Article: Monday, 26 February 2024

The aura of goodness that surrounds charitable organisations can be a trap for their employees, says dr. Isabel de Bruin, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Isabel de Bruin successfully defended her PhD thesis The Dark Side of the NGO Halo: Exploring moral goodness as a driver for NGO unethical behavior on 15 February 2024, and wrote about it in an opinion piece in the Netherlands’ Financiele Dagblad. She describes how charities risk self-glorification of their noble goals and this can – for the unwary – lead to unethical behaviour because ‘the end justifies the means’.

Paradoxically, noble goals have a flip side: charitable organisations are susceptible to glorifying their own goals and deeds. And their employees and their supervisors need to be alert to this: it can be fertile ground for unethical behaviour.

When someone chooses to work for – or volunteer for – a charity, it becomes an affirmation of identity. Professionals and volunteers carefully select which organisation they join because their personal beliefs and values are aligned with those of the charity. It’s common for these personal beliefs and values to become intertwined with the organisation's noble aspirations. Isabel’s survey of 256 employees of various charities in 2023 showed that respondents strongly believed that their cause is 'sacred' and 'extraordinarily important', and that they felt strongly connected to it. For example, one employee said during an interview that the charity is 'part of their DNA'. Another claimed the cause reflects their personal identity.

The aura of goodness that surrounds charitable organisations can be a trap for their employees.

Belief in the work of a charity is understandable and commendable, but unchecked glorification can encourage unethical behaviour. In her research, Isabel concluded that an internal perception of innate goodness in the work being done leads to a state of self-glorification in which the cause, the underlying values and the people within the organisation are idealised to the extreme. Employees do not see their job as just a job but, as one employee said, ‘a life calling’. And what’s more, the organisation's values – and so shared individual values – are seen as the reflection of what is morally good or right.

This could make the employee think that their values are better than those of other people and organisations. For example, one charity executive said: “We have no doubt that what we do is right. It's about convincing others to step forward and think like us.” Isabel’s interviews also revealed that colleagues sometimes refer to each other not as ordinary colleagues, but as 'ultimate allies', 'heroes', 'angels' and 'frontline soldiers'.

Tunnel vision

It’s a kind of ideological tunnel vision, proposes Isabel, when the employee exalts the organisation's purpose, values and people. But there are potential pitfalls: it’s only a small leap from having a mentality of ‘the end justifies the means’ to engaging in unethical behaviour. The survey showed that charity staff and volunteers at charities tend to believe that achieving their goal by any means is OK.

This can extend to organisations manipulating data to get more attention for their cause or raise more funds – like showing white employees in campaigns because 'white saviourism' yields better results.

Viewing one's own values as superior can also result in the organisation ignoring or exceeding others’ values, and even in transgressing the values of the law.

Viewing one's own values as superior can also result in the organisation ignoring or exceeding others’ values, and even in transgressing the values of the law.

When charities are so convinced that their goal is good, it’s possible that they leave no room for doubt or discussion in the organisation. It can spread the belief that employees are also inherently good and their actions are always right. But it can also mean that they prefer to avoid the uncomfortable self-reflection of observing and identifying transgressive behaviour in their colleagues, such as discrimination, sexual harassment or bullying. According to almost a quarter of people Isabel interviewed, they choose to turn a blind eye to transgressive behaviour and give their colleagues another chance. So problematic behaviour remains unaddressed and the likelihood of its recurrence increases.

All of this has the potential to derail the mission of the charity so it’s essential to get rid of the ‘turning a blind eye’ attitude and for organisations to look at themselves objectively. For example, the Dutch Central Bureau on Fundraising (CBF) can measure and monitor the risk of believing in the infallibility of noble goals and include it as a quality requirement for CBF recognition. Organisations that regulate and monitor the charity sector in the Netherlands such as Partos and Goede Doelen Nederland can play a role in making organisations aware of the risks and raising them in discussions – and there’s also an important monitoring role for charities’ supervisory boards to keep a check on the esteem in which a charity holds itself and its work.

Of course, most charitable organisations and their employees pursue noble goals without losing sight of ethical standards, and address the potential for self-glorification to keep their integrity intact.

Dr. E.W.M. (Isabel) de Bruin Cardoso
PhD Candidate (parttime programme)
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
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