There is no great truth in what I am about to say that isn’t relevant in every corner of our lives. The nonprofit sector is appropriately held to a very high standard and squeaky-clean integrity is our lifeblood. Our communities look to us for wisdom, compassion, knowledge, and assistance with the toughest issues our world faces. It takes high-order functioning to respond well.

Is this any different than in other segments of our communities? It is not. But because there is a sacred trust between those who do the work and those who voluntarily support it, there are shades of variation.

  • First, the economic link between donors and outcomes is diffuse. When I buy a product or service in the commercial sector, I get what I pay for and my relationship with the seller is direct. When I make a donation, the benefit of that support goes to someone I don’t know. It may address an issue I care about, but don’t understand well. It is an indirect transaction and it is based on trust.
  • The work nonprofits do demands full respect for others – clients, colleagues, donors, trustees, volunteers, those with a lot, and those with the fewest resources. Much of our work crosses complicated barriers in our society. Our integrity is reflected in how we treat one another, how we view our communities and the world, how we go about our business, and, of course, how we manage our money.
  • Supporters rightfully demand that we deploy their hard-earned assets, generously given, to improve our communities. Without focus and high standards we can’t make progress.
  • We look to our boards for their experience, expertise, and, yes, their integrity. Their collective reputation signals that trustworthy people are in charge.
  • Staff leadership manages day-to-day where the rubber meets the road. We understand that the biggest risks to our integrity are us. We take that caution and duty seriously.

You, like me, are outraged when you hear about bad behavior in a nonprofit. We expect that people who devote their working lives to the care and tending of others are inherently good and honest folks – and they are.

So how do we nurture and protect the integrity that is so central to our success? It doesn’t magically happen. It requires every day diligence.

Staff leaders should be in control, well-informed, and accountable. Transparent information ought to be readily available. Boards and supporters must remain engaged. Integrity runs wide and deep and responsibility is shared by all of us.

The good news is that while big cases grab the headlines, serious integrity issues are rare. Everyone with a stake in the nonprofit sector’s work should ask good questions. If answers are not readily forthcoming, or signal a lack of competence or transparency, follow up. Without the trust of our communities, the sector can’t function. Making sure the house is in order is all of our business.

Nancy W. Kieling, President, Princeton Area Community Foundation