To act ethically, leaders must live and breathe moral values #EthicsMonth

30 October 2019
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In the final instalment of our series of blogs for Ethics Week, Andrew Watt examines the role of fundraising leaders in driving values-based ethical behaviour.

This article forms part of a series of blogs on fundraising ethics curated by Rogare which will be published throughout the month of October. 

When 99 per cent of the population hear the word ‘ethics’, their brains process that as ‘rules’ or ‘laws’. Human instinct is to corral things – particularly anything challenging. Perhaps that’s why we are becoming increasingly fond of labels. Anything nuanced, anything less than absolute can become messy and require us to engage – mentally, possibly emotionally – and many of us don’t like that.

So, for someone who has engaged with ethics – particularly promoting them – at a senior level for nearly 30 years, that’s pretty depressing.

Because when we talk about ethics, we talk about the context for everything we do, professionally and personally. Our ethics are part of the definition of who we are. How we apply them defines us in the eyes of the people around us. Ethics dictate how we think and behave – our actions deliver results. If we don’t challenge ourselves around our own behaviour, how can we judge others when we find their actions wanting? How can we be outraged by the consequences of unethical behaviour in the world around us? 

The values-driven role for fundraising's leadership

We’ve seen some strong instances of organisations leading by example over the last few weeks and months – the debate around the responsibilities of the RNLI, or whether to accept funding when the source of that funding is deemed questionable. The consequences of decisions taken by the leadership of charitable organisations haven’t been negligible. Public trust and significant funding have been at stake – and the organisations affected have been prepared not just to take action, but to explain the reasons behind it. Their leadership has engaged with the issues, worked them through and engaged the public in that.

This is remarkable. The default position for most organisations under public scrutiny has been to maintain as low a profile as possible. Over the last decade, there have been high profile instances where, had organisations decided to engage publicly with issues, the outcomes might (arguably) have been different. Debates around issues such as fundraising, overseas aid, and exploitation are about core values. They’re about what organisations believe and how they live their values. How behaviour should track and reflect beliefs.

I’d argue that where we see a compelling stance taken it’s because we recognise that ethical values aren’t just emotive. To define those values takes hard work. To implement them and continue to implement them requires time and resources, and an acceptance of the various risks that come with upholding those values. Above all else, it requires faith that a values-driven organisation will be more effective, have more impact, and leave a greater legacy than an organisation that merely plays lip-service to the concept.

So, leaders in our field shouldn’t duck engaging with complex, values-based issues. They have to address them internally, build the organisational culture around them, before communicating them externally. Leaders should understand that their personal example and commitment sets the tone for their peers and colleagues, as well as the organisation they all serve. 

It’s an area where – from my perspective – separating the personal from the professional simply doesn’t work. Values can’t have credibility where there is no trust. And trust is based on personal experience as much, or more, than experience of brand. The value of a brand is made up of myriad small and complex aspects of the whole; a label is not enough.

Ethical behaviour is all our personal responsibilities

We’re increasingly vulnerable to ‘outrage’ and aggression in the public domain. Rational debate, ethical behaviour, a sense of obligation to something broader than ourselves, all seem to be marginalised. And it’s certainly true that people living in glass houses seem very happy to throw stones.

Perversely, we’ve arrived at a moment where responding to one-off issues and crises seems to have become counter-productive. There are so many we’re left pivoting in every breeze that crosses our bows. Which is why ethical values need to be lived, slept, breathed, part of our DNA. Something so ingrained that we don’t have to bring them out and dust them down every time there’s a problem. 

To arrive at that point, we all need to lead – we all need to assume personal responsibility to provide examples of ethical values in action. Only when we arrive at that point will we be truly living and working in a values-based environment. If we, working in the social sector, aren’t able at least to aspire to that, what right do we have to expect it from the broader world around us?

Andrew Watt FInstF
Andrew Watt FInstF
Senior Principal at Accordant Philanthropy, and a member of the board of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank
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