Now is an important moment for leaders working toward social change to reflect on and examine our microethics (Photo by Taylor Nicole on Unsplash)

As myriad nonprofit misconduct scandals make headlines, and Oxfam Great Britain—one of the world’s largest charities—seems to stagger from one disgrace to another, it is an important moment for the larger community of innovators and leaders working toward social change to reflect on our own organizations. To what degree are we building organizations in which our internal operations are in strict and careful alignment with our external mission? And to what degree do we invest time, human resources, care, and funding to comprehensively assure alignment? 

I have no personal connection to Oxfam or other recent high-profile incidents, however, like many nonprofit practitioners, I have experienced what it feels like to strongly support an organization’s mission, passionately believe in the importance of the narratives it promotes, and yet to feel deeply uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of its internal workings. If we’re lucky, we can leave institutions that cause us harm or pain and move on with our lives. Often, we work to fight personal disillusionment by telling ourselves or our peers that negative experiences made us stronger or wiser. But I have become increasingly curious about how the nonprofit sector can catalyze a shared accountability to make our organizations stronger. It is crucial that we engage in a broader dialogue, rather than allowing such “learning experiences” to remain primarily with the individuals and communities most affected by them. 

The Effect of Micro on Macro Decision-making

After three years of interdisciplinary research at Stanford University’s Global Projects Center, looking at the internal workings of organizations, I believe misalignment between internally practiced and externally espoused values is one of the most systemic challenges facing the nonprofit sector. The problem extends far beyond dramatic, headline-making incidents; it is embedded in the everyday decision-making of nonprofits everywhere. And if left unchecked until scandal emerges, we will never reach the lofty goals we aspire to, or be able to create a sector with the collaborative and coordinated efforts required to solve complex challenges like systemic racism, climate change, and inequality. 

Misalignments between internally practiced and externally espoused values often happen as a result of poor “microethical” decisions—common, deceptively routine juncture points within the internal workings of organizations that are indirect, subtle, or sometimes unconscious moments of ethical choice. Microethics is a concept often used in the medical and engineering fields, and is an avant-garde in the field of ethics. But it is just as pertinent to the nonprofit sector. What we choose to do in everyday, microethical moments can set the stage or create the conditions for scandals like Oxfam’s or for eventual whistleblower cases. Microethical decisions are the pre-text. They create conditions and environments in which troublesome events can appear to come out of “nowhere” or be dismissed as “one-off” incidents. 

Administrative and operations spaces within our organizations are fraught with microethical choices, often related to personnel or fiscal management. Yet we are conditioned to give them less attention than our forward-facing work. Funders don’t necessarily reward grants for cutting-edge, microethical decisions around workplace practice, nor do nonprofits necessarily win favor among constituent communities for pursuing the same level of attention to justice internally as they do externally. Therefore, ethical concerns are often poorly or insufficiently addressed, or even pushed under the rug so that they don’t distract from “the real work” of social justice. Organizations can subtly and deftly silence staff members experiencing problems or expressing concerns, in the name of the greater good. 

If we dig deeper, we realize that internal administration and governance are hotbeds that either reinforce or transcend the conditions and challenges many nonprofits exist to address. The heart pulse of injustice is in the micro, mundane decision-making of an organization or community. It is in these spaces where organizations address profound decision-making questions, usually in regard to how we treat one another. And how we answer those questions is at the core of what will either perpetuate massive injustice or work to transform our current extractive systems. The social sector’s beautiful, aspiring words and worthy causes are not shields of immunity. Every microdecision an organization makes must be in alignment with its larger mission, because it will either work to create the world we aspire to or contribute to the continual re-creation of the world we have. 

As author of Reinventing Organizations Frederic Laloux writes, “With every new stage in human consciousness also came a breakthrough in our ability to collaborate, bringing about a new organizational model. Organizations as we know them today are simply the expression of our current world-view, our current stage of development.” In other words, if we want a new worldview, a new reality, we must operate within our organizations in a way that aligns with the one we want. The behind-the-scenes operations and culture of an organization will always have direct effects on the “frontlines.” It is the same work. We cannot prioritize the “ends” or use them to justify the “means,” because, in fact, the means are the ends. It is a mutually affecting system. 

Aligning Internal and External Operations

Researcher Joanna Cea and I have been interviewing high-achieving community and organizational leaders across sectors to seek greater understanding of the internal processes behind their unparalleled impact. Our findings suggest that the way in which nonprofits work internally is powerfully linked to the quality and reach of their impact. Inspired by these learnings, and informed by my own experience and discussion with others, I’ve compiled five suggestions for ensuring greater internal alignment with external values to achieve high impact.

1. Seek out and retain people who challenge your way of “doing.”

Organizations often focus on recruiting skilled contributors to their program or service delivery, external communications, and theory of change. However, it is equally important to seek out, hire, and retain innovative and creative people who regularly challenge your organization’s internal dynamics and behind-the-scenes work in an effort to help it become a better version of itself. These individuals help generate new and important ideas and hone the “doing” of your team. Creating safe space for internal reflection and retaining those who propel it, will robustly affect and strengthen your organization’s external work. 

2. Listen deeply to team members who belong to communities that are often marginalized.

Individuals who belong to historically and frequently marginalized communities have often had to develop razor-sharp analysis, awareness, and articulation skills in relation to microethics. Countless micro and macro incidents of oppression across generations have been braided into their everyday reality, and their intuition can offer a quick and clear take on difficult workplace issues. If multiple women, people of color, or LBGTQ persons—or members of any other marginalized community—are articulating something in alignment with one another, pay extra attention. 

It is also important to remember that an organization’s culture is who its leadership hires and fires. It is impossible to learn from the wisdom of people who aren’t in the room. It’s equally essential to remember that, as University of California San Francisco’s Dr. Cameron Sepah explains, “Most employees [are] ... quite rational in paying attention to what leadership does, not what they say.” Organizations must cultivate a workplace that truly listens and encourages the voicing of analysis or concerns from team members belonging to historically marginalized communities. Many nonprofit workplaces seem like safe spaces for such dialogue on paper, but only a small number actually model this in their reaction to feedback; how and whom they hire, fire, and promote; and which voices they elevate. 

3. Look out for unexamined privilege masked as work ethic.

If anyone on your team, when asked to help examine internal or interpersonal challenges, implies that it is an inconvenience because they are just “here to do the work” (read: “I am working hard on the mission and can’t be bothered with such things”), be wary. Sometimes people use statements or avoidance behaviors like this as a scapegoat—to hide from unexamined biases and unchecked privileges that later will prevent the work in question from happening with quality and resonance, and potentially lead to harm. (Note: This concept is based on and inspired by Insight-Incite Consulting’s content shared at their Liberation Logic workshop.) 

4. Sync external messaging with the reality of internal practice.

It is harmful for an organization to publicly message—whether explicitly or subtly—a level of evolution that its current internal infrastructure does not reflect, even if the statement is a well-intentioned aspiration. For example, an organization proclaims it is working toward economic justice but pays its staff poorly, or an organization calls for the deconstruction of patriarchy but doesn’t follow best practices for gender equity internally—in both, the external proclamations gloss over areas aching for internal progress. This can stymie needed evolution, and create a silencing effect that can lead to cognitive dissonance, increased stress, and even psychological and emotional harm among staff members. When all individuals within an organization take the time to align their external projection with the accuracy of internal practice, it opens up space for self-awareness. It creates feedback loops to work toward greater alignment, and the drive and accountability to transition the organization to be a consistent and integral reflection of good intentions.

5. Make values alignment habitual.

Values are verbally constructed, behavioral trajectories that represent and can help coordinate actions over long time frames. Contrary to how we often use the term, they are not aspirational; rather, they are habitually expressed. The actual values of an organization are the ones it reinforces day in and day out, through the allocation of human and financial resources and time. Values specify a general direction of continual travel, and therefore cannot be completed or achieved. This means that one-off experiences of an internal culture in alignment with its external values—such as a team retreat or the promotion of a woman of color—are positive moments to remember, but it doesn’t mean an organization can “check the box” on values alignment. To truly be in alignment, such resource allocation must be habitual.   

The Role of Leadership

Aligning the internal operations of an organization with its external values is complex and delicate work, and it involves looking at who holds the power to change or reinforce existing patterns. I passionately agree with author, social activist, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, who says, “Change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within.” However, I also believe an organization cannot progress beyond its leadership’s current stage of evolution. Leadership’s level of self-awareness and ability is like a membrane around an organization; even if new ideas and ways of working can permeate—positively affecting the internal workplace—the membrane is still a barrier and can limit the degree to which those changes can take hold and develop. 

Author Rebecca Solnit’s recent piece in Harper’s Magazine discusses power as ignorance. “The powerful swathe themselves in obliviousness in order to avoid the pain of others and their own relationship to that pain,” she writes. “There’s a large category of acts hidden from people with standing: the more you are, the less you know … better the sergeant not know how the privates tolerate him … ” Although this is something every leader should actively examine, it is particularly important for those who belong to systemically privileged communities to unpack. These individuals will not only face a degree of ignorance common to anyone in leadership or power, but also be less likely to have acquired knowledge about the experience and strategies of people who do not share their privilege. As a result, these leaders are less likely to have developed practical and actionable empathy. This presents a problem, as their liminal edge of knowledge and practice can serve as the limiting boundary of organizational change. (Note: These concepts were co-created in dialogue with experience designer Mychal Estrada.)

Those of us in leadership must look at ourselves in the mirror and ask how we are part of the problem—and then, to what degree we are equipped to overcome these challenges on our own, and with whom we shall share power to transform our efforts. We must examine the foundations on which our organization’s internal workings are built. Which ones might rest upon our society’s implicit mechanisms of white supremacy, unchecked patriarchy, fear of scarcity, and systemic racism? As a sector, we must also find ways to prioritize more diverse voices serving in leadership, which will inherently stretch the membrane surrounding an organization wider to include a more expansive set of knowledge and life experiences. 

Now more than ever, it is crucially important for social change leaders to practice—collectively and individually—being impeccable with our word, and our actions and values. We must hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity. The degree to which a more just future is possible is directly equivalent to the degree to which we behave in accordance with the future we desire. We are making the path as we walk it. We must therefore pay attention to the way we operate. How we do things imbues the outcomes with their texture, taste, and hue. Our nonprofit institutions and social movements are not only our best—and sometimes last—line of defense against inequity and systemic harm, but also our best hope for transformational change. 

When organizations achieve a point of equanimity of internal and external value alignment—when our organizations are built on implicit mechanisms of respect, kindness, compassion, and grace—exceptional things happen. If we can push ourselves to resist allowing the everyday geographies of oppressive systems to bleed into our microethical decision-making, we will not only prevent the kind of deep harm uncovered in recent scandals, but also create a social sector strengthened with fortitude, resiliency, and collective wisdom fit to address the great challenges we face.