Just look at a recent listing of articles from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Washington Post and the New York Times:

  • Smithsonian Fires Executive Over Credit-Card Expenses
  • Government Probes Earmarks for Marine Center
  • Nonprofit Loan Group Will Scale Back Operations
    (after Washington Post report on “extravagent spending”)
  • Struggling Arts Group Approved Big Bonus for President
  • Harvard's Cutting Edge investments Take a Hit
    (endowment invests in funds managed by former employees)
  • New Accusations Are Raised After Firing in Jewish Group
  • Donors Sweetened Director's Pay At MOMA, Prompting Questions
  • Student Loan Nonprofit a Boon for CEO
  • Taking From the Rich, Giving to the Board

It's not that stories like these (am I wrong that there are more and more of them?)necessarily involve outright illegality.

More often they appear to involve individuals who are ethically challenged, particularly in situations where there appears to be little outside oversight.

Some pernicious tendency appears to be hard-wired into human nature. Call it the Corruptibility Law.

Lots of money floating around + Insufficient “sunlight” = Temptation
(accepting John Gardner's maxim: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”)

Insiders seem to have this inexorable tendency to begin to believe that they “own” the enterprises of which they are actually only temporary stewards. The longer they are on the inside, and unwatched, the more this belief takes hold. And when you have a critical mass of insiders linking arms, the belief gets stronger and ethical slopes get even more slippery.

Should we have reason to believe the Corruptibility Law does not apply to individuals working in charities and causes and foundations?

After all, isn't this by definition a bunch of do-gooders? A population of moral exemplars?

Are nonprofit execs, professional athletes, journalists, financiers, doctors, politicians, clergy, professors or any other category “least” or “most” ethical? Maybe someday a researcher will provide empirical data on the relative rates of corruptibility across industries, institutions or professions.

Until then, I'm afraid we're all in the same boat. Equally deserving of public suspicion. Equally required to earn public confidence. And equally in need of rigorous outside oversight.


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