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Codify Your Ethics
by Sandra Trice Gray

See the complete list of articles by Sandra Gray.

Map out expectations for behavior and conduct so that your whole association takes note.

Ethics and image were among the list of five key drivers of change in associations identified last year by an ASAE Foundation grass-roots environmental scan. Michael O?Neill, author of Ethics in Nonprofit Management, suggests that "Leaders have a responsibility to continually create, shape, and articulate the organization?s values in a special way in order to maintain ethical and accountable environments."

As association leaders, we know that adhering to high ethical standards on a daily basis does not simply happen. In fact, all too frequently an organization loses the trust of its constituencies because someone isn?t paying attention to the obvious. To avoid ethically compromising situations within your association, consider developing a code of ethics to use as a resource for members and staff.

Benefits of a code: In essence, a code of ethics provides the operating instructions for the association?s values, giving fair warning to those operating outside of the code that they may need to make some changes. In some cases, the code may provide the context for further dialog; in other cases, it might provide clear grounds for sanctions. It also serves to consolidate scattered policies and unspoken rules into one authoritative and comprehensive document.

Steps to codifying ethics:

The more people who are involved in developing your code of ethics, the greater the sense of ownership. Here are five steps for developing a code for your association:

  1. Get commitment from all key stake holders. Ask each group to draft a code covering its own area of association involvement. (Circulate publications on ethics and sample codes from other associations as resources.) Remind everyone that the code should be consistent with the mission and values of the organization.
  2. Arrange for representatives from each group to meet and share their drafts. An outside facilitator can help bring out differing opinions without compromising personal or professional relationships of board members, volunteers, or staff.
  3. Determine how you will proceed with writing and refining the code. Before going to the board, send the drafts to an oversight committee charged with converting them into one document.
  4. Once the code is written, ensure that all organizational concerns are addressed (e.g., fiscal management; board-staff relations; responsibilities to association clients and the larger community; and so forth).
  5. Submit the code to your board of directors for endorsement and dissemination. Establish a process to provide counseling and consultation for those expected to adhere to the code.

Finally, remember that a good code of ethics not only makes clear what practices are prohibited or discouraged (e.g., include a statement on what constitutes a conflict of interest) but also emphasizes what practices are encouraged and promoted within the organization.

Note: Benefits and steps for developing a code of ethics have been modified, with permission, from the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Denver.


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