The Bad Behavior of Good Nonprofits (Jun 07)

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Organizational cultures are strange and powerful things. Often invisible to those of us affected by them, they exert influence over the things we do at work. Very often culture will openly present one characteristic that is prized while the flipside of that same characteristic is absolutely deadly. 

So, for instance, organizations that talk about themselves as "family" may be referring to a sense of informality, trust and solidarity among members but those very prized characteristics may eventually lead to a lack of adequate systems. Everyone is already working hard — so the chronic lateness of grant reports or the fact that the executive signs checks in advance of their being made out when a trusted colleague is racing out to the local office supply store for more copier toner lapses into a pattern that eventually looks like complete incompetence if not malfeasance.

This is not a good way to go down.

There are some nonprofit cultures in which it is less than easy to challenge what we may see as dangerous ethical lapses, both large and small. Sometimes behaviors have become un-discussable because people have been stepping around the problem for so long and sometimes there are power dynamics involved in the challenge — for instance when a supervisor or board member is engaging in questionable behavior. These environments can make us wonder about the accuracy of our own perceptions.

That is why NPQ offers its column, the Nonprofit Ethicist — so that you can check your understanding of things with the expert in these matters. The Nonprofit Ethicist allows you to ask your questions about ethical issues you may be observing or facing in your organization in anonymity — and then not just you, but we, can all benefit from the advice he gives you. That way, maybe we don't all have to make the same mistakes.

So, send your "Dear Ethicist" questions to me by return e-mail today. Simply reply to this email or send to The Ethicist will answer you confidentially and quickly and if we print your query, we will eliminate any identifying information and run the copy by you first.