“Poorly Written E-mail Tirades” and Nonprofit Consultant Quandaries: The Ethicist Weighs in

Print Share on LinkedIn More


Editors’ note: This edition of The Nonprofit Ethicist appears in NPQ‘s fall/winter 2013 double issue on nonprofit networks and leadership transition. 

As the end of summer approaches, Nonprofit Quarterly is highlighting its Ethicist column from the print journal. The Ethicistravaganza will feature a different article each day on ethical quandaries. If you have any predicaments of your own you’d like answered, write to the Ethicist today!

Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

One of our board members is a nursing home administrator. This person is an officer, serves on the executive committee, and is the chair of the personnel committee. A volunteer and advocate for our organization has now applied for a middle-management-level position. His wife is a patient at the board member’s nursing home. Should the board member be required to step down from any of the board roles?

Interested in Conflicts

Dear Interested,

I like to think of a problem in terms of “ethical distance.” When a decision maker’s personal interests are completely intertwined with his or her organizational responsibilities, the ethical distance is zero and drastic interventions are needed to protect the organization. In the case you describe, the ethical distance is large between your board member and an individual who is both middle manager for your organization and the husband of a person in the board member’s nursing home. I believe that a modest intervention should suffice, such as the interested board member recusing himself or herself on matters related to this individual. (Many states have anonymous hot lines for reporting nursing home abuse. I’m assuming your state is among them.)


Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

Several agencies in my town support the same population of disadvantaged individuals. The executive director of one of the agencies has a reputation for lying, being snappish, sending poorly written e-mail tirades, refusing to be held accountable, and denying past actions and statements. You get the idea: this person is a poster child for narcissistic personality disorder. When this human hand grenade explodes, my agency, and any other agency that shares responsibility for the same clients, gets hit with the shrapnel. Yet, my board members think that our mission requires us to overlook personality issues. How do we manage this relationship to protect our clients and ourselves?


Dear Disarmed,

Stay focused on what’s best for your clients, and the rest will take care of itself. By this I mean that he will probably continue to annoy you. (I like your shrapnel analogy.) However, try to think of such irritations as part of the price you pay for delivering the best service to your clients. When this person crosses the line and begins to hurt your ability to deliver for your clients, then it is time to build a firewall between your two organizations.


Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

I am a principal in a firm that consults with nonprofits on leadership and strategy. We believe in giving our clients the best possible service, however, it is not always obvious who our client is. Is it the person who signs the contract, the organization, or the persons served by the organization? Here are two situations we encountered in the course of our work:

A board chairman’s wife was being paid big bucks for consulting with no written reports to justify her work. Her husband intimidated anyone who asked questions, including the executive director.

Another agency was in a nosedive. After studying the situation, I concluded that the executive director who hired me was burned out and had de facto abdicated leadership of the agency. She had been a good executive director for a decade, but no more.

In both cases, principals in my firm had a one-on-one with the person we believed was the problem before sharing our research with the others. In neither case did the person we talked to accept ethics personal responsibility for the problems we had uncovered. But we felt an ethical obligation to lay our research on their table first. That provided an opportunity for them to provide information that might change our conclusions. As you may expect, they each felt we were going places we should not and tried to intimidate us into remaining quiet.

Consultant with Conundrum

Dear Consultant with Conundrum,

You indirectly answered your own question. (Correctly, I might add.) Consultants have a hierarchy of responsibilities: first to the people served by an agency, second to the agency as an institution, and third to the person who signed your contract. I think you did well to call it like you see it in your report but to discuss your findings beforehand with the implicated individuals. For the benefit of other readers of this column, I want to point out that the activity described in the first case is illegal and if the IRS decides to apply intermediate sanctions, the board chair and his wife could owe big bucks to Uncle.


Woods Bowman is a professor of public service management at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois.

Write to the Nonprofit Ethicist

  • Confounded Consultant

    Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

    I’ve recently started my own business as a nonprofit consultant and I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I’m an active member of a church congregation which founded a nonprofit organization 2 years ago, filed as a separate 501(c)(3). I served as a volunteer for this nonprofit for about 6 months (Jan-June 2012), so I’m very familiar with the plethora of fundraising/marketing challenges it faces – thus making it a great prospect for me for new business.

    However, I’m unclear on the ethics of approaching a group of people that I know fairly well in one arena (church member, former skilled volunteer) – to pitch a paid gig.

    Complicating the situation is the fact that the board is a bit dysfunctional, the executive director is not well suited to a management position (it’s a counseling center, and her primary training is counseling, not nonprofit business) – oh, and the nonprofit is struggling to find firm financial footing.

    The classic irony in our field is that all of these issues make this NPO the perfect candidate for consultant/outside assistance.

    I guess that’s my question – having said that, am I viewed as enough of an “outsider” to offer assistance – for pay? Do you have any suggestions for transitioning such relationships?

    Thank you,
    Confounded Consultant

  • Nancy Sabin

    It’s good you told Disarmed to build a firewall with the shrapnel-dispensing person, however, you gave no specifics about HOW that. is best to do Overly-generalized, non-specific tips are all too commonly given by “specialists” in the field. Is it in part due to our over-politeness within the nonprofit sector?!?!?

  • M Hayne Hamilton

    Consider meeting with the layperson who is head of the church governing body and the senior minister. Tell them what you want to do and that you are willing to walk away. Seek their guidance on whom to approach and how to ask for consideration.