Dani Robbins

The Trifecta Triangle: Ethics, Values and Integrity in Nonprofits

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Resource Development on March 19, 2014 at 10:34 am

I just read a great post called How Did they Get my Name? about agencies selling donor information. It got me thinking about ethics in our field and also the differences between words we often use interchangeably. Those words are ethics, integrity and values.

Values, when used in the field, primarily refer to organizational values. I usually explain them as the ideas that are valued by the staff and board of an organization. That could be communication, collaboration or individual accomplishments (not usually both), honesty, high ethical standards, or a whole host of other things. Organizational values are not necessarily things you’d include when listing your personal values, though of course they might be. This is not to say that your personal values do not need to be aligned with your organization’s values, because they do. It is intended to mean that we all might not list the same things that our organizational values include.

Integrity in our field – and everywhere else – means doing what you say you’re going to do.

Ethics is a moral code of conduct or principles by which you make decisions, which should also be made in concert with your values.

Anytime you’re talking about ethics, you’re also to talking about values and integrity. They are the 3 sides of a nonprofit’s top three triangle of consideration – the trifecta triangle. There are a few buckets where the triangle consistently comes into play in the nonprofit arena. The first is donor interaction.

You have to appropriately steward your donors and part of appropriately stewarding is doing what you say you’re going to do with their gift (integrity) and also their information (ethics). The above post is about nonprofits selling donor information. It is allowable by AFP’s Ethical Principles.  The author’s position and mine too, is that it is unethical and that if agencies are going to do it, donors should be given a way to either opt out or, preferably, opt in. I’d take it a bit further.

I challenge AFP to reconsider their position. Nonprofits should not be selling donor information. To me, the idea flies in the face of our standards. It also seems to be contrary to our goals. If we want to retain a donor, selling their information so another agency can attract them as a donor is counterproductive. I’ve said it before: any process that goes against our goal is a bad process.

While we’re on the topic of ethics in fund raising, let me take this opportunity to encourage you to avoid any practitioner who offers you a fund raising model based on commission. AFP’s code prohibits commission based fund raising. Good for them. Commission based fund raising is unconscionable. You should never hire someone on a commission basis to raise contributed income for your organization – that includes grants, special events, major gifts and every other type of resource development. Consultants should offer you a price based on the project at hand or at an hourly rate. Fundraising should not be done on commission.

Finally, and before I move on, development directors can maintain the relationships they cultivate and it is perfectly acceptable for them to continue a relationship created at one agency when they move on to a new agency. It is very hard to un-know someone and no one would expect you to.  However, it is not acceptable – or ethical – to take lists of donors with you when you leave, nor is it acceptable for you to use that list to prospect new donors for your new agency.

Our trifecta triangle also comes into play in other ways related to income, and not just contributed income. Ethics are critical to how you manage and spend your agency’s resources, which should be in accordance with GAAP standards. There should be a finance policy that you follow. It should include how and what gets bid out and how decisions are made once it does. Finally, there should be a salary compensation plan to ensure you are paying a fair wage relative to your expectations, the position, your community and your field.

There are additional considerations related to staff remuneration, specifically ones that are or should be in line with your organizational values. Staff should get paid the same amount for the same job, based experience and education, regardless of their race or gender.

Nonprofits serve to change the world and, often, to move forward a social justice agenda. We need to start with ourselves, which means that we need to ensure gender and racial parity in all of our compensation planning.

I recommend you have a diversity policy and that you go out of your way to ensure diversity of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, orientation, age and experience, all of which will contribute to diversity of thought on your staff and also your board. Different experiences around the table contribute to better generative discussions and better decision making.

Ethics, values and integrity should be first and foremost in social service agencies when considering client interaction. Many of our agencies are seeing people at their worst; when they are scared or hungry or in need of something that far exceeds their reach. How we enter into and manage that relationship is critical.

How are you training your people to deal with clients outside and inside the building?  How does your staff handle it when they run into clients in the community? What about in the waiting room?  Do you train your team to look people in the eye while walking through the room or to avert their gaze?  Do you lock up client files?  Who has access?  When and under what circumstances do you release information?  How do your agency’s values ensure your clients are dealt with in an ethical manner, and with integrity?

The triangle isn’t just operational. It’s also impactful at the board level. Organizations should have a conflict of interest policy and form that each board member signs annually. They should also have a whistle blower or ethics policy. Board members will occasionally come up with things that are wacky (read dangerous) or off mission. Our job as staff (and fellow board members) is to reel them in and make sure that we uphold the ethics of our organization. Unethical or illegal actions have to be addressed, regardless of the position of the actor.

When you put yourself out there as the change agent in a community, you have to be above reproach. The trifecta of ethics, values and integrity can ensure that your agency is deserving of the resources of your community and up to facing its challenges.

When do you think values, integrity and ethics come together to impact our sector?  What is your opinion of agencies selling donor information?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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  1. Reblogged this on CharityReviews™ and commented:
    Excellent piece to read…..

    Like

  2. […] This has been accompanied by two excellent posts on the issue, which you can find here and here. I will admit, when I was on staff, the organizations I worked for rented and sold donor names. In […]

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  3. […] This has been accompanied by two excellent posts on the issue, which you can find here and here. I will admit, when I was on staff, the organizations I worked for rented and sold donor names. In […]

    Like

  4. […] This has been accompanied by two excellent posts on the issue, which you can find here and here. I will admit, when I was on staff, the organizations I worked for rented and sold donor names. In […]

    Like

  5. […] organization where privacy policies may not be public (or in place) to please take a read here and here. I am writing a follow-up because I have had non-profits and professionals reach out to me saying […]

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