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  • Writer's picturePeggy Killeen

8 tips for making ethical decisions easier

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Does the word “ethics” have unpleasant connotations for you?

If so, you’re not alone. It feels like a new scandal erupts every day somewhere in the world. And so many of them involve questionable ethical behaviour, especially on the part of public figures. As fundraisers we know that our own actions are definitely not immune from examination. After all, the most valuable asset we have in nonprofits is our reputation, and it can take very little to lose public trust and donor confidence. We also know that building personal trust is a crucial element in our relationships with donors.

It helps to develop strategies when the going gets tough. Let me share some really simple and practical tools to help guide you.

Here are eight tips for making ethical decisions easier.

1) Trust your gut

If a situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. As humans we have the innate ability to distinguish right from wrong. Researcher Marc Hauser of Harvard University says we’ve evolved with a universal moral instinct, so when we’re faced with ethical situations we come to the correct conclusion - subconsciously! Our sense of morality began in prehistoric times when we learned to co-operate with different species. We’ve actually developed natural receptors to help us recognize fairness and cruelty.

So, as soon as you hear that little alarm bell going off in the back of your mind or you get that slight churning feeling in the pit of your stomach, you need to stop what you’re doing and think about it. Don’t ignore your instincts! Trust your gut.

2) Step into somebody else’s shoes

Empathy is key to ethical behaviour. Studies show that people who behave appropriately don’t do it because they have more information about a situation – they do it because they have a greater sensitivity to somebody else’s point of view. So sometimes the simplest trick to test your gut feeling is to put yourself in the other person’s position. Ask yourself, “If this was my grandmother how would I feel about how she’s being treated?” Insert whichever relative seems right for the situation.

3) Tell the truth

The truth, the whole truth, is always simpler in the long run. It means that expectations are met and there are no misunderstandings. This may seem obvious to you, but how many times do we leave out a small factual detail or make vague commitments? It’s important to be really careful about what we promise our donors. If you know that completely respecting their intentions might not be achievable by you or your organization, it may mean refusing a gift. This is always a hard decision to make, but it’s much better to have this discussion upfront and iron out all the wrinkles, rather than having to deal with it when it’s too late.

4) Stick to your mission

You know what it is that your organization exists to do, and what you, as a development professional, are mandated to do. Don’t colour outside the lines. Have your mission statement top of mind whenever you have to take an ethical decision. Don’t go beyond your own depth of knowledge and expertise. Keep your actions consistent with your level of competence and responsibility. Ask yourself if a decision is yours to make. Consult colleagues and members of your board if necessary.

This is where having carefully drafted gift acceptance policies in place is gold. They mean that you don’t have to revisit issues, or ask the same questions over and over again. Clear policies make your decisions less difficult, and also easier to explain to donors.

5) Be transparent

Provide as much honest and accurate information to your donors and the public as you possibly can. Not just what’s required of you by law, but what you think they should know and will want to learn about you. Some years ago the City of Montreal started to broadcast its executive committee meetings live online, to give citizens access to how decisions are made. This got me thinking. What if we had to be similarly transparent in our own organizations? What if every board and staff meeting was open to donors at all times or live-streamed? OK, that may be going a bit too far! But would it be useful if we imagined that this was the case – and behaved accordingly? Would this help us to be more responsible to our donors and stakeholders?

6) Perception is everything

“How would this look to our donors?” As you’re faced with a dilemma ask yourself that question. Remember that news doesn’t just travel fast these days - it goes viral. People have more access to information than ever before, and the media have honed their investigative reporting skills. How confident are you about publicly defending a decision you’ve made? When you feel as if you might be in a grey zone, the ultimate test is to look at how the situation would be perceived by the public. Imagine the issue being described in an article online or in your local paper. Picture yourself being interviewed about it by a journalist. How are you feeling about it now?

7) Express yourself

Talk things through with your peers. As you articulate the facts out loud, you may find the issues clarify themselves. Or write the details down. Documenting becomes part of the process of checking to see if you’re doing the right thing. I’ve been in circumstances where I questioned my gut and thought I may have been overreacting. After writing each encounter with the stakeholders down in chronological order, and then reading my journal out loud, I knew that I was wading into murky ethical waters…

8) Show respect

Respect works both ways. We should work towards gaining respect from our donors, as well as treating them with the utmost regard. We should comply with their intentions, if we have mutually agreed on them. Remember the Golden Rule - act in a way you would want others to act toward you. Keep the Donor Bill of Rights in sight, pin it on the back of your office door or on your desk for easy access.

9) Bonus Tip!

Make it personal. Let’s not forget that we’re in the business of relationship-building. Our work is to develop and maintain the trust of our donors and stakeholders. Put a human face to each and every one of them. If we don’t make it personal, the issues aren’t as clear cut. The best thing we can do is take charge of our own decision-making. And do the right thing!

“Ethics deals with the ability to distinguish right from wrong and with the commitment to do what is right.” - Michael Josephson, Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics

Do you have any tips for everyday ethical decision making? Please share them!

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