Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

In a time when public scrutiny is becoming tighter and more pervasive businesses have learned that they need to be on guard more than ever to ensure they are operating by ethical standards. Though not often mentioned in this discussion, I believe it is especially true of Christian organizations in whom trust is placed by donors. The old adage "heads I win, tails you lose" has a particular bite on this that says ouch. That's not the way it's supposed to be.

John Dalla Costa, in his book The Ethical Imperative, provides numerous examples of businesses that sought to play by this rule. By cutting ethical corners (playing games of delay and dodge when it came to expenses for health and safety requirements) many were "winning" the economic game in the short run, but losing over the long-term through fines, restrictions, and erosion of public confidence. By covering up illegal employee practices and denying basic benefits as a reward for helping to make the company profitable they again "saved money," over the short term only to see the long-term effects of this neglect take an economic toll in the form of low employee morale and employee lawsuits. Many of the business Dalla Costa cites are no longer in existence. For them it was "heads I win temporarily, tails I lose permanently.

What can Christian non-profit organizations learn from this? For one, boards need to be more involved. Many Christian organizations have boards that "trust" the organization's management to operate by ethical standards. They meet and simply listen to the glowing reports of success without asking probing nature. Secondly, Christian organizations need to pay close attention to its employee practices. This is the biggest area of litigation faced by non-profits today. Third, Christian organizations need to exercise care in ensuring donor intentions are adhered to in the application and usage of contributions. Fourth, Christian organizations should put in place appropriate internal control procedures to ensure that financial transactions are handled with care and efficiency.

Many well meaning Christian ministries advertise themselves with lofty Christian ideals, such as-

"We operate at the highest levels of integrity."

"In all our decisions we are guided by the lordship of Christ."

"The worth and value of every individual is given the highest respect."

The list could go on an on. The point is these are all subjective statements that cannot be measured in any rational way. And when perception becomes the guiding instrument through which evaluation of business practices takes place, it makes any challenge to leadership anathema. The landscape of Christian organizations gone sour as a result of focus on short-term gains at the expense long-term effectiveness, and at the expense of honesty and full disclosure, is dotted with embarrassing examples of ministries that have been less than circumspect in their principles of operation.

These kinds of organizations may not have the luxury of changing their business practices based on boards waking up to the realities of what has been happening or leaders realizing they need to be more forthcoming in their standards. New laws brought on by the scandals of Enron and other public corporations are casting their shadows over the private sector as well. When Christian organizations are forced into correction by the public sector rather than by their own policies and governing boards the whole scenario is changed. It is still "heads I win, tails you lose," but the loser becomes the ministry that has allowed itself to sacrifice long-term effectiveness for short-term gain. The other side of the coin, quite literally, is public shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. Trying to beat the odds of the consequences of public scrutiny is a coin toss in which a Christian organization would not want to become a participant.

David J. Moore is Vice President of Research and Development for Compassion Alliance, a humanitarian aid ministry with offices in Nixa, Missouri and Ocala, Florida. He also teaches part-time at a local University. He has years of experience in the non-profit sector, including having served for 8 years as a college president. He holds an MA in Cross-cultural Communication and has completed course work for a PhD in Higher Education Administration. Find out more about his ministry by visiting the web site at http://www.compassionalliance.org

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