Ten Tips For Good Ethics
South Africa was already a country full of people in need. But now the Covid-19 pandemic, and the related economic lockdown, means that there are even more people in need than before.
Let me give just one example of this. In central Durban at the Denis Hurley Centre (DHC), we were serving 250 hot meals a day before the lockdown; we are now serving 500 meals most days (plus brown bags of sandwiches). I can imagine that across the country our charities are seeing a similar picture.
At the same time, in the face of great need, there has also been a great response of generosity from across the various communities. At the DHC we are able to serve so many people because of a great partnership we have with a number of Catholic parishes, other faith communities and local businesses.
People want to do their bit and they want to help organisations that they can trust. That need for trust has really come to a head as we read, every day, distressing stories of corruption and mismanagement from various parts of government.
As a Church, we can and should speak out about corruption. But we must also make sure that our own houses are in order and that our organisations are a model of good governance.
Faith-based organisations benefit from people’s trust, but this is not something we should take for granted. We need to constantly demonstrate that we are deserving of the trust both of those who give and of those who are in need.
It is hard for us to accuse others of mismanagement when we have parishes with opaque finances, charitable organisations that have no supervision, accounts that are not audited or reviewed, or board members that do not take their responsibilities seriously.
If we cannot be trusted, people will not give money; if we are not well-run, some of that money will be wasted or squandered— and it is ultimately the vulnerable who will suffer.
Thankfully, most of the larger charitable activities of the Church in South Africa are now constituted as NGOs. That means they have to keep good accounts, report to an independent board, and be transparent in their dealings.
Nevertheless, astonishingly, there are still major charitable works which are not set up in this way, but rather hidden within the finances of a parish or a diocese. Even if there is no mismanagement, they certainly do not give the appearance of being well-run. And if they were being run badly, the parish priest or the bishop might not even know.
Not all our works need to be formally set up as NGOs, but they should all follow some of the best practices of good governance.
I am the paid director of one NGO (reporting to a board), and I also sit as a trustee/ board member/advisor for some other organisations. I hope, therefore, that I have some useful insights from my own experiences.
Top 10 pieces of advice
So if you are involved in running any kind of charitable activity, may I share with you my Top 10 learnings:
- Have a “board” in place. Whatever your status is legally, make sure that you have a group of people overseeing the work who are not involved in the day-to-day activities. That needs to be more than one person; and it should include people with the required skills and time. And they need to be given real authority.
- Meet regularly and share information. No organisation is so well run that it does not benefit from regular input from informed and committed external advisors. And to do that they need to receive good reports, read them, and ask questions.
- Do not be afraid to have people who ask difficult questions. There can be a tendency to see peace and easy agreement as a virtue. But often it is only through a robust discussion that the best solution can be found—and that means allowing dissenting or maverick voices. It takes a piece of grit to grow an oyster!
- Be wary of well-meaning but ill-informed outside interference. Other people may from time to time wish to offer advice—and may have the best of intentions—but they are not responsible for the work in the long run. Moreover, since they may only see part of the picture, and could have other agendas, they can unintentionally do more harm than good.
- Do not be in awe of titles. As Catholic organisations we are likely to work with people who are Fathers and Sisters and bishops. While they have great commitment to the cause—and might have useful experience in running charitable works— they do not have a monopoly on truth. Neither vows nor ordination make someone an expert in finance or marketing or employment law. So focus on what is said, not on who is saying it.
- It is not enough to “do no harm”. Sometimes, we are happy to just apply a negative test: Did we make sure we did not break the law/act immorally/breach our processes? But what ultimately matters is how much the charity actually delivers. An organisation that does great work that is worth R50 000 but spends R100 000 to do so, may not be acting illegally, but is certainly acting unethically.
- Keep a paper trail. Even if you do not get your accounts audited, act as if they might be. So make sure that discussions and decisions are recorded, that all financial transactions and donations of goods are clearly written down, and that any remuneration to people involved (salaries but also gifts and loans) is duly approved and recorded.
- Balance change and continuity. Organisations certainly benefit from having people who have been around for a long time and carry the institutional memory. But without regular inputs of “new blood”, we can become complacent or stuck in our ways. So we need a good balance and should constantly be thinking about how we can bring in new ideas.
- Have checks and balances. A good rule is that the more significant the financial transaction, the more people need to be involved in the process of completing it—and it should never be just one person acting on their own. One of the best way to keep things balanced is to make sure that information and power are not concentrated.
- Live up to your principles, both the values of the organisation and the values you hold as an individual. To do so will take courage and sometimes sacrifice—and influential people might not like you for it.
These ideas might seem self-evident but, I’m afraid, they are not always applied by organisations, even Catholic organisations!
Formal NGOs need to follow these principles (and more) for legal reasons. But as Catholics we should care about good governance—not just to comply with the law but to deliver the most good to those in need.
In recent years, we have seen long-established faith-based organisations collapse: they have suffered from poor governance, an unwillingness to ask hard questions, a desire to protect the reputation of individuals, paralysis in the face of change, or a fear of owning up to mistakes.
And, as with mismanagement in government, it is always the poor and vulnerable who suffer.
Raymond Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban.