Knowing How to Do the Right Thing

Ethical Challenges in NonprofitsBy Fran Lyon-Dugin, Consultant

How would you respond to the following scenarios:

  • A generous donor asks that you direct his funds to “worthy people….and not to THOSE people”

  • An employee from your fund development department is at a software conference and is tempted by an invitation to a steak and wine dinner offered by a participating vendor

  • Teens in your program are involved in a Facebook bullying episode that you must now discuss with parents

How can you promote ethical behavior throughout your organization and prevent ethical lapses in judgment? According to Dr. Chad Weinstein of Ethical Leaders in Action [1], a published mission statement including the values of your organization are the best and most basic tools that can help guide your priorities and inform the broader community as to what you do, why you exist, and how the organization conducts itself. When dilemmas arise, you can turn to these tools to evaluate possible behaviors and consider alternatives. Using the actual language of your values, for example, “honesty,” “integrity,” and “diversity” in everyday conversations keeps them alive and meaningful to employees.

Breadth involves consideration of all possible consequences on all stakeholders. Purposefully looking for opposing viewpoints – even assigning a “devil’s advocate” to judge risks, and being cognizant of future impacts, can help broaden thinking. With the case of the donor wanting to limit his giving to certain people, what does that mean to him? What might be the long-term consequences of honoring that potentially questionable parameter for the donation? How might the decision to accept his donation with that parameter be interpreted by clients of the organization?

Finally, honesty might seem quite obvious; however, studies show that most executives are overconfident and overly certain of their own knowledge. Being honest with yourself can help you avoid self-serving behavior and false justification. In the case of the bullying teens, can you put yourself in the shoes of the parents and consider that one of those teens might be your own? How would you want the situation handled if that were the case? How can you help the teens be honest with themselves about their fears and motives, and the consequences of their actions?

Every organization faces ethical challenges and dilemmas, even if they have the most altruistic of purposes. Using the guidance of a clear mission statement and values, and increasing the breadth, quality, and honesty of your decision-making process can help ensure that ethical behavior is of the highest concern, by everyone in the organization, and benefits the organization and community it serves.

Fran Lyon-Dugin teaches Business and Professional Ethics in the Augsburg College MBA Program.


[2] Bazerman, Messick and Stewart. Avoiding Ethical Danger Zones.  Rotman Magazine. 2007. p. 43-47.