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#309 Small Things Matter: The Convergence of Equity and Philanthro-ethics

May 22nd, 2018

Richard Marker

The philanthropy field has not been exempt from ethical lapses – some at a headline grabbing level. And these scandals have been seen on both sides of the table: funders and leaders of non-profits have been caught in all too embarrassing behaviors. In many of these cases, the violators were receiving very generous pay packages – greed may have been a driver, but need was not. Many have asked me: how did such a thing happen?

Over my own career, I have supervised hundreds of individuals, overseen dozens of organizations, and been on the board of or funded many others. Sad to say, I have seen, and had to act on, too many instances of theft, abuse, and other ethical lapses. In each case, people have asked me: how did this happen?

My response is the same to both inquiries: in every case of which I am aware, the violations began as very small over-reaches. Penny-ante stuff. Nothing that added up to much, “what is the big deal if I use petty cash for private purposes or receive a small ‘gift’ in exchange for a legitimate contract we would sign anyway?”

What I saw in every case of which I had direct knowledge and seems to have been true in the big picture ones as well, is that the violations began small. Then, incrementally grew. Before they knew it, they became so normal that they stopped thinking about it. After all, no one said anything, so maybe no one cared.

By the time the violators were exposed, the violations added up – to real money, to real embarrassment to all, and to real challenge to the confidence in the ability of our sector or out boards to self-monitor. [Now, before anyone retorts with a “what about… the banking industry or the person who currently occupies the president’s seat or Enron or Weinstein or….” let me say unequivocally that this is not a competition to the bottom. I function in the philanthropy sector, write and speak about philanthro-ethics, and care deeply about the good we can do. So, this is what I feel is appropriate for me to address.

I was reminded of this early this morning: leaving the gym, I happened upon a phone charger on the ground. It was in a public place and was a high-quality model compatible with my own phone. I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and had an internal debate about what to do. There was no way to trace it – it wasn’t the phone, only the charger. People lose these things all the time. At the same time, it certainly wasn’t mine even though I found it in a public place.

I decided to return to where I found it, a few steps from an apartment building, to turn it in. The concierge and I agreed: if no one claimed it within 2 days, it would be legitimate to claim it. Probably a fair solution to an ethical dilemma.

This is not a great hero story. There have been many more noble things I [and most of us] have done. Indeed, I have written about some of these in the past. But it came at a time when we are, collectively, thinking a lot about equity. And it reminded me that, in life, in communities, in organizations, and in personal relationships, the true measure of our values is the collection of the little things.

Yes, it is true that we have real systemic challenges that require big thinking. The environment, public discourse, poverty, racism and xenophobia of all sorts – to mention just a few. These require big actions within our funding sector [see the most recent manual by NCRP for how we might begin to do so], in our advocacy for transformative change in our public policy toward more just and equitable allocation of resources, toward enabling those who have been penalized purely because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background, or their creed or their physical make-up to be treated as full and deserving members of society, to a radical embrace of our fragile environment.

These are all big, systemic, and urgent challenges that cannot and must not be deferred. At the same time, it is important to remember that we show how seriously we take these larger commitments as much by our daily small behaviors as by our ambitious aspirations. In fact, we have learned from social science studies that we are more likely to take the big matters seriously, and be less paralyzed by them, when we see that there are actions and practices we can take as individuals. If we behave properly in our daily interactions, we are more likely to be empathetic to the larger changes the world needs to make.

When our daily ethical behavior has eroded, so has the underlying belief that we are in this together. When we behave only in self-interest, we challenge the delicate fabric which binds us, the connections upon which all of us rely.

But when our inner compass of ethics pushes us toward making good and responsible and ethical and honest decisions daily, even if they are not by themselves heroic, we are much more likely to be heroic and courageous in our efforts to bring about the changes that we, and the world, require.

I sure hope so.

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