Individual Submission Summary

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The Understanding and Practice of Ethics Among Social Service Providers

Wed, July 13, 4:30 to 6:00pm, TBA


Nonprofit organizations have long played a critical role in helping people in need (Lipsky & Smith, 1989). By the end of the last century, the Third Sector had burgeoned; as of 2015, over 1.5 million charities were registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), contributing an estimated $985.4 billion to the U.S. economy or 5.4 percent of the country’s GDP (McKeever, 2019). The growth of the sector resulted in its professionalization, which has similarities to, as well as marked differences, from the private sector. Joyce Rothschild and Carl Milofsky (2006) pointed out that while businesses are fueled by the profit motive, charitable organizations are grounded in values and passions.

Nonprofits are fueled by the trust and support of society, which is but one of many reasons why ethics should be a sector-wide priority (Mason, 1992). In their review of more than 500 academic articles, Bekkers and Wiepking (2010) identified the reputation and values of an organization among the most important drivers of charitable giving. Becker (2018) wrote that charities signal trustworthiness through organizational adherence to financial and ethical standards beyond legal regulations. Malloy and Agarwal (2001) argued, therefore, that the perception of the ethical climate in the Third Sector – trust – is key. Nowadays, the nonprofit sector’s claims to exist for the public good are “no longer being taken on faith, and more people believe that they have a stake in the accountability of nonprofits” (Brody 2002, p. 472). O’Neill (2009) highlighted warnings within the sector itself of a crisis in confidence.

Despite the need for more research on the interpretation, application, and oversight of ethical practices in the nonprofit sector, very little qualitative research has been done (Agarwal et al., 2010; Rasmussen et al., 2003). Ethics is highly subjective and, at times, emotionally charged. To this point, Ken Rasmussen et al. (2003) found that nonprofit managers strongly believe that principles in the workplace are to be self-chosen and guided by personal ethics. “Measures of ethics are, by nature of the construct, difficult to develop, substantiate, and implement” (Jurkiewicz & Massey, 1998, p. 182). Thus qualitative research would arguably best capture the extent of one’s ethical practices in a way that quantitative research misses.

For our study, interviews were conducted with five social service organizations that serve the basic needs of low-income communities in New York City. Organizations ranged in size with annual budgets between $3-43 million; staffing between 30-300 individuals; 30-60 years of operations; and 2,000-22,000 people served each year. Three to five participants within each organization who represented frontline staff, mid-level managers, executive leadership, and board members took part in one-on-one semi-structured, in-depth interviews. The major themes gleaned from these 21 interviews will help us understand the extent to which ethics is understood and applied in the daily work of nonprofit practitioners. Our research contributes to the literature on nonprofit ethics. Findings will also add to the knowledge and inform the practice of ethics in the nonprofit social service sector, which can be translated to other charitable sectors.