Posted By : Darren Ward
27th November 2019
Walking the Talk – Ethical Expectations in Social Impact Organisations
Walking the Talk – Ethical Expectations in Social Impact Organisations-image

Sadly for the international civil society community too much of the copy on news sites has been taken up by issues related to unethical behaviour by staff trusted to make lives better.  

This has, perhaps justifiably, raised questions of power imbalances, whistleblower systems, organisational accountability and control mechanisms and the professionalism of the sector.  It has put at risk the reputations of the organisations involved, and others, and affected the trust, respect and confidence of staff, donors and the communities they work in. For many the sector has failed to put its actions where their mouths are. 

It is no surprise that the expectation placed on organisations who exist to improve lives of the vulnerable to act ethically is higher than it is for other sectors.  This is in part due to the type of work they do and the fact they openly call out others when they don’t operate ethically.  It is hard to argue that this heightened expectation is not warranted.

Given this, it falls on the leadership of social impact focused organisations to set the standard and ensure, as much as possible, the behaviour of their organisation matches expectations.  This is much easier said than done of course!  

So what can they do, how do you embed ethical behaviour in a widely distributed workforce who are often working under significant stress in difficult circumstances?

Ethical standards are a CULTURE issue. 

At the core of organisational effectiveness is culture.  If an organisation is going to act ethically then this needs to be part of their DNA, something that is ingrained in every aspect of their behaviour.

Lead by example

A culture of high ethical standards is created through every action, and is driven from the top.  How organisational leadership deal with   Open, transparent reporting of these areas demonstrates to the rest of the organisation that standards are not optional, but are how things are done – even by those at the top of organisation.

If the leaders of an organisation are demonstrating open accountability, it creates a culture of mutual accountability where people expect to be held accountable, and to hold others accountable.    

Frame expected behaviour in a context of strong values

Clear, concise and meaningful values are crucial in setting expectations.  They define how an organisation will act and set boundaries that staff, clients, donors and the community can expect people will operate within.  

However, if these values are only displayed in head offices and induction manuals they will not be considered important by anyone.  They need to be referred to whenever an organisation talks about what it does, why it does it and how it will do it.  These discussions cover almost every interaction within the organisation and outside it.  

If your organisation has a value of ‘Making Lives Better”, and this is talked about every time you discuss how you implement projects and programme it will reinforce the sorts of behaviours that are acceptable, and rule out those that aren’t.  Staff will have a clear reference point for how they act when they are out of the office – they simply ask the question “if I do this will it make lives better?”  

What your values are is a discussion for leaders and staff in the organisation, but if your staff can’t state them, and aren’t demonstrating them consistently then it is probably time to revisit them.

Extend Trust

We often talk about the benefits of having decisions made at the lowest possible level, enabling people to take the action they believe will best deliver the impact their organisation is seeking.  When supported by an environment that is values based, allows lessons to be learnt from failure, provides support and access to resources to embolden decisions, and has an agile approach that means mistakes are caught quickly, this reinforces a culture that accelerates impact.  This works because it empowers staff to act and take control of their contribution to success.  They feel trusted and engaged, and trusted and engaged staff are far less likely to breach the values based ethical standards of an organisation.  

Breaches have consequences

Humans being human there will be occasions when people will slip up and breach the ethical boundaries that guide behaviour.  This is where the non-negotiability of values comes under scrutiny.  

If someone breaches the boundaries of the values-based behaviours there must be consequence.   The higher up the organisation the offender is the more important that the consequence is swift, serious and public. 

While this may sound harsh, values are only meaningful when they are reinforced in good times and bad.  

Reward values-based behaviour

If values are to be at the heart of your organisation then put them at the heart of your recruitment, evaluation and remuneration practices.

Too often behaviours that are likely to drive increased risk of poor behaviour are rewarded.  We target staff on completing reports in a way that keeps donors happy, not on being honest about issues and seeking change agreements to resolve them.  We measure executives on maximising revenue and reducing costs, but not on achieving impact.   

By placing values alignment at the heart of recruitment, evaluation and remuneration practices and measuring behavioural alignment and impact achievement you will be keeping the main thing the main thing.  You will be saying to all your team, and all they interact with, that the impact you seek is the only thing that is important. 

These actions will set an expectation of compliance.  They will drive behaviours that make breaches unacceptable amongst staff in a way that matches the expectations of stakeholders.  

Achieving this will make compliance much easier.  Only when you have the culture right and see values-based shared accountability, high trust, and people processes built around these will any form compliance mechanism be effective.

Darren Ward

Darren Ward is the co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group Ltd. He brings his experience in senior leadership roles in both the business and iNGO sector to offer a broad understanding of how both sectors can deliver maximum social impact. His core competencies are strategic planning, transformational change, partnerships and collaboration and the role of new finance models for impact.