It is past time that development NGOs prioritize ethics, argues contributor Robyn Waite: their legitimacy – and success – depends on it, the nature of their practice demands it, and people and planet need moral organizations to succeed.
When a for-profit corporation does something void of good moral behaviour, we tend not to be shocked. We do get upset but we aren’t surprised, because chasing the bottom line no matter what the cost has long been a consequence of the profit motive. In contrast, when a non-governmental organization (NGO) reveals a moral indiscretion, the public reaction is visceral. This is because NGOs have long been perceived to be particularly good moral actors, and when that assumption is called into question, primordial values and beliefs come into play. In theoretical speak, NGOs primarily possess, and are judged based on, what is called moral legitimacy, whereas corporations rely predominantly on a more transactional form of legitimacy called pragmatism.
The fabric of our modern societies consists of different types of organizations, and each has a distinct identity type and role to play, as well as a different main type of legitimacy. Legitimacy is “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman, 1995). The “socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” that development NGOs operate within is grounded in morality.
Moral legitimacy has been a ready-to-leverage and lucrative resource, rapidly securing trust and attracting staff and donor support for the sector.
This moral identity of NGOs comes with distinct benefits and risks. It has been a ready-to-leverage and lucrative resource, rapidly securing trust, as well as attracting staff and donor support for the sector. The risk associated with possessing primarily moral legitimacy is that questions related to ethics attract close scrutiny, and breaches of conduct are a big faux pas because they are perceived as “bad” or “wrong,” especially when the perpetrator is associated with a strong expectation of being “the good guy.”
Historically, development NGOs were recognized as legitimate and, as a result, secured support from diverse audiences. Take, for example, their rapid climb in standing between the early 2000s and the late 2010s. Net disbursements of official development assistance being channelled through NGOs more than tripled, and their access to policy fora drastically increased with them receiving consultative status with the United Nations, World Bank, and other multilateral institutions. However, NGOs’ legitimacy is now declining, as reflected in trust in charities starting to fall sharply in 2016. Scandal after scandal has pierced the media, donors are less willing to give, and staff members are increasingly feeling disillusioned with the passion career they consciously made a salary sacrifice for.
We have entered a heightened evaluative stage for NGOs, meaning they increasingly have to prove that they walk with the ethics of their moral talk.
Whether their CEOs like it or not, we have entered a heightened evaluative stage for NGOs, meaning they increasingly have to prove that they walk with the ethics of their moral talk. While their moral legitimacy used to be taken for granted, with the type of organization being treated as above scrutiny because of their moral identity, this no longer remains the case. Yet sector practice is falling far behind sector rhetoric. Just like how the public initially took the moral legitimacy of NGOs for granted, its practitioners, too, rested on lofty moral claims and intentions. It is past time that NGOs prioritize ethics, and here are three reasons why:
- NGO legitimacy, and thus success, depends on ethics
- The nature (and professionalism) of the practice demands ethics
- People and planet need moral types of organizations to succeed
NGO legitimacy, and thus success, depends on ethics
Legitimacy is important because it affords organizations the tangible and intangible forms of support necessary for success. In comparison to other types of organizations, NGOs’ legitimacy demands are quite stringent because to function they must mobilize affirmative support from diverse audiences. Luckily, existing theory tells us that there are four different drivers of public perceptions of moral legitimacy: 1) audiences forming opinions evaluate the structural characteristics of the NGO to assess if the organizational model meets expectations; 2) they judge key people like members of the leadership team, board, and staff; 3) they consider the end results accomplished; and 4) they analyze the procedural practices of how the NGO works. With the enjoyed era of development NGOs being above scrutiny coming to a close, their in-practice behaviour now being consistently and publicly analyzed, and their legitimacy type coming with distinct demands and risks, it would be smart strategy to start engaging consciously and meaningfully with these four sub-types of moral legitimacy.
Managing perceptions of legitimacy is possible and fundamentally about aligning organizational behaviour with relevant social norms and audience expectations. In the case of development NGOs that rely primarily on moral legitimacy, this essentially means a strong adherence to ethics or good procedural practices that put the dignity and experiences of people first. Procedural moral legitimacy is the most important sub-type for fostering positive public perceptions of NGOs because in comparison to other sub-types (structural-, people-, or end-results-focused), it hinges most foundationally on questions of morality. As articulated in theory, it is also the sub-type responsible for maintaining organizational or sector moral legitimacy.
An over-prioritization of tangible ends will also lead to the ‘corporatization’ of the NGO and a degradation of the fundamental moral identity of the organization.
A sub-type that works against procedural moral legitimacy and that NGOs should be aware of is the one about audience evaluations of ends. While it is helpful to deploy tactics centring on results when trying to gain moral legitimacy, a persistent and continual prioritization on ends is damaging. Audience perceptions of legitimacy degrade the more repetitive and systematized legitimation strategies become, particularly those that are simplistic and instrumental in nature. Think, for example, of traditional TV fundraising ads that charities pump out. They tend to feature sickly, impoverished children with flies in their eyes and say something like “With every $10 raised, a child is cured of a deadly disease.” In the context of moral legitimacy, an over-emphasis on consequentialism like this leads to cynicism among audiences and an erosion of moral legitimacy. The audience becomes desensitized to the human element of the work, exhausted by the seemingly never-ending suffering, and begins to ask, “Why isn’t progress being made?”
An over-prioritization of tangible ends will also lead to the “corporatization” of the NGO and a degradation of the fundamental moral identity of the organization because it starts to prioritize characteristics of pragmatic legitimacy, which most closely align with for-profit corporations. If NGOs focus their efforts solely on the easy-to-measure end results of their work, then they will have little to distinguish themselves from the likes of Walmart should they enter the sector. For-profit corporations cannot be legitimate development actors precisely because their priorities and incentives push the organization toward maximizing definable results and return on investment. In contrast, the unique value proposition of the NGO is treating the people it is serving as ends in themselves with intrinsic value. It means putting values behind the how, taking the more costly route if it means promoting dignity and solidarity, and not being afraid to be perceived to fail. The steep decline in trust being widely felt by the sector right now can, in part, be explained by NGOs starting to look and talk like for-profit, pragmatic entities. The “value add” of NGOs is not pragmatic, but ideal, which is why staying true to the moral identity type by keeping a sustained focus on procedurally good and ethical practices is key to shoring up organizational legitimacy, which in turn is necessary for success and the fulfilment of the NGO’s mandate.
The nature (and professionalism) of the practice demands ethics
Where practitioners regularly encounter moral dilemmas, make morally sensitive decisions, and work within fiduciary relationships, ethics is commonly seen, as it is well understood that it has the potential to improve problem solving within moral dilemmas, to balance asymmetrical relationships, and to mitigate risks of decision-making (British Medical Association Medical Ethics Department, 2013). Yet, “the ethical issues raised by development and humanitarian aid have not yet attracted nearly as much concentrated attention as the ethical issues in many other fields, such as medicine, business and the environment” (Horton & Roche, 2010).
Without ethics, stated morals will forever be at risk of turning into buzzwords.
To protect everyone involved in development work, and what should by now be a professional practice, NGOs and the wider sector must bring ethics into explicit focus. Ethics means moving beyond stated morals, values, or principles. Right now, the sector has plenty of morals (notions of what is right or good) to stand on but is missing ethics (the practical application of established morals). Without ethics, stated morals will forever be at risk of turning into buzzwords, and the worst hypocrite is the one with moral intentions cruising down a highway without an awareness of the real-world accidents their sturdy truck keeps getting into. Moral legitimacy doesn’t just eventually attract close scrutiny; once it’s lost, its moral nature makes it particularly difficult to repair. To fathom an understanding of not just the real-world damage but the reputational risk associated with failing to be ethical, ask any person working for an NGO why they do it and what might make them leave.
People and planet need moral types of organizations to succeed
Living in a time dominated by capitalism, there is more than enough of a push/pull factor to focus every endeavour on ends and the highest measurable return on investment. While there is value in such a focus, there is also catastrophic damage, and the people of the world are starting to take notice.
On an annual basis, results from a global trust survey are published by U.S. public relations firm Edelman. The narrative that has emerged in recent years is one that indicates that foundational societal institutions are experiencing a collapse of legitimacy. The world saw “extreme trust losses” in 2017. The following year, the biggest crash in trust ever measured took place in the United States. Fast forward to the 2019 Edelman edition and globally only one in five people believed “the system” was working for them, with 56% of the global population thinking that “capitalism does more harm than good in the world.” In a more recent edition, findings revealed that the most powerful countries lost the most trust capital. Ultimately, across markets and audiences, the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that there is a strong desire for change fuelled by a sense of injustice.
This global sentiment likely exists because we are at a point with the current prevailing ideology of neoliberalism where the function of the state has been effectively eroded. Coming to a main type of legitimacy not yet discussed, this is because governments predominantly possess what is called cognitive legitimacy, which tends to be passively propped up by perceptions of the entity fulfilling a perceived inevitable role in society. However, as annual Edelman findings are showing, the role of government is no longer viewed as functional or necessary and is largely distrusted.
I hypothesize that we are currently living through the death of cognitive legitimacy, leaving only pragmatic and moral evaluative forms in play. Institutions aligning to either pragmatic or moral legitimacy have indeed been encroaching on the space by filling gaps in service provision; this is, after all, how NGOs came to exist and thrive in our societies in the first place. Interestingly, more recent Edelman Trust Barometer reports (those from 2019 on) strongly reinforce moral versus pragmatic legitimacy types. For the first time, the 2019 report identified competence and ethical behaviour to be at the crux of public perceptions of trust in institutions. No type of institution analyzed was perceived as both ethical and competent. Only NGOs were perceived as ethical, while only business was perceived as competent. Meanwhile, both media and government were perceived as unethical and incompetent. These findings, which have been measured consistently annually ever since, reinforce the perceived ethical role in society that NGOs fulfill.
People and planet need moral types of organizations to flourish because they work in juxtaposition to consequentialist-focused for-profits.
Right now, however, entities and people that prioritize pragmatic achievements, end results, and efficiency dominate our societies. And this is having a significant impact on humanity. To summarize bluntly, humans and natural resources are being exploited in the interest of bottom lines that value money first. This is evident across several social indicators, including environmental degradation, human living conditions, health across rich and poor populations, and access to essential services like quality healthcare or basic commodities like clear water or air.
People and planet need moral types of organizations to flourish because they work in juxtaposition to consequentialist-focused for-profits. While we might need to prioritize pragmatic legitimacy for efficiency and management of increasingly complex systems, we must prioritize moral legitimacy for humanity; and for NGOs to proliferate, they must lean wholeheartedly into their moral identity by giving serious thought and effort to monitoring ethics, protecting propriety, and ensuring moral norms are carried out in practice via ethics. NGOs once rested on their moral claims and missions. They could cower in fear at the need to do better now, or they could cling steadfastly to their moral foundations in the pride and knowing that they are the “other” pushing back against what is an almost total domination of consequentialism across our markets. As a development NGO practitioner, researcher, and advocate, I know what challenge and cause I’ll take up: “Ethics for NGO legitimacy, professionalism, and humanity.”