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President's Perspective: Ethics and Economics
President's Perspective: Ethics and Economics

Remembering the value of values

By John Lippincott


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"History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics."—B.R. Ambedkar

At a time when public dialogue and institutional deliberations focus so heavily and so narrowly on economic matters, we run the serious risk of ignoring other issues of major significance to the future of our schools, colleges, and universities.

One of those issues is our ethical conduct as advancement professionals. In fact, given the pressures we face to help ensure the economic vitality (or even viability) of our institutions, ethical principles are in danger of being not only passively overlooked but actively compromised.

So it is useful in these times of economic stress to remind ourselves why ethical practice is important, what it actually means, and how it can be strengthened.

Misperceptions and obligations

The importance of ethical practice is relatively easy to discern, given the nature of our work. We are in the business of developing long-term, supportive relationships that rely heavily on trust, confidence, and a sense of shared values. The willingness of donors, for example, to invest in our schools depends on their belief that the leadership will "do the right thing," not only in managing gifts but in managing the institution.

Ethical practice is not only a necessary condition for long-term success in our jobs, it is also an essential characteristic of our status as professionals. Rita Bornstein, former CASE board chair, has noted that ethical standards are one of the hallmarks of any profession. Given widespread misperceptions regarding some aspects of our profession, advancement has a special obligation to demonstrate our belief in and adherence to core societal and institutional values.

Unfortunately, too many headlines in recent months imply that some of our colleagues have been behaving badly. Often, the behavior was perfectly appropriate but the outside interpretation of that behavior was flawed; sadly, in some instances the interpretation was appropriate because the behavior was flawed. In either case, the reputation of the institution was damaged, and the standing of our profession was diminished.

From talking to understanding

While the importance of ethical behavior may be readily apparent, the meaning is not as easily understood. Over the years, CASE volunteer leaders have been very deliberate and deliberative in helping define ethical practice for our profession. CASE has formally adopted principles of practice for the advancement disciplines; statements on advancement ethics, conflicts of interest, donor rights, and fundraiser compensation; and guidelines for fundraising campaigns.

All of these materials can be found on the CASE website, so I will not attempt to summarize them here. There are a few key themes, however, that I want to highlight.

First, ethical practice is not what we say, but what we do. The true test of our principles and integrity is how we behave, particularly under pressure or in crisis.

Second, ethical practice is not what we must do, but what we should do. Conducting our advancement programs in accordance with the law is essential but not, in and of itself, ethical.

Third, and perhaps most important, ethical practice is doing what we should do as a conscious act. On this point, I give credit to Paul Pribbenow, president of Minnesota's Augsburg College. He argues that we can only consider our actions ethical if they have resulted from careful reflection on the societal, organizational, professional, and personal value systems at work. Most ethical dilemmas are just that—dilemmas with more than one solution. Which of those solutions is right or "righter" can only be determined through the examination of the applicable norms from the culture, the institution, and the field, as well as one's own moral convictions.

Finally then, how do we strengthen ethical practice? In order to weigh our actions against the operative value systems, those systems must be clearly understood. For institutional and professional norms to be understood, they must be carefully crafted, explicitly stated, and regularly reviewed.

And that leads to my final point: We strengthen our ethical skills in the same way we strengthen our physical skills—exercise. Every advancement office should set aside time not only to review established policies but also to test those policies against real-world scenarios taken from recent experience or headlines. Often these exercises will reveal varying staff interpretations of a given policy, suggesting that further clarification of that policy is in order. Playing out scenarios may also expose conflicts between personal and institutional value systems. These conflicts are best resolved before they surface in a more public forum.

In the end, professional ethics depends on personal choices. By making the right choices, we not only ennoble ourselves, we ennoble our institutions and our field.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.

 

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