Board Cafe: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing: Thinking About Ethics

Board Cafe

The Right Way to Do the Right Thing: Thinking About Ethics

By Betsy Rosenblatt, National Center for Nonprofit Boards

One nonprofit board member I know recently commented (I'm paraphrasing): "You know what I get out of being on the board I'm on? It's practically the only place I know where people with different backgrounds and different religions sit down and talk about VALUES. That's what I treasure about being on the board, even more than the feeling that I'm making a difference." This issue of the Board Café suggests developing a Code of Ethics for an organization: a framework for an explicit discussion about values and ethics. - Jan Masaoka

One way to establish a shared framework for accountability is to develop and implement an organizational code of ethics. When developing a code of ethics that represents shared values and that will be accepted by board members, staff and volunteers, it's important to involve a wide spectrum of people. Form a board committee, including someone with legal background if possible, to examine your organizational culture and needs to determine what kind of code to develop. While some people might balk at signing an ethics code because they believe they already behave ethically and haven't done anything wrong, the process can help people see that such a code demonstrates a commitment to standards and sets expectations for ethical behavior across the whole organization. Keep the language of the document clear and accessible, instead of composing in legalese, to ensure that board, staff, and volunteers can all understand what's expected of them.

One of the most often-told tales of flagrantly unethical behavior is that of William Aramony, former president of the United Way of America, who is currently serving a prison sentence for defrauding that organization. After the Aramony scandal, in addition to other reforms, the United Way launched a major effort to implement an effective ethics program. Its code, written by a board committee, applies to everyone associated with the organization, and all board and staff are asked to sign it annually and to provide feedback, which is incorporated into future revisions.

Here are some of the components used by United Way of America that you may want to include when developing your own code of ethics:

  • Preamble - a brief background statement that articulates the organization's basic mission and values.
  • Personal integrity - a pledge based on one's own personal integrity that represents the organization's commitment to dealing with others in a fair and truthful manner.
  • Professional excellence - characteristics and behavior, such as respect for others, fair evaluation, and positive regard, that constitute professional excellence as a model for board, staff, and volunteers to follow.
  • Accountability and responsibilities - an emphasis on good stewardship, the organization's responsibilities to its constituents, and their responsibilities to the organization.
  • Equal opportunity and diversity - establish the organization's commitments in hiring and other personnel practices.
  • Conflict of interest, personal gain, and expense reporting - the conflict of interest provision is of particular importance. It represents a strong value statement that all decisions will be in the best interests of the organization. It is a helpful reminder that individuals should evaluate their conduct and their decisions in light of their impact on the organization vis-a-vis the public and, more precisely, in light of how they might reasonably be perceived by others. These standards are the essence of any code of ethics, and they constitute core values helping to underscore that the public can place its faith in the organization's basic integrity.

Stressing the importance of buy-in from everyone involved and reevaluating the document every year help make your code of ethics a living document instead of something that sits on the shelf.

Adapted from Developing an Ethics Program by Charles E. M. Kolb, $12 for members, $16 for non-members, 24 pages, available from NCNB. Call 800-883-6262 or visit for more information or to order.

Original publication date: 12/14/1999

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