When it comes to developing an ethical organisation, it's up to the board to set the tone – not only will the board play a leading role in formulating policies, guidelines and the code of ethics, it will be expected to adhere to these to the letter. There is little chance of an ethics program being embraced elsewhere in an organisation if it is not taken seriously by the board.
This help sheet merely touches on some of the very important issues you need to consider when developing a code of ethics. For more information about developing the right sort of code for your community group, or a much broader ethics program, refer to the Our Community book Ethical solutions – the essential guide to implementing an ethics program in your community group.
Ethics are the guiding principles that provide a group's moral compass; they guide behaviour, inform decisions and provide standards of right and wrong. In essence, "ethics" is basically concerned with what it means to be a "good" person, and by extension a good board and a good community group.
There are obvious reasons why you should be striving to be part of a good board and a good community group. For community groups, moral issues such as trust, reciprocity, equality, fair play, honesty and integrity are at the very core of why they exist and how they do what they do.
And evidence points to the fact that an emphasis on ethics can have positive operational outcomes as well.
Furthermore, the preparation of an ethics program provides an irreplaceable opportunity for a responsible organisation to create a positive public identity. Ensuring your organisation is identified as one with high ethical standards can lead to a more supportive political and regulatory environment and an increased level of public confidence and trust among important constituencies, prospective donors, and stakeholders.
A code of ethics is a formal statement setting out the standards of behaviour expected of your community group, its board and its members.
Some people may question the value of such a statement; after all, most people want to do the right thing anyway, and those who want to do the wrong thing are unlikely to be deterred by a sheet of paper. However, ethics, like justice, must not only be done but must be seen to be done. There has been a dramatic increase in the ethical expectations of businesses and professions over the past 10 years – and not-for-profit organisations are also increasingly falling into that net. Having a code of ethics can help to define your organisation and demonstrate that it is prepared to be bound by publicly stated standards.
A code of ethics will also create immense internal benefits for your community group. Properly done, it can unite members and other stakeholders behind the organisation's goals and ideals, reinforce the group's purpose and bring together the organisation's management, board, staff and volunteers.
A formal code will also help to enhance your board's decision-making and ensure that it remains consistent to the core values and core mission of your group. Whether it is a decision over a sponsorship deal or an affiliation with another organisation, your code of ethics will have some bearing on what is deemed acceptable.
It is a good idea to begin the document with an introductory preamble that sets out the purpose of the code and enshrines the commitment of the organisation at the highest level. The introduction should spell out how this code came to be, the process behind its development and what it is that your group is trying to accomplish by introducing it. It should address the following points:
If you want a "user friendly" code of ethics you should include details on how to use it.
This section should include:
Generally speaking, your code of ethics should provide guidelines, rather than attempt to cover all decisions in all situations. Any document that attempted to be all-encompassing would be too lengthy and legalistic to be workable so you should err on the brief side where possible.
There is an enormous range of ethical issues that might be tackled by your code; what you include will ultimately depend on what is seen as important to your group. In deciding which topics to address in your code you might ask:
Some of the clauses you might consider include:
Your code of ethics must be distributed to everyone that is involved with the organisation – board members, staff, volunteers, sponsors, donors, suppliers, clients, members, business partners, governments and the general community – so that all are aware of the set of standards by which your group operates.
Your new code will be useless unless everyone knows what it is, how it works and their roles in it. Training is the key to managing or avoiding negative responses and should be an integral part of both the implementation and ongoing maintenance of any aspect of an ethics program.
Once your organisation has drawn up a code of ethics, it may be a good idea for the board to review its existing policies and operations to ensure that all activities are entirely consistent with the redefined principles that will now guide the organisation.
If it hasn't already, your board might like to set up an ethics committee, whose purpose will be to provide an ongoing review of the organisation's ethics policies. In fulfilling this purpose, the committee may be responsible for conducting or directing ethics audits, providing interpretation of the code to staff and the board and acting as a review body when problems occur.
It is possible to put together an informal checklist to encourage an ethical review of the decisions that come before the board. Questions might include:
Tailored training programs can also be designed and delivered to meet your needs, location and budget. Learn more