“Ends Justify the Means” Dilemmas in the Not-for-Profit Workplace
I have been thinking for some time about how we monitor and resolve ethical dilemmas in the non-profit workplace and how we could assure that public money is well-spent.
In the not-for-profit and arts world I believe we set ourselves up to be uniquely vulnerable to the pitfalls of ethical systems based on utilitarianism. This is the ethical system in which the “good of the many” always outweighs the “good of the few”, a system that becomes challenged when the means are not ethical in and of themselves. In not-for-profit workplaces we think about “Ends” all the time. Right on the top of all our literature and websites we spell out the “Mission”. We are focused and passionate about the mission of our organizations, whether it is feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or assuring the survival of a classical orchestra.
Into all this passion and energy for achieving worthy goals comes a number of roadblocks that can make us, as non-profit staff and managers, feel that government funders, sponsors, regulatory bodies, are treating us unfairly, stacking the deck against the success of our organization to achieve our mission. Those challenges include: the preference for funding projects and program costs, over needed support for core operations; shifting priorities and programs from governments and foundation funders; narrow program objectives that don’t match the needs of the communities we serve. And some days we feel like if we hear the word “innovation” one more time, we’ll scream. We twist our programs pretzel shaped to try to qualify for those innovation grants when, really, we think that the way we have always done things is probably pretty soundly based on best practices.
Between the passion to do good and the frustration about roadblocks that seem illogical, unpredictable and insurmountable there sneaks in a philosophy of the “end justifies the means”.
Whether we bend the truth a little bit in our funding application to make our planned activity seem like a better fit, or we move expenses in accounting lines to shift expense from administration to program and marketing, we are embarked on a slippery slope. Tensions mount in organizations when doing whatever it takes to get or keep funding pushes staff members beyond their comfort levels.
These are not victimless crimes. Public dollars, the reputations and health of workers, the continuation of programs and services that the public counts on are jeopardized when organizations foster a culture of unethical expediency. Staff members feel helpless in organizations where they are not just asked but required to do unethical things: back-date mail machines to send in applications after funding deadlines, forge a signature because someone is unavailable, spend all their time working on one project that they are not funded to work on and neglect the work they are funded to do (a common way of shifting funds from one program to the other surreptitiously), directly shift funds from one program to another without the funder’s knowledge, invent statistics, report fundraising costs of a special event fundraiser as a “program” cost, report expenses of one project as the expenses of another, double and triple raise project revenues for one pet project while reporting a reasonable budget in each request, over-spending ridiculously on one area. . . all things that have been sanctioned in organizations I have worked for in the past. Yet there is little over-sight of non-profits and whistle-blowers at the staff level often have their careers ruined while they sometimes see the non-profit manager who forced the questionable or outright disgraceful practices be backed up by non-profit boards and even to be recognized with national awards.
Any solutions have to deal with both the problem and its causes. Adequate funding of basic operations of non-profits that are operating effectively in the public good will stop the need to fudge program costs to cover operations.
I could say that Boards should stop propping up corrupt leaders but . . . that’s not going to happen. The “friends of X” board is alive and well everywhere. I have come to the conclusion that there needs to be tougher regulatory bodies at the provincial and federal level that will investigate allegations of mismanagement of publicly funded non-profits. Working currently in a very well-managed and ethical non-profit has given me new perspective on the harm that unethical non-profits do to workers, funders and programs.