I recently published a post about how City of Hope plans to host a special fundraising event at odds with the organization’s mission. Most readers who responded to a poll at the end of the post felt the event is inappropriate with many even finding the event unethical.
The unscientific poll reveals that 49 percent of respondents feel that the “Let Them Eat Cake” event is “Inappropriate but Not Unethical,” 27 percent say the event is “Unethical & Inappropriate,” 13 percent say the event is a “Great Idea All Around,” and 10 percent believe the event is “Appropriate, Whether on Mission or Not.”
I’m comforted to know that over three-quarters of the respondents feel the same way as I do about the City of Hope event. However, some of the comments I’ve received on this blog site, on LinkedIn, and via email concern me a bit.
Perhaps the comments are a result of how I worded the post or phrased the poll responses. Some people seem to be under the impression that one’s actions are either purely ethical or purely unethical. In certain cases, those folks would be correct. Some actions are clearly ethical or not. Stealing money from Girl Scouts selling cookies (this really happened) is clearly unethical.
However, not all situations are black and white, ethical or unethical.
While the legality or illegality of an action is certainly a guideline, such as the theft incident I just described, something can be unethical without being illegal. Some situations in which we find ourselves put us into a gray area. The most challenging ethical dilemmas often involve situations that are not black and white. If they didn’t, they really wouldn’t be dilemmas, would they?
When considering the possible, multiple responses to a situation, we will often find some alternatives are more ethical while some are less ethical. In the case of City of Hope, the organization could choose to continue to host its “Let Them Eat Cake” event without any changes although many readers found it at odds with the nonprofit’s mission and, therefore, unethical. Alternatively, the organization could choose not do any event.
However, the organization has other options. For example, City of Hope can run its cake event but offer healthy alternatives and educational material as well. Or, the organization could host a different event like the Healthy Chef Competition in Vancouver, Canada that Rory Green, a development professional and blogger, told me about.
Again, some alternative courses of action are more ethical or less ethical than others. The objective should be to always choose the best option, make the best decision.
The most challenging ethical dilemmas of all, however, do not have any good, ethical solution. They’re no-win situations. Think of the novel/movie Sophie’s Choice or the “Kobayashi Maru” test from the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even in these no-win situations, we must cope as best as we can to be the best we can.
As those who work in the nonprofit sector, we must understand that our greatest asset is the trust of the public. The more trust people have in charities, the more likely they are to donate. And, with greater trust comes larger contributions.
Therefore, we must always strive to make the best, most ethical decisions possible. When given a choice between a right and wrong action, we must always choose the right one. When there is not an obvious or pure right option, we must work to arrive at the best alternative. Sometimes, that means choosing the best solution from among bad options, in other words, the least terrible option.
Navigating in the gray area is difficult. Fortunately, author and professor Marilyn Fischer, PhD has given us a terrific framework for considering even the most challenging ethical dilemmas. She shares her decision-making methodology in her book, Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising. You can download a free copy of my article “Doing Well By Doing Right: A Fundraisers’ Guide to Ethical Decision-making” (The International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing) that contains a detailed summary of Fischer’s model.
When considering an ethical dilemma and/or when striving to take the best possible course of action, we need to consider all of the possible alternatives. Then, once we have noted all the possible courses of action, Fischer instructs that we must ask a series of questions about each possible alternative:
Organizational Mission: Does this alternative promote or detract from the organization’s mission? Basic philanthropic values? How does this alternative affect those ultimately receiving the services?
Relationships: Does this alternative strengthen long-term relationships with colleagues, donors, volunteers, and community members?
Personal Integrity: In what ways does this alternative help or not help you develop into the person you want to become? How does it strengthen or weaken your own integrity?”
By carefully exploring our options, taking the time to answer questions from varied perspectives, consulting our professional codes of ethics, and by talking with stakeholders, we will be better able to arrive at the best decisions than if we were to simply wing-it. And, that decision will be far more defensible should it ever be challenged.
The Fischer model can be enormously helpful. However, it can only help us if we recognize a dilemma when it presents itself. Therefore, we need to remain vigilant and open-minded so we can recognize even the least obvious dilemma and avoid trouble. And, when coping with a tough decision, we need to employ a framework that helps us to arrive at the best possible outcome when navigating our way through the gray area.
When contemplating a challenging decision, you’ll want to know what the professional standards are. To help you, here are links to just some of the codes of ethics and standards of practice that have been carefully developed by our professional associations:
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?
[Publisher's Note: Michael Rosen is available to lead seminars and workshops about ethical decision-making. He can tailor a presentation for the unique needs of your nonprofit organization or professional association. You can contact him here.]