Doing the Right Thing

Wise ethical decision-making takes practice 

The daily interactions involved in alumni relations often require diplomacy and accommodation, but such judgments are rooted in values and ethics. Situations that truly test our ethics are not questions of right vs. wrong, but rather of right vs. right. An ethicist and advancement professionals offer insight into how to make sure that your staff can resolve ethical dilemmas consistently, using role-playing and seminars. One sidebar lists three tests to use in weighing an ethical decision; another sidebar describes four ethical dilemma paradigms; and a third sidebar presents the CASE Statement of Ethics.

By Andrea Jarrell

Students are protesting on campus, calling for greater racial and ethnic diversity within the faculty. You get a call from a sympathetic alumna who says, "If you expel any one of those students, I'm never giving another dollar to this college."

Before you can hang up with her, your other phone line rings. This time an irate alumnus says, "If you don't expel every one of those rioting students, I'm never giving another dollar to this college. 

Being the savvy alumni relations director you are, you tiptoe through the alumni-opinion minefield, calming each caller down. You tell the first caller that the president has hosted a series of community meetings to discuss the issue with students and may even launch a search for a professor specializing in African and Caribbean literature, whom the students know is likely to further diversify the faculty.

With the second alumnus, you note that the students are not "rioting" so much as giving a series of speeches on the quad steps, a spot that has long been a venue for students to present their views about any number of issues — from curfews during the caller's era to the current debate. When the caller says he is opposed to the president negotiating with these students, you explain that the president is simply maintaining his open-door policy that encourages students to bring their concerns to him, and that you expect him to resolve the issue shortly. You add that when rumors of a sit-in surfaced, the president made it clear that he would expel anyone who participated.

Should you have told the second caller "the truth" as you told it to the first alumna, volunteering details about the president's responsiveness to the students? Should you have told the first caller that the president might very well expel students if they stage a sit-in?

Or, based on your loyalty to the institution, do you omit these details in an effort to maintain alumni confidence in the presidential leadership and policies of the college? Truth vs. loyalty. Which do you choose?

These are only two phone conversations. In alumni relations, we deal with several dozen a day. Most of us don't characterize our daily interactions and the little accommodations we make along the way in terms of ethics. Instead, we say we are calling on our professional instincts, using our diplomacy or good judgment. But alumni trust is built on more than good judgment. It's rooted in what forms that judgment — our values. In other words, our ethics.

Speaking of ethics

"It's hard not to sound preachy, naive, or old-fashioned when you talk about ethics," says Rushworth Kidder, founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics. We lack the language to talk about ethics, he says, so very often, we don't.

In fact, more than one of the alumni relations directors interviewed for this article said, "You can't teach ethics; you just have to count on people to do the right thing."

But "if you're not talking about ethics with your staff, the little decisions you and your colleagues make can have a greater impact than you think," says Cynthia Woolbright, vice president of development and external relations at Hollins University and a leading voice for keeping ethics high on the advancement agenda. "One day you might find yourself on a slippery slope, thinking, 'I should have seen this coming.' "

Consider the little-known college that had the chance, with the help of a trustee, to secure one of the hottest speakers on the lecture circuit for a new alumni program. It was such a great opportunity that the alumni director decided to bypass the informal alumni selection committee that usually ok'd such high-profile programs. Upon receiving the new campus president's approval, the alumni director immediately announced the speaker with much fanfare.

The week before the scheduled event, however, a major scandal involving the speaker broke. Suddenly, outraged alumni, faculty members, and parents assailed the alumni director with questions about the criteria the college had used to make its selection.

Several donors boycotted the annual fund, and the new president's leadership also came into question. What seemed like a pragmatic (and innocent) decision, especially when there was no hard-and-fast rule in place, snowballed into a significant problem for the institution.

In his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices, ethicist Kidder explains why leaving people to "just do the right thing" doesn't work well. While he agrees that most of us can tell right from wrong (see "Moral Temptations" ), he says the situations that truly test our ethics are not questions of right vs. wrong but rather of right vs. right.

"They are [ethical] dilemmas precisely because each side is firmly rooted in one of our basic, core values," he says. They pit one of the values we hold dear — such as truth — against another — such as loyalty — as we saw in the opening scenario.

In the case of the alumni director and the speaker scandal, the dilemma was between a short-term benefit — recognition for the institution — and a long-term one — maintaining institutional standards. If the director and his colleagues had talked through such a decision, perhaps the director would have seen that he was taking an unwise risk because his institution placed a premium on procedure. The staff at another institution with less alumni involvement might work through the same dilemma and decide the short-term benefit was worth the risk. So ethical decision-making not only depends on your own moral compass but also on knowing what the right thing is for your institution.

With the relatively high degree of staff turnover in advancement, it is particularly important to make sure you and your colleagues are on the same page, says Geoffrey Liggett, director of corporate and foundation relations at Carnegie Mellon University. Liggett began what has become a regular think-tank session on ethics at case District I's annual conference.

Practice, practice, practice

So how do you get on the same page? Kidder, Woolbright, and Liggett all agree that it takes practice. Kidder points out that phone calls, like the ones in the opening scenario about student protests, come one right after another. You and your staff don't have time to weigh the outcomes of the spontaneous decisions you make, so you need to be what he calls "ethically fit."

"When Michael Jordan ran down a court during a game to shoot a basket, he didn't stop and calculate the trajectory and torque of his throw," Kidder explains. "But at one time he did. He thought about it, and he practiced it until it 'got grooved.' "

Kidder says it's the same with ethics. He recommends "taking time in the quiet moments to sort through 'what-if' scenarios with your staff until your best ethical thinking gets grooved. That way when you're challenged, you know what to do. You're ready."

Woolbright suggests that you make "the quiet moments" Kidder refers to a part of your regular staff meetings, not only for practice but also for consistency. On a monthly basis, she and her staff devote a portion of their agenda to working through an ethics scenario. Even before you start practicing on theoretical dilemmas, though, you and your colleagues will want to determine your shared values, especially as they pertain to your institution.

When Kidder and his staff conduct "ethical fitness" seminars, they always start by having participants determine the values they all think are most important. Cynthia Woolbright took a similar approach with her advancement team. She asked her staff to use the CASE Statement of Ethics to help them identify their core values. Kidder says invariably the most important values that surface in such discussions are honesty, respect, fairness, compassion, and responsibility, all of which are part of case's ethics statement.

Once your team can agree on the values it shares, it is easier to see how ethical dilemmas arise that pit one or more of these values against each other.

Resolving ethical dilemmas

In the opening scenario about alumni reaction to student protesters, we identified the tension involved as an example of truth vs. loyalty. This is one of the four ethical dilemma paradigms Kidder identifies in his book. The case of the speaker scandal deals with another of his paradigms — short-term vs. long-term benefits. The other two are justice vs. mercy and individual vs. community. (See "Four Ethical Dilemma Paradigms,".)

Understanding which paradigm is at work (sometimes there are more than one) is the first step in the resolution process because it defines your choices more clearly.

However, as Kidder says in his book, "to merely analyze a dilemma — even to fit it into the right vs. right paradigms — is not to resolve it. Resolution requires that we choose which side is the nearest 'right' for the circumstances. And that requires some principles for decision-making." Kidder uses three tried-and-true principles to bring about resolution:

1. Rule-based. This roughly translates into "Follow principles you would want everyone else to follow." Or, ask yourself if you would want every other person on your team, if faced with a similar dilemma, to take this exact same action.

2. Ends-based. This principle would have you "pursue the greatest good for the greatest number."

3. Care-based. Perhaps the most well known of the three, this principle, sometimes called the "golden rule," dictates that you "do unto others as you would want done unto you."

When you work through ethical scenarios with your alumni relations team, start by determining into which right vs. right paradigm(s) a dilemma falls. Then apply the three resolution principles. Here's an example:

You are the alumni director for a small Midwestern women's college. You are also an alumna of this close-knit group that feels like family: You went to school with many of the trustees and key volunteers. The college is winding up a successful five-year capital campaign and spirits are high.

You report directly to the president of the college, who is relatively new. In the strictest confidence, she has let you know that the college will begin admitting men the following year. You are extremely concerned that the alumnae you work so closely with will feel betrayed by this decision.

To make matters worse, your best friend and sister alumna has told you that she plans to give $5 million toward the campaign. And her daughter, who applied only to women's colleges, will be enrolling in the college in the fall.

You feel sure that the daughter would accept a different offer if she knew of the impending change to coeducation. And while the change might jeopardize your friend's gift, you think she might still give it if you tell her about the coed decision in advance. If you don't tell her, though, she is likely to feel so betrayed that she will change her mind. No matter what, you are sure that your friend and her daughter will be extraordinarily hurt that you didn't warn them.

This is a classic case of truth vs. loyalty. In fact, in this instance you are faced with competing loyalties — one to your boss and the institution you represent; the other to an alumna who is your best friend.

Applying a rule-based approach to this dilemma would mean establishing a rule you hope everyone will follow from here on out. This might mean keeping the secret so you don't set a precedent for revealing confidential information.

An ends-based approach would dictate that you pursue "the greatest good for the greatest number." In this case that might mean telling the friend so as not to risk losing the $5 million gift.

The care-based approach might lead you to tell your friend the news because you yourself would want to know if the situation were reversed.

If none of these principles resolves your dilemma satisfactorily, Kidder says you may have a trilemma on your hands. At this point you need to ask yourself if there is a third way out. In the given scenario, a third way out might be for you to go back to the president and diplomatically but strongly advise her to keep at least some key alumnae in the loop about the coeducation decision, explaining that not to do so could risk significant alumnae goodwill and financial support. You should be able to give the president enough information without risking your friend's confidentiality about her $5 million gift and at the same time get the green light to have your friend informed about the college's decision. (It may sound far-fetched not to keep alumnae in the loop about such a significant decision, but this scenario is based on a real case.)

Ultimately, we have to decide which "right" is the most right for us and our institutions. All of us will face tough choices, but by making a conscious effort to put ethics on your alumni relations agenda, you and your colleagues can establish a safe climate in which to discuss the values you share and want to foster. With regular practice, you can do the right thing for your institution and alumni as consistently as Michael Jordan made baskets.

This article is from the April 1999 issue.