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

Board Café

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

The Electronic Newsletter Exclusively for Members of Nonprofit Boards of Directors

Short enough to read over a cup of coffee, the Board Café offers a menu of ideas, information, opinion, news, and resources to help board members give and get the most out of board service. Co-published by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. Executive Chef / Editor: Jan Masaoka. December14, 1999. Vol. 3, No. 12


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. Also: my thanks to the 1000+ readers (including the 20 who won the drawing for a free copy of our "Board Café 1999 Yearbook") who sent in last month's survey. . a report will be in next month's issue. Finally, here's to a new year of peace and prosperity for all of us. - Jan Masaoka



Does it sometimes seem as if the board always covers the same short reports in every meeting, but never gets around to the more substantive matters? Given how hard it is to plan ONE agenda, it's surprisingly easy to plan an agenda for the entire year. If, for example, your board meets monthly, think about scheduling a 20- minute discussion on bigger issues every other month. As we look towards the new century, you might plan for February a discussion on the organization's changing client profiles, April for a discussion on financial condition and business strategies, June for a discussion on the board's composition and diversity topics, September for a guest speaker from the field in your mission area (such as AIDS, wilderness preservation, civil rights).


Have you ever wanted to "keep up" with the field of the organization on whose board you sit (say, youth services or homelessness), but can't cope with the avalanche of info on the web? Here at the Board Café we like WebClipper, a website that lets you select criteria (such as disabilities or mental health) and it sorts through hundreds of periodicals and on-line resources and sends you info that has been screened by an expert in the field. WebClipper is a project of HandsNet, which has generously offered free 45-day trial memberships to Board Café readers. If you like it, one-year memberships are $99. To get your free trial membership, go to and when you register, enter group code ATNDEE.

WHAT IS 877-829-5500?

If you have a question about what forms to file or about how bingo affects or doesn't affect your organization's nonprofit status, who are you gonna call? Try this: the new number from the IRS Service Center based in Cincinnati that answers questions for tax-exempt organizations. Don't be intimidated about calling the IRS and having trouble figuring out what extension to dial, this line is specifically dedicated to employee plans and exempt organizations.


With the nation's freeways getting more crowded and everyone getting busier, more and more board members are wondering if they can participate in board meetings by telephone. The advantages: more people participate. The disadvantage: there's a lot lost for both the board member and the board as a whole when the meetings aren't in person and face-to-face. One board we know allows new board members to participate by phone ONLY after they have been to at least three meetings in person. Another board allows members to participate by phone for no more than _ of the meetings. And some boards don't permit participation by phone at all. If you DO decide to have some people phoning in to meetings, be sure to invest in a dedicated speaker phone so that everyone can hear.

This month's "Main Course" at the Board Café:

The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

by Betsy Rosenblatt, National Center for Nonprofit Boards


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.

*In the January issue of Board Café: Sample conflict of interest policy.

You are reading the BOARD CAFÉ, published monthly by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. CompassPoint/Board Match Plus+: 706 Mission Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103; (phone) 415-541-9000; (fax) 415-541-7708; Silicon Valley office: 1922 The Alameda, San Jose, 95126; (phone) 408-248-9505. (e-mail) (website) . National Center for Nonprofit Boards: 1828 L Street NW, Ste. 900 , Washington, D.C. 202-452-6262 email ; website We welcome your comments and contributions to the BOARD CAFÉ.

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