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Constructing Ethical Systems
by Sandra Trice Gray

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Build a framework for ethical behavior and organizational accountability.

To maintain ethical integrity, associations need systems that foster accountability. From the way we maintain records to the way we conduct meetings to the way we discipline unethical behavior, we can build systems into our association structures that will help us deliver on the ethical standards and that our many publics have come to expect.

While each association must work out its own system, a simple acronym might be helpful for remembering the primary steps entailed in developing ethical behavior. Think DADS ? disclosure, analysis, dissemination, and sanctions.

Disclosure. Make disclosure of information about the association to your external and internal publics the norm. For example, make available to anyone who requests it data such as your association?s financial audits and statements, long-range plans, and program reports. Questions to ask: Does the association have information available on an on-going basis? How easy is it for people to access that information about the association, is there a mechanism for people to respond?

Analysis. Monitor and evaluate your association?s effectiveness and progress. Ensure that everyone is developing thoughtful analysis based on asking the right questions ? ones that flow form mission and values and are strategically relevant to the situation the association is addressing. Questions to ask: Are there a variety of opportunities for questioning and feedback?

Is ongoing inquiry and reflection to strengthen the quality of the analysis encouraged? What are the roles of board and staff members in performing such analysis? How is analysis shared with members, contributors, and the public?

Dissemination. Associations must help their many publics understand ethical issues. We must help shape the discourse of our publics surrounding issues of accountability for our own and other organizations. Likewise, we must share information that communicates our values and commitment to being accountable organizations that are supportive of reasonable sanctions.

Sanctions. This is likely the most difficult step of the process. It is rare that an association disciplines a member for transgressions. However, the Internal Revenue Service was recently empowered to impose excise taxes against certain individuals affiliated with 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations who participate in illegal transactions. With the power to impose excise taxes on organization managers or other individuals, the IRS has at its disposal sanctions short of removal of an organization?s tax-exempt status for improper deals.

Robert A. Boisture, of the firm Caplin & Drysdale, Washington D.C., calls the intermediate sanctions a big plus for tax-exempt organizations. "The biggest assets that charities have are public confidence and public trust," says Boisture. "Strengthening the accountability mechanisms that govern charities will, over the long term, help that."

Disclosure, analysis, dissemination, and sanctions are key to building public confidence in our organizations.

Note: the DADS acronym was created by Regina E. Herzlinger, as discussed in "Can Public Trust In Nonprofits and Government Be Restored?" Harvard Business Review, March/April 1996.


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