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International Honor Society in Social Sciences
The mission of Pi Gamma Mu is to encourage and promote excellence in the social sciences and to uphold the ideals of scholarship and service.

VIEW FROM THE PODIUM

Pi Gamma Mu's Decision About Ethics

Barry FriedmanAfter I completed my undergraduate education at the University of Hartford, I spent six years working in the corporate sector.  There, I discovered that I don't belong in the corporate sector.  During my first couple of years as a corporate employee, I started work on an M.B.A. degree at the University of Connecticut, earning 18 credits at night.  When my six‑year corporate stint ran out, I decided to finish my M.B.A. degree.  By then, I had less than an enthusiastic desire to be a corporate manager, so I selected a concentration in nonprofit institutional management.  If you think that my theme in this essay is that the corporate sector breeds greed and corruption while the nonprofit sector facilitates the work of the angels, you have already jumped to the wrong conclusion.  After six decades of observation, I am convinced that the three big sectors of economic life‑‑the profit-making sector, the public (government) sector, and the private nonprofit sector‑‑are populated by people whose predominant motivation is self-interest.  If one absorbs that reality, the behavior of the people who manage and are managed in the three sectors becomes altogether comprehensible.

Upon my return to UConn to complete my M.B.A. studies, I enrolled in an elective course called "Corporate Ethics: A Management Perspective."  One of the things that I learned in that course is that corporate managers don't think much about ethics, so that ethical behavior arises pretty much at random, if it arises at all.  Why, then, would there be any sense to having a course called "Corporate Ethics"?  I had to figure this out for myself: The existence of an ethical organization comes about only when its management decides that it wants to operate an ethical organization.  Every once in a while, we stumble across an article in the news media that describes a corporate owner or manager who has decided to treat the community and his employees justly.  For example, Aaron Feuerstein, owner of the Malden Mills plant in Lawrence, Mass., became well-known for continuing to pay his 3000 employees their full pay and benefits for six months after the plant burned down in December 1995.  Morley Safer of CBS Television's 60 Minutes newsmagazine reported:  "Workers picked up their checks for months.  In all, [Feuerstein] paid out $25 million and became known as 'the Mensch of Malden Mills'‑‑a businessman who seemed to care more about his workers than about his net worth.  [Note:  The Yiddish word mensch connotes a person of solid character.]  The press loved him, and so did politicians.  President Clinton invited him to the State of the Union Address as an honored guest.  He also received 12 honorary degrees, including one from Boston University.  He became that rare duck‑‑the businessman as national hero."  What is noteworthy about such news reports is their infrequency.  Most of the time, profit-making organizations use the age-old rule of every man for himself.

But, as I proceeded to study the nonprofit sector, I found that not much about the behavior of nonprofit managers and employees is particularly distinguishable from the behavior of corporate managers and employees.  Greed coexists comfortably with the management of nonprofit organizations, including charities.  The management of nonprofit employees and volunteers is often inconsiderate and, sometimes, even ruthless.  Charity fund-raising is notable for its single-minded determination to drain donors of their wealth.  Fund-raisers compete with themselves to discover new, more innovative ways in which to manipulate donors with emotional appeals and shrewd methods to disarm their judgment and prey on their consciences so that they will "give 'til it hurts."

The same rule about whether a profit-making business will act ethically applies to nonprofit organizations.  The existence of an ethical nonprofit comes about only when its management decides that it wants to operate an ethical organization.  And, as in the case of the business sector, not many nonprofits make that decision.

I will take just a moment here to report to you that for many years at the University of North Georgia I have taught a course titled "Ethics for Public Service."  By now, you will not be surprised to learn that I have much the same thing to say about governments and government agencies.  Each of them has the same decision to make:  whether to operate in an ethical manner.  Not many governments and agencies make the distinct decision to act ethically either.  In my column in the March 2012 edition of this newsletter, I described the concept of "responsiveness," an approach to public service that an ethical government agency will adopt.  I happen to believe that agencies offer this responsive approach less often than they act in authoritarian and self-serving manners.

With this background, and as my presidency draws to a close this October, I have solicited the support of Pi Gamma Mu's international Board of Trustees to make the decision that Pi Gamma Mu should be an ethical organization.  I also requested that we put Pi Gamma Mu on record as an ethical organization.  To the board's credit, it has done so.  For example, in the job announcement for our executive-director position, which the board published on June 17, 2013, the board stated the following:

The Board of Trustees expects the executive director to conduct himself/herself in a manner that reflects favorably on the reputation of the organization.  He/she shall manage the organization's resources, supervise other employees, and interact with volunteers in an ethical, principled manner that reflects honesty, reliability, and commendable values.  In assessing the work of the executive director, the board will be mindful of his/her demonstration of character.

Between now and the end of my term of office, I hope to generate one or more documents that we can post on our Web site and that will further elaborate on our commitment to ethics.  These documents will, I hope, give our members the confidence to interact with and support our organization with the full expectation that we will do the right thing in our relationships with volunteers, employees, and members.  I invite you to contact me at [email protected] for either or both of these purposes:

  • You may be skeptical of any of the assertions that I have presented above.  If so, let me know and I will offer you the evidence that I have to support my assertions of the behavior of managers and employees in the profit-making sector, the public sector, and the nonprofit sector.
  • You may wish to participate in the development of the statements of ethical principles that I propose to generate.  If so, let me know and I will involve you in this important activity.

I am convinced that ethical behavior arises only when a person or organization makes a purposeful decision to be ethical.  Pi Gamma Mu has made that decision.  To the extent that any of us can persuade others to make that same decision, too, I endorse doing that.  My experience tells me that we don't have to worry that there is too much morality, kindness, or compassion in the world.

Barry D. Friedman
International President

 

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Mailing address: Pi Gamma Mu, 1001 Millington St., Suite B, Winfield, KS 67156.

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