In The End, It’s The Hands

My daughter is an animal person; has been ever since she discovered them. She loves farms, pet stores, the pound, and the zoo. So I have been closely following the sad spectacle at the National Zoo. Management has fallen victim to a classic nonprofit ethics trap, one to which all mission-driven organizations are prone: they forgot they had to execute ethically.

Many nonprofit organizations right now are pleased that the latest Harris Interactive reputation survey shows them to be more trusted than for-profit corporations — but it’s only 15 percent to three percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement from an essentially untrusting society. Given this context, the Zoo should serve as a warning.

For months now, the National Zoo has been besieged. Animals have been dying. In their last review from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association they received an unusually short one-year accreditation, a form of probation. Staff has been leaving. The Washington Post ran a series of high-profile examinations of the practices and deficiencies at the Zoo. And, the National Academy of Sciences has launched an investigation and just issued a scathing interim report. The final report, due out in the summer, is unlikely to be much rosier. Under intense criticism, Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman has said she will resign, rather than be such a “lightning rod” for public controversy.

On the one hand, another high-profile controversy at a public institution (even a quasi-governmental one) cannot be good for the nonprofit sector. But on the other hand, such times can lead to a positive introspection, as leaders examine what went wrong and what they can do to avoid the same fate.

What happened to one of the jewels in the crown of the Smithsonian? While many may say it’s a management problem, that assessment skirts the issue. It’s an ethics problem.

Nonprofit leaders thus ought to take note, and ask themselves a set of probing questions. The answers, like many things relating to ethics, will require rigorous honesty. The questions get at the three dimensions of ethical action, all of which must be aligned: intention, practice, and execution. Leaders should ask themselves:

* Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of this mission more important than the way I go about it?

* Practice: Are the systems, structures, and procedures I have in place sufficient? Are they truly designed to foster ethical action or are they just meant to appear that way?

* Execution: Am I carrying out my plans? Am I following my own rules? Or are they just plans on paper that I would follow in a perfect world?

Many will answer the first two sets of questions gladly and well. In mission-driven organizations such as most throughout the nonprofit world, executives feel comfortable with their purpose, and see themselves as ethical. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. And, most savvy nonprofit leaders have readily grasped the need for both the appearance and reality of a robust, ethical management strategy. Their heads are not in the clouds.

But, what about execution? How effectively are the hands of nonprofits operating? So many groups that I talk to are strapped for cash, time, and other resources. It’s hard to make ends meet and keep the lights on, let alone dot every i and cross every t.

That was the Zoo’s experience. In releasing its interim report, the chair of the Academy investigatory panel said, “We believe there has been pervasive weakness throughout the institution, from the keeper level to management.” The Zoo has plenty of policies and procedures. They’re good ones, all designed to ensure that the Zoo’s public trust is upheld. But they aren’t being followed.

It is easy to scapegoat Spelman and deride the Zoo. The problems are clearly deep ones at that institution. But the Zoo is not alone. The United Way and the Nature Conservancy in Washington DC, PipeVine in San Francisco, and Provena Covenant Medical Center in Illinois all come to mind. Good missions. Systems galore. Bad execution.

Thankfully, there is a movement among nonprofits and foundations towards greater effectiveness. New ways of measuring effectiveness are being devised. This can only be a good thing for this vital feature of the American landscape.

Because, sometimes in the nonprofit world, commitment to mission seems to trump everything else. It may have in Spelman’s case. In the news conference at which she resigned, Zoo director Spelman said, “I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward.” Her intentions were good. “Everybody here is here to try to make sure the animals are okay,” she said to the Washington Post, lauding the good intentions of the staffers who changed medical records and made mistakes that cost lives. In response to her chief critic, former chief pathologist Don Nichols, she said, “I’m sad that Don would be as critical as he is, given that I know he does care about the animals.” In this alternate world, it seems, if you care then that’s enough.

But it clearly wasn’t enough. Hearts must be in the right place, and heads must not be in the clouds. But, in the end, it is the hands that must do the work.

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