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Commitment to Nonprofit Causes and Public Service: Some Issues to Ponder

This column is a service of the Institute for Local Government (ILG) Ethics Project, which offers resources on public service ethics for local officials. For more information, visit www.ca-ilg.org/trust.

QUESTION

I just completed my first campaign for public office and am happy to report that I won. One of the issues that came up in the campaign was my extensive involvement in nonprofits in our area. I am the executive director of one nonprofit and serve on the board of another. I volunteer for a third. I think my extensive community involvement is one reason I was elected, but what issues should I be alert to now that I’m an elected official? I don’t want to make any missteps.

ANSWER

First, congratulations on your election and your commitment to your community. You must be aware of many issues now that you are an elected official. And there are several ways to slice the ethical issues facing an elected official involved in nonprofits.

You will have both ethical and legal considerations to weigh. This column addresses the ethical considerations; the October and December columns (Parts 2 and 3) will focus on the legal considerations.

The Distinction Between the Law And Ethics

You can consider the law as a minimum standard of conduct for your behavior. The law determines what you must do. If you make a misstep regarding various ethics laws, you will likely face some kind of penalty. Some penalties are financial, and others can cost you your freedom in terms of jail time. Ethics laws are something you should take very seriously.

However, determining whether a given course of action complies with the law should not be the end of your analysis. The law creates a floor for conduct, not a ceiling. Just because a given course of action is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical or that the public will perceive it as such.

And of course, for elected officials, there can be serious consequences for real or perceived ethical missteps - the public has the right to not return its elected officials to office during each election. In other situations, the public can remove a public official from office through a recall.

Making Ethical Decisions as a Public Official

The key thing to keep in mind regarding public service ethics is that the guiding principle for your decisions must be what best serves the overall public interest in your community. In some cases, the public’s interest and the particular cause championed by one of the nonprofits you’re involved with may align. In other cases, they will not.

Let’s take a simple example. Nonprofit organizations invariably are short on resources. The issue may arise whether your public agency should provide funding to (or continue to fund) your nonprofit.

Putting aside legal issues associated with participating in such a decision, the ethical issue is whether such funding is in the public’s best interest as a whole. Just as nonprofits typically are short on money, so are public agencies. It’s not unusual for a community’s needs to outstrip its resources. Elected officials play an important role in the budgeting process by deciding the most important uses for taxpayer dollars.

Let’s say one of the nonprofit organizations in which you are involved is the local chamber of commerce. The mission of a chamber of commerce is typically to promote and enhance a community’s economic vitality and support the interests of the business community. A good argument can be made that a healthy business environment benefits everyone in a community.

However, if funds are scarce, funding the chamber of commerce may mean not funding important public services. A challenge you face as a decision-maker is how to weigh and evaluate such trade-offs. The key ethical issue you face is whether your loyalty to your nonprofit’s interests conflicts with your duty of loyalty to the public’s interests.

In your public service, the public must be convinced that you are putting their interests ahead of all others. This includes putting the public’s interests ahead of those of the nonprofits with which you are affiliated (as well as your own personal financial interests, of course).

Be aware of the strong temptation to rationalize in these kinds of situations. Rationalizing involves starting with a conclusion and then essentially reasoning backwards from that conclusion.

In our example, you would start with the conclusion that supporting the chamber of commerce is in the public’s interest and, therefore, it makes sense to budget money for that purpose. A less rationalizing approach is to begin with an analysis of the community’s pressing needs and then allocate money to those. Strength ening the business environment may legitimately be one of those interests, but supporting the chamber may or may not be the best way for the agency to do that.

Rod Wood, city manager of Beverly Hills, explains the issue this way:

I believe participating in nonprofit organizations and their good works is beneficial for us all. However, I decline opportunities to sit on the boards of directors of nonprofits, and I encourage council members and executive staff to do likewise. This way, there is no conflict with our first duty and oath of office to the city. If someone does sit on a board and that organization has business before the city, I believe the appropriate course of action is to disclose the relationship and abstain from actions involving the organization.

Wood goes on to observe that people are very passionate about the nonprofits with which they are associated, and it’s easy for other nonprofits to feel slighted if an organization in which a city official is involved receives some benefit from the city.

The Importance of Public Perception

Most members of the public will not know a public official’s motivations and reasoning. This is where the issue of public perception is important to public servants. It is important not only that public servants do the right thing, but also that the public perceives the right thing has been done.

Why should you care about public perception? There are two very practical reasons. The first is that as a public official, you are a steward of the public’s trust. The public’s trust and confidence in both you and your agency are vital to your ability to lead and accomplish things in your community.

The second reason is that the public’s perceptions will play a determining role in their decision to have you represent their interests. If you fall short of the public’s expectations, you are not likely to keep your position as an elected official.

The hard truth about public perception is that the public will necessarily have incomplete information. They will not know what your considerations were in analyzing whether to fund the chamber of commerce. Moreover, for better or worse, the public tends to have a rather cynical attitude toward public officials’ motivations. Frequently, the public concludes that public officials are motivated to act based on a desire to serve special interests instead of the public’s interest.

It’s important to note that, in the minds of many, "special interests" are not just limited to private, for-profit organiza tions. As the New York Times noted: "We still think of special interests as groups that have obtained a backdoor influence on law or policy, whether it’s purchased by campaign contributions or bartered for political support."1 The question for a local elected official to ponder is whether the public might reasonably conclude that the official’s relationship with a nonprofit might be a form of "backdoor influence" on the agency’s decision.

Another element of the public’s analysis relates to perceptions of whether a public official can be loyal to the public’s interests and the interests of a nonprofit organization with which the official is affiliated. It is always best to follow one lead, not two. And it’s best for a public official and the public served to have the same focus --- the public’s best interest.

What to Do?

If you find yourself in a situation in which you earnestly believe you can not put aside your loyalty to a nonprofit organization’s cause and make a decision based on what serves the public’s interest, then you should step aside from decision-making related to that organization.

Let’s say, however, you earnestly believe that you can make a decision solely based on the public’s interests. In such a situation, you are still well advised to consider stepping aside from the decision-making process if you believe the public might reasonably question whether your loyalty to a nonprofit organization is motivating your decision. Stepping aside will underscore your commitment to the public’s trust and confidence in both your decision-making process and that of your agency.

If the situation is public, such as a vote on a request for funding, explain your decision in terms of those values:

Everyone knows that I am a strong supporter both of business in general and the chamber of commerce in particular. In fact, I am a member of the chamber’s board of directors.

As a public official, I have a solemn duty to put the public’s interest first in all of my decision-making. I put a high value on the public’s trust in my decision-making. Because of my relationship with the chamber, I am going to abstain on this decision, so there is no question in the public’s mind as to whether my decision is based on my loyalty to the public’s interests or my loyalty to the chamber’s interests.

Again, this is wholly separate from a legal analysis of whether, in certain situations, the law makes this decision for you and requires you to step aside from the decision-making process.

Too High a Price?

Some officials might reasonably feel that such an approach elevates form over substance --- that they were elected to office precisely because of their commitment to the causes espoused by their nonprofit organizations. They may believe that by not participating in the decisions that matter most to their organizations, they would be letting their supporters down.

In some communities, local officials are encouraged to resign their positions on nonprofit boards of directors when they take public office. This can reduce concerns that an official’s decision is affected by conflicting organizational loyalties. In other situations, the official reaches the conclusion that whatever cause he or she is championing is so important that they go with that position and figure the voters will have the ultimate say on whether the official is doing the right thing. The middle ground is for public officials to disclose their affiliations with a nonprofit organization when voting on an issue affecting the nonprofit, so the public at least is aware of the relationship and can evaluate the official’s actions accordingly.

Ultimately, the ethical issues are judgment questions for each official to resolve. There are, however, situations in which the law makes the call on what’s OK for a public official. A number of laws govern a public official’s actions with respect to nonprofit organizations, and that topic will be the focus of the next two "Everyday Ethics" columns.

Footnote:

1) Nunberg, Geoffrey, "The Language Lobby: The Lost Vocabulary of Disinterested Politics" New York Times at NYTimes.com (Sept. 14, 2003) (accessed May 12, 2008).