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Ethical Decisions Are An Interactive Process

Intelligent and thoughtful ethical decision-making is important in every aspect of life, but most people don’t know how to address the process by which ethics-based decisions can or should be made.

In an interactive forum during Fundraising Day in New York, Doug White, an author of books about the nonprofit world and the former director of the nonprofit management program at Columbia University, presented ways nonprofit professionals and board members can deal with what are often very thorny issues.

The interactive aspect is important, White said, because too often people are lectured to about morals and good behavior — a process that, in addition to being boring, is an incorrect way to present a topic that is often peppered with differing but legitimate personal perspectives.

One way to look at ethics is to understand the topic as a quest to be obedient to behavior that is not enforceable by law, he told the audience. That’s what makes ethics so difficult. And, it’s not a question of right vs. wrong, but one of right vs. right, where an examination of underlying, and often conflicting, values is required.

After the group wrestled with real-world ethical dilemmas — which involved donors who are later disgraced, donors who might not have all their mental capacities, questionable sources of gifts, efforts to ensure donor intent, and being aware of a charity’s responsibilities when gifts whose benefits are to be available in perpetuity — White pointed to steps that help define the process. They include:

1) Gathering as much relevant information as possible;
2) Understanding existing rules and past decisions relating to the issue;
3) Exercising the discipline to be sure no one is privileging himself or herself; and,
4) Predicting the consequences as well as possible, and 5) actually making the decision.

The process is far more complex than relying on a gut feeling or, even, on traditional values. For if these are different for different people — and they often are — respectfully communicating differences becomes all the more difficult. Expecting full and unanimous agreement on how to decide ethical dilemmas is almost always futile, but people tend to respect decisions they don’t agree with when the process is clearly defined and values can be honestly discussed.

As we celebrate our 36th year, NPT remains dedicated to supplying breaking news, in-depth reporting, and special issue coverage to help nonprofit executives run their organizations more effectively.