How is it possible that the noble causes of liberation of oppressed peoples has in some ways taken on the connotations of a business venture that has no regard for ethics? Is there even a danger that it is more sinister than that and we are actually witnessing a devastation of the role of activism into actions that resemble pyramid schemes or cons? A closer look at the matter certainly seems like a good idea.
There is a subject of enormous importance in the management of things that are considered to be of “public interest”, be they government, the third sector and companies, and that is the issue of ethics. Ethics has evolved as such a necessary topic even in private industry and corporate management that there is no longer any serious company that has not invested in an approach that makes them “competitive” even regarding ethical conduct, something that mistakenly has at times been considered only a problem for volunteer or non-profit organisations. On the surface ethics may seem abstract and complicated, and thus ignored by the vast public, (allowing the violation of ethical standards to become the norm since they are not even on the table) but ethics are instead really extremely basic and simple to understand and, it goes without saying, essential.
Ethics are not just for philosophy students anymore, they are a fundamental component in any fair social contract, and there are parameters that exist to determine whether or not conduct is ethical or unethical, not only for profit-making activities, but for those involving activism and in those entities that are NGOs. Since we are involved heavily in activities “for causes”, we can’t subtract ourselves from scrutiny regarding ethics.
For a very long time, based on a perceived need to enhance effectiveness regarding causes and mostly in order to remove the governmental (and thus political) interests from things that are considered “charitable” such as environmental and heritage conservation, human and animal rights and global poverty issues, hundreds of thousands of groups have emerged (in fact, given the tax benefits they obtain while collecting money, there is a virtual explosion of them) and set themselves up to accomplish tasks that are separate from governmental control and policy. There is the further advantage in this setup in that they can tap into a greater spectrum of the public (or even a better one) if they are perceived as removed from mainstream political interests, since many people have come to associate politics with special interest groups that seek to obtain power. And again, power itself has the perception as being negative though it is sought fervently. But remember, it is only someone else’s power that is perceived as a threat to the common good.
These charitable groups and NGOs are often run like businesses, and yet, they depend upon private financing or support from foundations without any personal return on investment beyond the image factor in order to administrate and deliver their services, (development programmes, aid and the like). Yet, no matter what it is they do, they would cease to exist without private financing. Usually these services have an aura attached to them that is positive and as such, they are attributed a further layer of values, and it is only with this intangible item (selling power of the idea/value) which they promote heavily that they obtain the private financing necessary for their survival. As an entity that requires money and handles other people’s money, they have to comply with specific standards to be able to operate and also be subject to a different and more favourable tax regime, but they also are expected to adhere to ethical standards that support their mission statement and make whatever is written there as their primary objective. They are “good guys” after all, we believe they are doing charity work with our hard-earned money, money which we freely accept to donate for someone else’s benefit, thus fulfilling various needs, making us feel better that we “save the world” and concretely obtaining material benefit for those who are the beneficiaries. There is an exchange going on that often translates into a kind of symbiotic need for one another and there are thousands of charities that hook us once, but other thousands that have us contributing to them on a regular basis. It can even become an emotional issue and at times we donors identify so deeply with the charity that we buy their stickers to put on our cars, we promote them in social networks and we even start to use their slogans in our speech. We do get a return of sorts from the arrangement, and this is something the charities tap into as part of their campaigns, since group belonging is a timeless social need and doing good for others is a positive human value.
In activism, we can argue back and forth all day about what is ethical and what is not, (some might say that the ends justify any means, but others will disagree) but to cut to the chase, in this paper we are not dealing with the vast and interesting subject of ethics, but simply concentrating on the ethics in the aspect of activism concerning most specifically an economic agreement, determining what is the core of the relationship between the “charitable organisation” and its “lifeblood”, i.e., its donors, and that can be summarised briefly in adherence to several key parameters. These are not in any way based on abstract principles, because if your bank, which is interested in making a profit off of your need to obtain liquidity to live on or loans so that you can develop your own projects (personal or collective) is required to fulfil the obligations of ethical standards, how much more should a charitable organisation be ready and willing to comply with them in order to obtain your support and money with no personal return on your contribution except that feel-good sensation and being able to tell your friends how generous you are!
What are the parameters available for assuring that a charity behaves ethically regarding its donors and members of the organisation? Accountability (being able to justify decisions made, making them in a manner that is in line with core principles and philosophy of the organisation and assuring that the decisions truthfully reflect the adherence to the mission statement or purpose and respect legal and financial norms as well as internal codes of conduct), Transparency (rendering the bookkeeping, organisational structure and purpose available to donors and auditors and even to possible donors so that it is clear how much money is spent where and a level of monitoring and control can be applied), Responsibility (liability towards members, donors, beneficiaries that the work done and the money obtained fulfils the purposes of the mission and responding formally according to statutes and legal norms if there are violations). These principles should be self-evident, but they are far too often lacking in some entities that obtain or spend other people’s money in the name of a cause’s mission statement, (granted that they even have one!). Some leaders of organisations will even insist they are exonerated from meeting these requirements, that they have special status that releases them from compliance to these three core principles, and that is what one can call the idea of exceptionalism, present more often in a cult than in a legitimate charity organisation. It is logical to assume that this kind of organisation has the tendency of morphing its cause and its actions from one purpose to another, the only consistent element is the leader, and in fact, the leader often finds himself in a no-win confrontation with the members of the organisation, as the “right vs right” dilemma I will describe below does not sublimate into the benefit of the common good but in the predominance of the
It is obvious that if we are responsible persons, we must be aware and accept that at the basis of those three principles is one core value, honesty. The moment that honesty is lacking or that demands for honesty are met with brutal hostility, one can be certain that ethics are simply not taken into account, or we can assume that they are twisted so that there is no compliance with standards that all can consider obligatory for any social contract, which most of the time is an unspoken (tacit) agreement between parties, but in the case of charity, has a further series of rules and expectations. There is nothing more sickening and disgusting as knowing that money donated to feed the poor is spent in obtaining personal benefits, privileges and power for those who are part of the charity’s organisation. Deviation of resources is the worst possible offense that a charity can commit, and it endangers even “clean” charities who are painted with the same brush as thieving and unreliable cons. The only way to avoid this charge is full disclosure, as well as it being a legally binding task in most countries, it is also morally necessary to comply with basic ethics. The charity can only survive as such an entity if it conforms to ethical standards, since we know, the competition for our donations is fierce.
Since I mentioned that we must comply with a social contract, let’s take a step back for one minute and define what a social contract is, and doing that, we need to define what a contract is and realise the vast majority of humanity lives in a contract-based society and that the contracts begin the moment that humans have been weaned, they are not necessarily signed documents, but they are an agreement on the equitability of an exchange (fairness). It is part of our lives and activities on a constant basis. This makes it in our interests to be conscious of what is ethically acceptable in charity which moves dangerously into becoming “the solidarity industry” and what just as dangerously, uses privilege and inequitable contracts as its core value and modus operandi, using outsiders (donors and beneficiaries) as the pawns in a game of profit, and to allow us informed consent before we decide to give to one organisation and not another, conscious of the risks all of this entails.
The basis of social living is the acceptance of transparency of rules and acceptance of the equitableness of agreements made between parties (assuming to live in a society with the rule of law and justice as being fundamental values). In order for people to live in society, they have to know that there is an agreement made for everything, and for the most part, the negotiation of it can be avoided, as the acceptable terms are tacit, but somewhere down the line there are norms and standards that regulate these things. The agreement predates them and almost every single time, it is an agreement that has terms they did not have an active part in establishing.
With free choice, we have continual and constant tacit contracts in all of our activities, and especially those involving money, since they are regulated by law. It is up to us to expect those we are involved with to be legitimate, and to prove that they are legitimate is their moral obligation. There is no exceptionalism where justice is concerned, if there is privilege, we need to be aware of it and then we decide if the privilege can be allowed or not.
If we begin to consider that there are rules for others, but not for us (privilege), we are then indeed not respecting or considering as valid a social contract of equality before the law and society (and these things I am calling laws may only be social mores and values that a certain interest group considers as essential). If this is the case, we fall on the side of those who are not adhering to ethical standards of justice and equality, and we need to be aware of that. Ethics in anything that seeks consensus or donations in order to exist and function is required to adhere to minimum standards, ones that even businesses for profit have realised they must respect and conform to, since the division between private and public interest has become far less distinct.
It should not surprise us that there are ethics committees for almost all major industries, because not only are they accountable to their shareholders, they are aware that there are laws in the countries they operate in that require disclosure. They also know that internal conflicts, a physiological part of any social construct, which academics categorise as “right versus right” (for instance, in a business ethics situation it is positive to obtain greater profits for their shareholders and have large returns on investments while at the same time it is positive to maintain low prices so that consumers do not abandon their purchasing of these goods and services) can only be resolved by a process known as “entrepreneurial wisdom”, where the “greater good” is striking a balance between the two in the increased perception of one’s own role as party of a “contract” requiring the sublimation of the factional interest. Emerging from these conflicts is the success or failure of what can be considered to be in the end a decisional style that must favour one of the “right” principles at the expense of the other, or instead accepts that there is a benefit in being subject to ethical compliance not only to stay competitive or in business, but because of the acknowledgement of the synthesis between being dependent (part of a system) and independent (individuals and companies). In the end, each party “monitors” the other as well as is affected by the actions of the other, and adjusts behaviour in order to keep the “right vs right” conflict manageable and not destructive. The rules for this conflict resolution are none other than those basic tools of ethics, accountability, transparency, responsibility. This means that for corporate and commercial society, and even for charities which imply a social contract involving monetary investments or goods and services exchanges of any kind, there should be no question that there is an expectation of compliance with the instruments that are the barometer of ethical conduct in this relationship.
So, that brings us back to the requisites of an ethical charity. Do they comply with the core standards stated earlier? Accountability, transparency and responsibility? How do we check that they are in compliance? By being aware of the levels of disclosure, both internal (within the charity) and external (between the charity and the donors or the charity and the control organisms). If they comply and we agree they are equitable, great, if they do not, they must undergo complete rehaul and assume liablity for damages to trust of donors and beneficiaries, or not continue to exist, taking away vital funding from other legitimate causes and charities and if they do not disclose anything, run for the hills! My conclusions are based on many years of campaigns for fundraising for causes and association with many charitable organisations both in the USA and Europe, with beneficiaries in every continent. I am certain that a legal expert could further explain the basic needs and even add others that I neglect, but in my own experience, these are the requirements to make a group legitimate. It is not like giving money to a friend when we give to a charity, where there is a specific set of minimum standards.
Each organisation or charity that takes collections or accepts donations is bound to draw up a mission statement which defines the entity’s purpose and scope. Those who are part of the organisation will have further contracts or agreements within that organisation which define their roles in within the group in order to obtain the goals of the mission statement. They will determine their limitations, duties, decisional powers as well as entitlements such as compensation (rights and obligations). There is a well-defined organisational structure that is agreed upon, including the
organisation’s terms (until the conclusion of a specific project, until a date, until the collection of a certain amount of donations, forever and ever amen, etc.) and decisional and administration procedures (internal management and accounting up to external auditing procedures which will necessarily mirror the minimum requirements of the laws in force in the country the groups are registered in). They can be compiled in an acts of association or statute, at times they contain annexes laying out the projects clearly with budget estimates and actual feasibility projects with blueprints and the like, but however, they must be explicitly expressed and agreed upon for them to be legally binding in case of dispute, at times they must even cite and reprint the specific legal regulations that support and give legitimacy to the project including obtaining permits and determination of liability for violation of norms. To be clear, having a website may not be considered enough to stipulate a contract of this sort, since sites are subject to change without notice. Organisations and even committees at the very least have an internal organisation that is evident to those within the organisation and may be obtained by external parties upon request if they are in any way public and ask for donations from anyone, and it often would look very boring on a website, but these things should exist. Why? Because shit happens. Money gets diverted, accidents happen, people with power leave organisations and the organisation itself is then challenged as if it is still legitimate or not, organisations change their purpose while maintaining the same name, laws change or there is the violation of laws. Things need to be on paper and it is not a luxury to have them on paper, it is the bare minimum, unless you are a street committee that sells pies to raise funds for someone’s college education.
Those who donate are often unaware of who is behind an organisation, but it has for a long time been established in activist circles that to avoid conflict of interest and association with organisations or donors that could compromise the mission statement, that the body of the organisation is rendered public as well as their compensation. This has now become the norm in charity, and the publication of this information is not a privilege. In fact, it should be expected. Any connection with other organisations is also necessary to obtain for reasons ranging from compliance with local laws to being assured of the validity of the organisation and its track record (if it is able to accomplish the goals of its mission statement or if it is unrealistic and doomed to failure, and thus, to the disintegration of the funds obtained). All of this falls under the concept of ethics and involves the core elements of transparency, accountability and responsibility. So, in addition to being necessary for the needs of activists to be assured that there is correct use of donations, there is a practical basis which makes these things mandatory.
And that is why for years and years, activists are demanding that they obtain accountability. The charismatic leader is no longer enough for most people, unless they have an attraction to the cult of personality, which is how that particular public will be targeted, and especially important in this methodology is assuring that the leader is worthy of such a task. If the leader has a success rate close to zero in fulfilling any of the previous charity purposes his name has been involved in, it might just be a cult and not a bona fide charity. Success is measured in the cost/expenses vs. gains – in this case the gains are translated in low overhead and maximum use of resources by the beneficiaries. Example, if X amount of money is raised to bring in tonnes of concrete to Gaza, one bag is not going to cut it unless all that was collected was 5 Euros. This is not an acceptable exchange at all, unless all that was raised was 5 Euros, and someone should check if an organisation capable of raising what we spend in coffee each day is worth any investment or if it is a big joke. There are other criteria that are necessary beyond the image of the leader, and they all centre around ethics. There can be bad structures due to inexperience and faulty consulting, there can be deception and mismanagement due to the belief that all that is required is the “I feel good giving my money and you feel good taking it” kind of trust which is an ego-based exchange, but in the middle of it is something as fundamental as the fulfilment of a mission statement that is supposed to benefit the recipients of the charity (the poor or those in need). If they are not the primary and dominant recipients of the donations, it’s time to think really seriously about what is wrong with that charity and ask if it is instead a business using the idea of solidarity to get money.
There is currently a heavy dispute in activism for Palestine where one organisation that has split has been engaged for several months in a battle for legitimacy and donations that were collected by all the people in the organisation. At the end of the day, the only parameter that counts is whether or not there is a legal and ethical basis that will support the claims being made by both sides. That the explosion happened at all was only a matter of time, as this writer and several others were pointing towards the ethical gaps that were not slight cracks but gaping holes in this way of DIY activism that ignores basic rules. If our suggestions and warnings were not heeded, it still might not be too late to rectify for the future and avoid the same errors repeating ad infinitum. Things can be ignored as they have with the other campaigns that never provided accountability and are related in some way by the presence of the same people involved, or it is time that clarity and honesty and truth start to mean something. At this point, the only criteria left is “let’s see the books” for anyone who has donated or anyone who has committed to participating in the charity organisation at any level. Based on transparency, accountability and responsibility, in other words, on ethics, the conflict should be resolved without much room for dispute and in the only way possible, by evidence and adherence to ethics. There have been some who have been calling the necessary respect of ethics as being “on a witch hunt”, as if there is something wrong in seeking this in actions that are going to have an effect on a cause. This leads this writer to believe that instead of a charity, we are dealing with something that has sinister connotations, a cult, and that will be the topic of the next paper.