Ask Ero: Answers for baffled and confused Idealists

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In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered a question about being a older jobseeker in a world of entry-level jobs. How was my answer? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with this installment’s question!

Lately, as I apply for jobs, I’ve been noticing that many nonprofits rely heavily upon corporate donors.

How can we reconcile the reliance that some nonprofits have on corporations whose actions are the very antithesis of the compassion, cooperation, and ethical behavior that most of us in the nonprofit sector are trying to promote?  – Elena

Some years ago a very wise person I know, who founded a successful nonprofit and who now works at a prestigious foundation, referred to her work as “the revolution.” I thought at the time that this was ridiculous and pretentious. To me, “the revolution” meant activists in the streets, not liberals working on fine-tuning grant proposals. But I’ve begun to understand what she meant.

The world often seems like it’s run entirely by the visible and violent hand of the market: multinational corporations squeeze communities dry, war profiteers rain bombs on the less fortunate, and only the rich truly succeed. Capitalism isn’t all banditry and the might-makes-right, but it often seems as though it were.

But the human experience is much more than just grasping for power and status: we’re here on this earth to love each other and help each other too. So how do we express that in our daily work?

The nonprofit world is one answer to this. At its best, this is a new and different order than any other; those of us in the sector are participating in a different kind of marketplace, one driven by conscience and funded by the act of giving. We do our work because we believe in it, and we’re paid because someone else believes in it too.

There are considerations of supply and demand, as there are in the larger society, but the fundamental economics are very different. And they should be different. Because of this, working in the nonprofit sector really is a (slow-motion) revolution: we’re creating a new model of work, that operates by different rules and has different values.

But we’re not an island, and the nonprofit sector is inextricably involved in the larger society’s compromises and corruptions. As you point out, well-meaning nonprofit organizations often act, wittingly or unwittingly, as public relations maintenance for truly disreputable corporations. If an organization’s charitable work is funded by a company whose profits consist of making assault rifles or addictive substances, is that organization really trustworthy?

There’s a utilitarian answer: because it’s better than the alternative. Because it’s better to do good in the world. Because nothing happens in this world unless someone starts to take action, and the nonprofit sector offers a million great ways to do good right here and right now.

I think I do speak for Idealist.org when I say that I believe that nearly everyone has good intentions, and that if we work together we can make those good intentions real, despite all the obstacles and compromises. We’re all in this muddled world together.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.

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Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at ero@idealist.org.

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Is Something Sketchy Happening at Your Favorite Nonprofit?

Lately, there’s been a lot of public discussion of nonprofits that stray from the straight and narrow. Congress, the media, nonprofit blogs, conference agendas and coffee-room conversations have brought new attention to the problem. The New York Times covered reports of major fraud at some charities. A survey by the Ethics Resource Center shows that “ethics of nonprofits are edging closer to the levels of business and government.”

If you ask yourself whether the nonprofits you know and care about are having these sorts of troubles, the answer will probably be “no.” The concerns are real though; sneaking something out of a nonprofit cookie jar really is particularly sleazy.

Much of the public discussion is focused on the idea that more public scrutiny, more official oversight and more regulation may be needed to mark off more clearly the boundaries dividing proper behaviors from mistakes and downright crookedness. Maybe. Smart and careful discussion about how to clearly draw those boundaries would help. But when you think about how many nonprofits are active in the U.S. (somewhere well above a million) and about the uncountable number of things they do (call it gazillions), it seems pretty clear that expecting the the cops to get around to checking every doorknob on the beat is going to mean long waits for most of the organizations we care about.

As Independent Sector, Association of Fundraising Professionals, statewide associations across the country, and many many groups and coalitions have said, a good deal of this job falls right in our own laps. But often the advice that’s given in the next breath is a little too complicated and technical for everyday life. So, after talking, reading and thinking about the kinds of standards we should apply to ourselves, I’ve come up with this short — if not exactly simple — list:

  • Look to the mission as a source of guidance in every decision or practice.
  • Exhibit commitment to the mission in every action, large and small.
  • Lead by example. Clearly model choosing the right path all the time.
  • Examine and learn from past mistakes.
  • Focus on understanding and remedying any distracting disagreement or conflict involving volunteers, employees, other organizations, auditors, regulators — basically anyone.
  • Share information responsibly; provide accurate and complete data to guide important decisions whether inside or outside the organization.
  • Act promptly to prevent or correct any weakness of management or financial controls throughout the organization.
  • File required reports accurately and completely before they are due.

If you see something else happening in an organization you care about, it may be a warning that there’s something there that needs to be changed. What you do next depends a lot on your position with the group, but figuring it out is important. Misbehavior at a nonprofit damages its ability to serve the community. And when it gets to the evening news or the headlines, it damages all nonprofits in ways none of us can afford.

For more detailed advice about how to address these challenges, check out Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice: A Guide for Charities and Foundations by The Independent Sector, a national advocacy group for nonprofits, or The Accountable Nonprofit, a discussion by The Association of Fundraising Professionals. You can also check Idealist’s Useful Links for Nonprofit Organizations where there’s advice about what you can do when things really go wrong; most of the time, though, it’s a matter of figuring out who is the right person to talk to and digging in to the question in a problem solving mode.

If you know of a good statement that will help us all understand how to live up to the best of our intentions, let me know about it. Send an email to putnam@idealist.org or add your comment to this post.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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