Nonprofits need to raise their sights, move beyond their panic-driven goal of simply surviving for one more day, and start leading America out of its economic crisis.

Because that crisis is rooted in a widespread breakdown in ethics across the government, for-profit and giving sectors, nonprofits need to lead by example in doing the right thing.

That is the view of Tim Delaney, the president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, who says nonprofits can best serve their mission and communities by “focusing on their core missions and then acting with purposeful attention to ethical leadership.”

The first step, he says, is for nonprofits to “see the broader context in which they operate” and then set high ethical standards and build them into their thinking, planning and operations.

Speaking last week to a lunch ‘n’ learn workshop in Charlotte, N.C., sponsored by the Philanthropy Journal, Delaney said a widespread “moral meltdown” led to America’s current “economic meltdown.”

To show the context in which massive ethical failures have eroded public trust, he cited dozens of recent headlines about scandals in all sectors, often involving groups “previously seen as pillars of community values.”

To help America rebuild its economy, Delaney says, nonprofits need to lead the way in “rebuilding the public’s trust that has been breached.”

Rebuilding public trust, he says, starts with organizations intentionally gearing themselves to make sure they always do the right thing.

Delaney suggests 12 steps for creating a responsible ethics program.

Those steps range from recognizing the need to set ethical expectations, naming an ethics officer and assessing the current state of the organization’s ethics to involving all stakeholders in developing an ethics policy, continually monitoring compliance and tweaking the policy, and making sure the organization’s leaders serve as ethical role models.

In the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, nonprofits face rising operating costs, growing demand for services, and the fear that individual donors, foundations and corporations will cut back their giving.

Instead of panicking and worrying only about the survival of their own institution, nonprofits can best serve their missions and communities by setting high ethical standards and organizational aspirations, Delaney says.

By doing the right thing and truly practicing what they preach, nonprofits can help lead America out of its moral and economic mess and move on to the job of addressing the symptoms and causes of our most urgent social and global problems.

imageTodd Cohen, a veteran news reporter and editor, is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. Cohen has taught nonprofit reporting and media relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and regularly speaks on the topics of nonprofit media relations and trends in the charitable world.