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Relativity applies to physics not ethics: Being an ethical non-profit leader

“Relativity applies to physics not ethics.” – Albert Einstein


If all people are created equal (my update to the work of the 18th Century White men), people have to be an ends in and of themselves; they can’t be the means to get to an end of our choosing. How we treat people matters. As such, there is no ethical leadership without an of the understanding that the people you work with matter. Leadership and ethics is the responsibility of every person that works in a non-profit – not just the Executive Director, or the leadership team, or the Board of Directors. Every person has the obligation to lead within their own role and to do so ethically. And, perhaps most importantly for all of us working in the non-profit industry, the skill, dedication, motivation and empowerment of the people with whom you work are our greatest asset. Without an ethical workplace, our people aren’t their best. Without their best, no organization, no services to our communities, and no leader is at their best.


Ethics in your non-profit is not only a good idea and a lofty goal, it’s a standard for being certified under the Standards for Excellence – the gold standard defining the best of leadership, ethics, and accountability in non-profit management. Standard II(E) of the Standards for Excellence require that your non-profit: (a) have an explicit and clear set of ethical principles and operational program standards; (b) act with professionalism and respect in delivery of your services; (c) adopt an effective procedure for internal problem-solving and reporting grievances; and (d) draft policies and practices that protect the confidentiality and privacy of personal information.

Now that we are all on board about being ethical in our leadership, how can we make that happen? Here are 5 things you can do right now to make your non-profit a more ethical place to work.


  1. Talk to people directly and with compassion. This is one of my personal pet peeves in non-profit work – nonprofit leaders talking about their employees to other nonprofit leaders without telling the staff exactly what the problem is. If we want to make a problem better (and I’m assuming we all do), that cannot happen by talking around the people with whom there is the problem. And, let’s be honest, it feels terrible to be the person talked about. If you have a problem with someone, tell them. Talk to them. Find out what is going on. Every organization should have core values that clearly state this and a Grievance Policy or a Conflict Management Policy that operationalizes these values. Our people aren’t disposable and they aren’t just partial people; treat them as whole people, deserving of compassion and worth.

  2. Be trustworthy and transparent. Are you one of those people that don’t like to seem vulnerable? Do you share your plans and ideas with only a few people? Do you try to solve problems by working around them? If so, you’re likely contributing to a scary workplace. I promise you that the fastest way to create a workplace where people do not trust each other (or you) is to do something that seems to come out of left field. Your non-profit should not feel like Survivor Island. If there is a problem, say there is a problem. If you are struggling with a staff member or a group of staff members, say that. If there are performance problems, talk to the staff member with whom there is a performance problem. Make trustworthiness and transparency – within your organization and with your community – core values of your organization. Develop Grievance Policies and Performance Review policies that help people to ethically and respectfully discuss the issues that are troubling the organization. Show your team that you, too, can be confused, awkward, and scared. It goes a long way.

  3. Review your salary and benefits package. Are we paying our people what they are worth? Can our colleagues afford to take time off to care for an aging relative? What about grieving a lost pet? Come on, people! This is a whole sector of society dedicated to making the world a better place. No one comes to the nonprofit sector to accumulate wealth. Shouldn’t our benefits packages reflect that? Unlimited leave is a practice that hasn’t caught on nearly as fast as it needs to. If you honestly and truly cannot afford monetary salary increases, what about intangible benefits? Can your team telework? Bring their pet to work? Make their own schedule? What about company sponsored pet insurance? Birthday lunches paid for by the Board? If we can figure out ways to let our teams know that we care about them as whole people – and then do those things – then we are one step closer to being an ethical leader.

  4. Make salaries and benefits equitable. Does everyone in your non-profit benefit equally from the salaries and benefits package? Was the Executive Director’s package developed so that you could lure a high-profile executive but the people who work with that Director make less than half of what that Director make? This is – at its core – inequitable and unethical. If we can afford to pay our Directors and Leadership teams more than 3 or 4 times what our lowest paid employee makes, we probably have an unethical and inequitable compensation package. This may be the most difficult item on the list, but it’s worth a look. Set up an ad hoc committee of Board and staff (from all levels of leadership at your organization) and take a look! Develop policies around compensation that tie the Director’s compensation to the compensation of staff. Just looking into something like this – and letting your team know you are honestly doing so – will go a long way to building trust.

  5. Honor everyone’s expertise, experience, and perspective. We like to put this responsibility all on Directors – directors should honor everyone’s expertise, experience, and perspective. This is very true, but Directors are owed this in reverse. It’s easy when we are not in charge to point at the people who are “in charge” and make them the enemy. But chances are pretty good that the people with those “in charge” responsibilities have some qualities that put them where they are. Let’s find them. It’s also easy to blame poor program outcomes on the people who are in the program – clearly, it’s their fault we aren’t doing well. Let’s figure out what we are all good at and let’s build our programs on that knowledge rather than a contrived hierarchy. Who says that an Executive Director has to be a fundraiser AND a subject matter expert AND an accountant AND an attorney? Who says that the people we serve need to be told what to do? A non-profit organization works well when there are a whole lot of people at the table with a lot of different areas of experience and perspective, contributing equally. Strategic thinking, planning, and decision making need to include the whole group – and that may include people who you serve. Build your organization on all people’s strengths rather than attempting to build out of fear or ego.

Ethics and ethical leadership does not have to be esoteric or scary. It can be simple and straightforward. And it can make us vulnerable – but it will pay dividends for us as leaders. Take the time to look inside ourselves and our organizations and make the ethical leap forward. Contact me to discuss more about how we all can be ethical leaders, in ethical organizations, with Standards for Excellence certification!

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