Is ethical management possible for Christian non-profits?

The conversation around business ethics is generally stuffy, dull, and fairly incomprehensible.  And when it’s not, the conversation is just so basic we learn nothing at all.  For those of us who clearly fit the role of non-profit managers, we know the basics of business ethics and know we meet the standards required; we know that we strive for much more than just the standards.  So reading an article outlining ethical basics is a waste of time.  Or in the case of most of us, we simply don’t see ourselves in business; we are in ministry.  We are church leaders or non-profit organizers, we are volunteers and activists; we are not business leaders.  Many of us work actively to prevent our campsites from becoming too much of a business.

But we are all involved in management, and we are all involved in the ethics of non-profits.  We just don’t have a broad enough understanding of what this means from the Christian standpoint of love, justice, and reconciliation.

Christian non-profits are places of service; they are organizations who take the role of caring for God’s creation seriously.  Christian campsites have an incredibly wide range of foci, necessary because of the diversity of our world.  We have day camps, traveling camps, and residential camps.  We have camps for elementary through the elderly.  We have environmental camps, adventure camps, and the traditional summer camp format.  We have rural campsites miles from anything else, and we have urban campsites that are intricately connected to the community.

And Christian non-profits are all uniquely suited to the area within which they serve.  They adapt to fit the circumstances surrounding them, grow to take in new struggles, and morph as the environment around them changes.  Therefore, the process of managing a non-profit cannot be easily summed up.  The way one organization is run wouldn’t necessarily work with another organization.  Some places are grass-roots and messy; others are strictly organized by necessity.

And when we look at the patchwork quilt of the Christian non-profit community, we see something beautiful.

But it is stained.

The pattern of love and care is beautiful, but we do not exist in a perfectly pure environment (which is why our organizations exist) and issues of injustice encroach on our mission and marr the beauty.  Ethical misconduct in our organizations grow the stains, and our exquisite picture becomes harder and harder to see.

The ethical misconduct I speak of isn’t your garden-variety misappropriation of funds, poor use of donations, or conflict of interest.  Christian non-profits are generally well-trained to seek those situations out.  We have accountability steps in place to make sure they don’t happen, or at least to make sure we’ve done our best to prevent them.

The ethical misconduct I’m talking about runs deeper, and is much, much harder to root out.

I’m talking about the ethical misconduct of ignoring injustices our non-profits perpetuate.

As non-profits, we are often guilty of focusing so completely on the particular injustice our organization is dedicated to that we miss the many ways our organizations encourage other injustices to happen.  We are so focused on the people right in front of us, people with obvious needs and struggles, that we ignore the people affected by our management practices around the world.

We pay little attention to where the products we purchase were originally made and the conditions they were created under.

We pay little attention to the affect our business practices have on the environment and God’s creation.

We pay little attention to how our own fundraising endeavors affect the finances of other beneficial organizations.

We pay little attention to how our organization’s habits influence the theologies and behaviors of our staff, board members, and volunteers.

In short, we are poor stewards of the responsibility we’ve been given.  And, as we fail to carefully consider our responsibilities as Christian leaders in the world, we allow our non-profits to be managed in ways that encourage (however incidentally) unethical practices.

Maybe a few pointed questions would help drive this point home:

Where do you get your paper products?  Do you know? Have you thought about the ethical issues involved in having quarterly mailings?  Have you thought about the justice issues involved in using disposable plates and coffee cups and adding them to the ever-increasing landfills?

What about the food you use, collect, or distribute?  Where does it come from?  Who grew it, picked it distributed it?  What are the sustainability factors involved with the shipment?   How healthy is the food you use?  Are you encouraging poor nutrition habits and causing health problems among your staff, clients, or guests?

Are you hurting the ability of other organizations to raise funds?   Are your fundraisers educational opportunities to encourage a greater understanding of justice and reconciliation, or are they simply entertaining times to make an extra buck?

What about your influence in the communities among which you work?  Are you consistently conscious of the responsibility your organization holds and vigilant to ensure you take every opportunity to uphold justice and reconciliation?  Do you use your political voice and church influence in positive ways, or do you hold back and refuse to get involved in justice issues that don’t ‘directly’ involve your organization?

Each of these questions addresses an aspect of management ethics, many of which most organizations never even think about in the process of serving the children of God.  These questions force us to recognize the fact that, as Christian non-profits seeking to serve and love the world, we are perpetuators of injustices in at least a few major ways.  Because we truly live in a global community, our lives intersect with hundreds of thousands of others.  And as leaders, we cannot possibly prioritize every single person who connects to our organization.  Out of necessity, certain people become more important than others to our organization.

And as Christians, who believe that everyone is equally valuable, this is an unacceptable reality we like to pretend doesn’t happen.

We hate to be reminded that we have chosen to care for the people directly around us, but in our morning trip to Starbucks have neglected the needs of hundreds of other, more distant human beings who deserve our love.  We hate to be reminded that we have chosen to communicate more easily with our funders rather than be more careful to protect our earth’s dwindling resources.  We hate to be reminded that , with each fundraiser, we make the decision to place our organization’s needs above the needs of every other organization.

But we do all of these things and more in our pursuit to serve.

And so the question returns: Is ethical management possible for Christian non-profits?

Fortunately for Christians, we understand that the process of being conformed to Christ is a life-long pursuit. We recognize that perfection does not exist in this world, and that our mission is to simply strive to come closer.  So we understand that, because they are run by humans, our organizations will be flawed.  We recognize that perfection in our pursuit for justice will not happen, and we can humbly accept that we will make mistakes and have moments of ignorance.

But we do not sit in that imperfection contentedly; we pursue sanctification.

We move through the process of becoming more knowledgeable and more ethical.  Our organizations seek out ways to be more closely attuned to the ethics of our work.  We seek out ways to care for not only those we directly connect with, but those who are only distantly touched by our management practices and intentional choices.  We seek out opportunities to learn more about how we are connected to others and to understand better our role in justice and reconciliation.

We do these things because we understand that, though our management hasn’t reached perfection yet, complete justice and complete reconciliation are worth striving for.




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