In May 2009, a group of Harvard MBA graduates of the Class of 2009 created the MBA Oath, intended to be the management equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. By signing the MBA Oath, that MBA graduate is promising to abide by a number of standards, from not advancing” personal interests at the expense of [her/his] enterprise or society” to upholding both the letter and spirit of laws and contracts to refraining from business practices “harmful to society,” among other things. And a signer understands that her/his “behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from those I serve.”
Today, the MBA Oath has moved well beyond the hallowed gates of Harvard, and has been signed by over 4,200 individuals from more than 300 schools from around the world. Nice! (But hey, what about the other thousands?)
Despite that little barb, I am not writing about the non-signers of the MBA Oath, as I am impressed and pleased with the Oath’s creators and the 4,200 others who joined their cause. It is a step in the right direction. Today, I writing about the need for a Nonprofit Oath that those of us who work in the nonprofit sector would sign and uphold with the same pride, commitment to standards of excellence and integrity and furthering the credibility of our profession that doctors—and now MBA graduates. Such an oath is long overdue.
Before everyone jumps on me, yes, I would like to think that such an oath, such a reminder, would not be necessary for any professional, least of all those working in the nonprofit sector. But any such naïveté that I might have had disappeared a long, long time ago. In fact, the nonprofit sector may need such an oath more than other professionals.
What set me off on this? Perhaps it was the monthly (at least) calls I get from reporters around the country asking if situation X is a conflict of interest. Perhaps it is the fact that too many nonprofits hire businesses owned by staff and board or their family members. Perhaps it was the executive director whose answer to every complaining staff member is “you need counseling” and refers the staff member to the counseling business she owns. Perhaps it was the executive director of Philadelphia’s Housing Authority who says that the $300,000/year job was too much pressure and thus why he fell behind on his mortgage payments and payment of taxes and who disappears from his job for several days but is then praised by a Philadelphia Congressman who asks the public to remember the good work he has done providing housing for thousands of people. (Excuse me, that is the job of a housing authority. It is nothing special or extra.)
Or perhaps it was the Delaware River Port Authority, which charges cars $4 to cross the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Camden and was planning a $1 rate hike for next summer, gives money to the Kimmel Center. (I get why they want to support the Kimmel Center, but then charge less money for crossing the river.) This list, in case you didn’t figure it out, is just the tip of the iceberg!
I am sick and tired and I’m not going to take this anymore. (I actually hated that movie so much I walked out in the middle.) But perhaps it is our own fault. Perhaps many, like I did, assumed that people have their own strong code of ethics and bring those standards with them to work. (But, as we all know, assuming makes an ass out of you and me.) But clearly, we are wrong. So, we must be explicit: create that oath, have everyone affiliated with the organization sign it; and then hold them all accountable. Review performance of staff, board members and other volunteers as it relates to upholding the oath.
So, what might that oath look like? Borrowing heavily from the MBA oath, it might include such statements as:
I promise that:
• I will fulfill my responsibilities with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests.
• I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws, regulations and best practices that govern my conduct, my organization and the nonprofit sector.
• I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition or business practices harmful to my organization, the nonprofit sector and society.
• I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my organization, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.
• I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.
• I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly, and should I discover unethical practices and behavior within my organization, I will report that as well.
• I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the nonprofit sector to continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.
In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from all those I serve, from clients to colleagues to donors to the public at large. I will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions and for upholding these standards.