The Nonprofit Ethicist | A Tote Bag Raises Ethical Questions

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NPQ's The Ethicist

Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

Our organization often offers premiums and gifts for donations. The organization’s programs and mission serve small farmers in Central America and encourage sustainable farming and marketing practices, so we strive to offer gifts that are Fair Trade–certified and organic. A staffer just purchased tote bags for our end-of-year premium. The tote bags, he was told, are “all natural” and eco-friendly. But in fact, the bags were made in China, with no attention to fair labor sourcing and do not come close to representing our values of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Many of the organization’s supporters are informed consumers. Our development staff members suggested that we remove the “Made in China” tag from the bags. It is not illegal, because we don’t resell these totes but give them as gifts in return for donations to our organization. But senior staff thought this was unethical. Our organization is committed to transparency and honesty. Removing the tags, we thought, was dishonest and we decided to keep them and face the consequences. We hope that supporters who are disappointed by the tag will understand. Did we do the right thing?

Second Thoughts

Dear Second Thoughts,

No question: you were right. Your staffer deserves to be reprimanded but, unless you had written vetting protocols in place at the time of the tote purchase, don’t write up the staff member, because the entire organization shares the blame. And if you do not have vetting protocols, develop them posthaste, put them in writing, and have the board adopt them as official policy. You may even turn this snafu to your advantage by sending a letter to your supporters trumpeting your new protocols.

Woods Bowman is a professor of public service management at DePaul University.

 

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  • David Garvoille

    I have been in that same situation. Trying to get a rush order of tote bags made for an event, the vendor, who was trying to meet our deadline, used bags made in China.

    As in any situation where reprimanding/writing-up a staff member may be called for, make sure you have the full story.