but most nonprofit employees and volunteers are more ethical than the average private sector employee, aren’t they? C’mon, nonprofit employees often take less financial compensation for a morally meaningful position. Doesn’t that imply that they would choose morality over money? As it turns out – that is not necessarily the case.

My theory is that employees who feel they are paid market value for their skills and experience may be less likely to take home office supplies, misreport hours worked or find some other “extra” benefit that they feel entitled to because they get paid less and feel like they work more hours. According to a study by Grant Thornton LLP, financial fraud among nonprofits is more prevalent than in business or government – nonprofit ethics are certainly where we hope they would be.

When did our moral compass slip? Does it have to do with the large disparity of income in our society or is it more visceral? The same Grant Thornton study suggests that “human nature seeks self-maximization.” So, while we know we should not take advantage of situations – we can’t help ourselves. Unless, we train ourselves and practice doing better.

The NYT’s article is clear that we should not rush into danger and become a “dumb hero.” Instead, consider ethical decisions that you have heard about or observed and consciously think about what you would have done. And what you should do next time you are presented with a similar situation.

Let’s get back to our moral high round – to re-earn the trust of the philanthropic community upon whom our organizations depend and create high nonprofit ethic standards.