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Ethical Decision Making - some basics

Article by Anne Buchanan, CCIC staff and Cornelius von Baeyer, CCIC Ethics Review Committee (ERC) with additional thanks to Heather Caloren of the ERC.

This article first appeared under the title "Take the Sniff Test" in AU COURANT (February 2000), a publication of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

You have finally succeeded in finding some revenue for your organization-a large sponsorship from a major corporation. Then the company asks you to promote its products with your employees and donors. Now what do you do?

Welcome to the world of ethical decision-making: an everyday part of organizational life. Let’s start our exploration with some basics.

What is Organizational Ethics?

Organizational ethics are a set of standards based on common values of right and wrong that guide the behaviour of employees and volunteers in their workplace. Ethics addresses moral requirements and responsibilities, and the values behind them. The membership of CCIC developed and approved such a set of standards in its Code of Ethics, incorporating principles of accountability, transparency, truthfulness, equitable and fair treatment, integrity, etc. These principles, however, are not always compatible. While organizational ethics is anything but simple.

The very complexity of ethical dilemmas requires organizations to engage in both internal and sector-wide dialogues to understand, agree and act upon the principles involved. Organizations may be asked to balance transparency with confidentiality, truthfulness with concern and care for others. Our attention to ethics must be constant, a part of our day to day actions and not just something we think about when a crisis hits, or it is time to re-certify compliance to the Code.

The CCIC ethics programme established the infrastructure to identify and support ethical behaviour: the Code of Ethics, the self-certification process for compliance and the provision for recourse to the expertise of the Ethics Review Committee. The challenge is how to ensure that ongoing decision-making throughout the membership lives up to these high ideals.

What kinds of decisions take us into deep ethical waters?

The CCIC membership faces many ethical dilemmas, some common to all organizations and others unique to NGOs working internationally. The following examples of possible conflicts of interest provide some illustrations of sure-fire opportunities for ethical discussion.

Given the desire to benefit from expertise within the sector, a senior manager may be asked to sit on the Board of another NGO. Conflict of interest questions may arise if the second organization sometimes applies to the first for funding assistance. Should this organization be prevented from applying for funding while the manager sits on the Board? Or must the manager turn down the request and not sit on the Board? Conflicts of interest are bound to arise in any organization, and it is not possible to suspend work when we are involved in a conflict. The goal of ethical decision-making is to figure out how to manage the possible conflict of interest in order to ensure that organizational and personal integrity remains intact.

Financial constraints and resource diversification bring about their own ethical dilemmas. While the benefits of volunteer contributions are obvious, the ethical waters can sometimes prove challenging. What ethical questions arise when a Board member of NGO (A) is a consultant who is hired by another NGO to work on one of its projects that happens to be partially funded by NGO (A)? What would the response be if that Board member offers to donate a portion of her earnings back to NGO (A)? Ah yes, the ethical waters begin to run deep.

Is there a correct answer to our ethical questions?

Whether there is a correct answer depends on the question. The simplest question is one that pits an ethical response against a non-ethical one. Should I take money from the organization's bank account for my personal purposes? The correct ethical answer is no. Taking the money for this purpose would be unethical. Unfortunately, not all ethical questions are so clear-cut. People don't always recognize their choice as being between ethical or non-ethical values and actions. Instead, people’s desires conflict with an ethical principle that will deny them what they want and so they may rationalize their behaviour to excuse their decision.

Recognize the warning flags of an upcoming ethical issue:

  • "Well, maybe just this once…"
  • "No one will ever know"
  • "It doesn’t matter how it gets done as long as it gets done"
  • "Everyone does it"
  • "No one will get hurt"
  • "We didn’t have this conversation"

Often decision-makers are faced with a situation where two or more ethical responses are possible. Although each response may be ethical, the choices are not always equal. Taking other factors into consideration will help guide you toward the ‘better’ ethical decision. Which ethical principle prevails when faced with either being truthful about where the humanitarian food is being stored (when you are sure the information will be given to looters) or being responsible and caring to ensure that there remains enough food for the starving refugee families?

The majority of daily decisions will actually be made on less dramatic, but equally ethical issues, for example, balancing what is revealed in order to be transparent with what must be kept confidential. Ethical decision-making, therefore, is more an issue of resolving the dilemmas with the 'best' rather than 'correct' decisions.

How do we ensure we are making the 'best' decision?

Best decisions are made within the right atmosphere—one that has been created, before any crisis erupts, where colleagues can deliberate together to resolve ethical dilemmas when they do arise.

Consider the following steps to ethical decision-making:

  • Get the facts - identify the problem-is it an ethical one? Identify factors including rules and values
  • Identify alternative solutions - weigh the factors; look at the situation from several points of view
  • Establish consequences - use the Ethics "Sniff" Test
  • Make a decision - select an alternative that passes your sniff test; don’t be afraid to ask for help!
  • Follow Up - reflect and discuss ethical reasoning


Is it fair, honest and legal?
Can I live with it?
How would it look headlined in the media?
Would I like my mother/child to see me do this?
Will my action stand the test of time?

Reflecting back on an earlier example will help us see ethical decision-making in action. Let’s use the case of the Board member of NGO (A) who is hired as a consultant by another NGO partially funded by NGO (A), and wishes to donate part of her earnings back to her organization.

There is no law against donating money to a charity. But there are potential ethical questions about how and why it is done. In this case, it might be easy to rationalize the decision because of the mutual benefit being provided to the organization and to the Board member. But beware of any appearance of an improper ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. It would not be ethical for the organization to offer support for a project on the understanding that one of its Board members would be hired as a consultant. Neither would it be ethical for an individual to give money to an organization on the understanding that the organization would support her bid to get hired as a consultant. Consider the following:

  1. Can the Board member avoid all discussion and voting on the project before, during and after it is carried out?
  2. Has the making of any link between the Board member’s hiring and your funding for the project been avoided?
  3. Will the selection process for a consultant be fully transparent and impartial?
  4. Given the offer of a donation from the Board member, has active support for the candidacy (other than standard references) been avoided?

Based on your answers, make your decision. Did it pass the sniff test? Don’t hesitate to ask for advice.

Creating the space for ethical discussions

Organizational ethics needs to be nurtured. Complying with the Code of Ethics is the first step in a process of reflection and discussion. Successful ethical decision-making needs a non-threatening atmosphere where people can feel safe in identifying ethical problems before a crisis erupts. The willingness of the CCIC membership to have an ethics programme based on peer accountability illustrates the maturity of a sector that should now have little trouble encouraging regular discussion of ethical issues both within organizations and across the sector.


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