It seems we’ve come to a point where the notion of personal responsibility in public life evokes little more than nostalgia among the elderly for a time when there were more operant values – be it in government or the nonprofit sector. House Speaker Dennis Hastert “accepts responsibility” but sidesteps what appears to be his complicity in covering up the salacious and inappropriate behavior of a colleague, seemingly preferring the partisan maintenance of a Republican majority over the protection of young congressional pages. Yet for Hastert, accepting responsibility means nothing – it has no cost and serves no purpose; he maintains his position and pays no price!
In something of a parallel failure of personal responsibility in the nonprofit sector, Louise Bryson maintains the board chair of the J. Paul Getty Trust after its president resigns in disgrace and the California attorney general confirms that that was the right thing for him to have done – financial misdeeds, misjudgments and what some might see as his own sophisticated version of salacious behavior, all on Ms. Bryson’s watch. Not only is there no substantive mea culpa heard from the board’s officers or members, they even refuse to reveal details of the misdeeds though the broad outlines are known, still keeping the wagons circled in their own variant on partisan protection.
And the Getty folks are not alone in the nonprofit sector. The charitable community may not approach the soulless depths of politicians, but I fear we have the potential to spiral further down. The public officials who brought the world the Iraq debacle model the worst by continuing to try to lie their way out of personal responsibility for that human, political and economic catastrophe. Yet, with increasing public attention to the real and perceived abuses of charitable privilege by hospitals, philanthropies, disaster relief groups, religious organizations and others, unless nonprofit and foundation leaders are more willing to speak the truth about their own mistakes and those of their colleagues, we may soon find ourselves swirling around in just such a flushing vortex.
To maintain the public trust and confidence, the nonprofit sector must be accountable for – and beyond – what laws and regulations require (as a resource, see Independent Sector). That necessitates personal responsibility by volunteers, staff and especially the board. When we fail to meet basic standards of vigilance and due diligence, of conduct, when we fail to behave ethically, it is appropriate to feel embarrassment, and it is appropriate also to act on that feeling, to make it manifest and real. A failure of responsibility must have consequences or it is a sham.
To pull a facile Hastert is to continue to fail the public whose stewardship we are to serve as nonprofit volunteers, staff or board – or as public officials. Accountability, woefully, sometimes requires shame – and shame requires action.