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#323 What are Philanthro-Ethics – and Why Do They Matter?

November 8th, 2018


A friend and honored colleague in the National Speakers Association, Bruce Weinstein Ph.D., is known as The Ethics Guy.
He speaks and writes extensively about ethics and high character leadership and has a regular column for Forbes online.. Recently, he has been expanding his conversation about ethics to those beyond the business sphere. Thus, he has asked for my thoughts about my particular expertise in this discussion, philanthro-ethics and why they matter.

First, some definitions: Ethics involve choices. Unlike morality where there is a “right” and “wrong”, ethics means that there are competing claims – each of which has some legitimacy even if they may not be equal. Ethics is also not a synonym of “legal”. There are many times when what is legal falls far short of recognized ethical standards. [Would that it were otherwise!] The law is too often nothing more than enacted self-interests and not reflective of true public interest. I am confident that no reader needs examples.

Why is this so important in the philanthropy world?

Underpinning philanthropy, and thus philanthro-ethics, is the extraordinary disparity of power that is endemic to the financial divide between those who want/need and those who have/give. Anyone who has heard me speak or teach for the last 18 years is well aware of my concern with this power imbalance, and the particular challenge that funders have. It mandates that funders develop a sensitivity to the “conscious use of self” in settings where grantees and potential grantees are present. It is incumbent on funders to make it safe for those who need our funds to tell us the truth. It is obligatory that our funding enables the greatest likelihood of success in whatever we choose to fund – and allows for the inevitable failure of some of those projects. It is a profound imperative that our decisions be informed by those who will be most impacted by our decisions.
[For the record, I am delighted that both NCRP and SSIR have recently also entered this discussion in a big way. Their combined reach is far greater than mine and therefore should have more influence on our sector’s behavior than my writings and speaking over the years have had.]

Best practices in philanthro-ethics extend from the board and board room, to how we define our relationships with external entities through our conflict of interest and spending policies, to what we value in our grant decisions, to the character of the relationships we maintain with our grantees.. We are constantly faced with choices that reflect the values we affirm, the affect we demonstrate, and our awareness of the roles we play in our sector, in the non-profit world at large, and in the larger public policy space.

Indeed philanthro-ethics is, at its core, simply a manifestation of the best practices that define our unique and privileged role in the world. And that role must never be taken lightly.

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