The Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism just came out with a study that found that the White House “made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” Lying is not exactly foreign to U.S. politics, of course — no matter which party is involved. The costs of this one are clearly multi-layered and incalculably damaging. It’s one thing when you can identify and count falsities and misrepresentations, even after the fact, but very often we cannot and do not recognize when we are being lied to and, sometimes, even when we ourselves are coloring or altering the truth. And we rarely can tally the full costs.
The costs may include the loss of active support from constituents and beneficiaries and a reduction of our value to the marketplace and civic life. Years ago Thomas Jeavons who now heads up ARNOVA (although I know he would in all his Quakerness object to such a characterization) wrote a wonderful article called “When Management is the Message,”[i] in which he asserted that when nonprofit organizations act in a way that betrays their spoken values and missions (e.g. justice, economic equity, human development, conflict resolution) that it has the same alienating effect as a lie — it drives people away from nonprofits precisely at the point when they are increasingly losing faith in other sectors.
Relativity where integrity is concerned is a slippery slope.
Often, when we ourselves feel that unhappy frisson of cognitive dissonance that comes from being in a situation where we are either being asked to help support a misrepresentation or at least are being subtly or not so subtly pressured not to question it, it has already become embarrassing or difficult or dangerous to name the issue involved. That is why our organizations need to be all about challenge, truth-telling, and diversity.
But for those of you who feel that your organization is less than searingly self-reflective right now — though perhaps inadvertently, there is the Nonprofit Ethicist who can help you discern what is lurking in those grey areas of judgment and whether and how to let in a little sunshine.
We have linked the Ethicist’s most recent column and invite you write to the Ethicist now with your burning question. 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.
p.s. We have also attached an insightful article by Scott Harshbarger and Amy Crafts about the much touted protections for nonprofit whistleblowers and their limitations as tools for creating an ethical workplace. Share it with your board and let us know what you think.
i. Jeavons, Thomas. 1992. “When Management is the Message: Relating Values to Management Practice in Nonprofit Organizations.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 2(4): 403-421