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Deconstructing Ethical Decision-making: What To Do After You’ve Checked Your Gut (Part 1)

Resource Center - Foundation

by Valerie Campbell

Often, identifying an ethical dilemma is fairly easy and straightforward. Doing something about it is the hard part.

As humans, we have a unique capacity for what psychologists term “cognitive dissonance,” a peculiar stressed state where people find themselves simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. Or worse, this can lead people to actually take action that contradicts their own beliefs, or face new information or intelligence that conflicts with currently held beliefs, ideas, or values. 

Whether we recognize it or not, most of us have experienced cognitive dissonance. Here is how it works when it comes to ethics. The push and the pull we feel in certain uncomfortable scenarios is when we want to believe (or continue to believe) something, but in the face of a new reality, doubt or even disappointment occurs when that belief is placed in jeopardy. So, we do everything we can, including denying, to preserve the perception of “good.” Cognitive dissonance.

A classic example in fundraising relates to gift acceptance. This is a growing area of ethical conflict as charities increasingly ask if they need to question the integrity of donors from whom their life-blood comes. This can extend into conflicts between board and staff about whether to accept funds from certain donors, given an array of potential conflicts from reputation of the donor to misalignment of brand and values.

Typical Ethical Challenges in Charities

The following chart illustrates at a high level some of the most common areas where ethical missteps can occur:

ethical challenges chart

Your Gut, Dissonance, and Fear

When we first learn about personal values and trust as children, the earliest lessons often revolve around the idea to “trust your gut.” This also holds true as adults in our business and personal lives.

But, herein lies the issue. Our guts tell us everything we need to know: that fluttery feeling—maybe it is an unconscious inhale, that lingering something that won’t let go. Then our brain enters the body’s dialogue with the thought: “wait a second, she obviously has a good reason for what she did,” or “we must not know the entire story,” or “these are just rumours.”

There is, however, a tertium quid (meaning “previously unknown, and now out in the open”), and it is simply this: fear.

Research from the Ethics Resources Committee of Greater Toronto has shown that the vast majority of ethical dilemmas in our charities and foundations go unresolved for one primary reason: fear of losing one’s job. It is no surprise then that people find it difficult to confront those in positions senior to them about an ethical situation.

The combination of trying to trust your gut, the brain’s rationalization about why not to trust your gut (i.e., cognitive dissonance), and fear can lead people to binary situations: they can either take action, or they can avoid the situation altogether. And if there is anything more stressful than cognitive dissonance, it is ignoring the factors that are causing it in the first place.

The Decision to Take Action - Now What?

Let’s assume that you have decided that you will, in fact, take action. Often, people will muster up the courage to do something, then scratch their heads and ask, “Ok, what can I actually do here?”

The Ethics Resources Committee has learned through terrific and honest feedback from professionals in the field that people will go ahead and table an issue with a colleague. But instead of a resolution, there will sometimes be an agreement to disagree or hold differing opinions, or a recommendation to take a wait-and-see attitude, both often proposed by the individual with the more senior role.

What then?

By their nature (since ethical dilemmas involve more than one person), situations that involve ethics need to be resolved with other people. At the outset, when determining how you might want to resolve an issue you have identified, determine if you need to involve someone else beyond the person (or people) you perceive to be at the centre of the issue. The less comfortable you feel talking about ethical concerns at your organization, the greater the need to cultivate a spirit of openness within. (That is a bigger discussion related to governance and leadership.) In the meantime, why not start with you?

Part 2 of this article will appear in the August issue of AFP eWire Canada.

Valerie Campbell is chair of the Ethics Resources Committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Toronto President, founder of Valerie Campbell & Associates Inc., and vice president, development, Canadian Women’s Foundation.



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