An Interview with Doug White – The Man of Ethics

Award winning author, consultant, donor, ethical champion, professor, trustee, and volunteer, are just some of the words that can be used to describe Doug White, the Academic Director of New York University’s George H. Heyman, Jr. Center of Philanthropy and Fundraising. While he would probably contend that he is still adjusting to his new role as the Academic Director, he is certainly not a newcomer to the world of philanthropy. Doug has over 25 years in the field, having served nonprofits such as the Smithsonian Institution, Greenpeace, and BoardSource. He has written countless articles and three books including the most recent, The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation’s Charities.

 He is excited about his new appointment and noted, “The students are really bright and engaging and you learn a lot from them. They help me advance my thoughts. As director, I hope to take the intellectual energy the students bring and brand the Heyman Center of Fundraising and Philanthropy as the best place in the world to learn about the nonprofit sector.”

 Doug White also has big plans for the future of the Center, and, when asked about them, he replied, “I do not think this a secret so I will say, I would like to establish a center within the center for the study of ethics in nonprofits. That is a goal. Create a center on ethics in philanthropy.”

“Ethics is a fight between right and right a lot of times. When you see a really bad thing and do something really good, you are not facing an ethical dilemma. Some things are just right and some are just wrong. The hard questions come when there is a situation with two right – but conflicting – possible responses. We like the word ethics, but we really do not engage it on an intellectual level. This is where you really get into making decisions. The goal is not to force everyone to agree; the goal is to go through the process by which we understand the values of others. To understand that, you need to also understand your own values.”

-Doug White

In a sector that is praised for its good works and that is increasingly challenged for the lack of integrity exhibited by some of its professionals, Doug White is indeed a refreshing voice. In this candid interview, he shared his views on role of ethics in the field and ideas found in his most recent publication, The Nonprofit Challenge.

KM: Please provide the PhilanthropyNYU audience with a broad overview of your latest publication, The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation's Charities.

DW: The Nonprofit Challenge is a book on ethics and role of the nonprofit world in the world of ethics. As the ultimate sector of society and with our mandate to do good, the nonprofit sector has an obligation to look at ethics seriously and at this moment we are not getting it. I wrote because I am interested in ethics and nonprofits. If we are going to fulfill our destiny, our goal of reaching good behavior we need to pay a lot of attention to ethics in a way that the other two sectors [government and for profit entities] do not. It is a book that challenges nonprofits to better their role in society. [It] explains how charities must push themselves to enact corrective measures.

KM: The book suggests that like charities, the government and business sectors could benefit from taking a corrective stance on lapses of ethical judgment - please elaborate. Discuss why you believe this to be so.

DW: Ethics sits in a place where the law doesn’t reach, but still working to care about what other people do. In ethics, we can look at compensation of executives at a large company and how they come to decide what is reasonable for determining a large salary. How do we determine what is right? The nonprofit world does not have a dog in the fight, but can say here is a thinking strategy so that a company can look at to determine a large salary. Here is the process we went through. If the nonprofit world can help in this thought pattern, it will help calm issues of suspicion. There are thousands of questions that can be asked like that, where people can look to the nonprofit world and perhaps apply those principals to the other two sectors. It [ethics] is understanding what our values are and examining them. We can create some guidance and add to the process and the conversation. The nonprofit sector can a play a large role.

KM: What impact do you believe this publication will have on the field?

DW: I hope the book will have a huge impact on the field. We don’t often think in terms of ethics, but it is always the underbelly of everything we do. I use to be heavily involved in planned giving, for years and years and still am. I love planned giving and that is how I came into the nonprofit world. In my first book, which was about ethics, people said ethics is not the real thing. It is really about the math and science of it all, the taxes, etc. And I disagree. I think we need to understand ethics and ethics allows us to understand everything else. Building the atomic bomb is a good, albeit extreme, example. To build it took a lot of smart people using their brains, but to decide to drop it – well that took intelligence of a different kind. We had to call on ethical values in deciding whether or not to drop the bomb. We had to call on ethical decision-making process, which is, as I mentioned earlier, weighing one goal against another: right vs. right; evaluating values - we are not good at that. We take it for granted. It is my view that ethics is everything. Charities have to stand back and view the process by which they make decisions. It is my view that ethics supersedes everything else. It is not anti-capitalism. It is pro-capitalism. Ethics allows us to consider thinking strategies that can be considered to business processes or whatever.

KM: Is there is one main idea that you want readers to walk with, and if so what would that be?

DW: That ethical decision-making is a learned discipline that needs far more attention. Especially in the nonprofit world, which I think is society’s ethical sector.

KM: Ethical codes are probably disarming to many in the sector, but they do exist. Can you point to any such codes that you believe can help infuse a new commitment to integrity within the sector?

DW: The Association of Fundraising Professionals does a good job on ethical education, but there is more that can be done. Just to read a code and sign it – that’s not the limit of ethical thinking. Think of the United States Constitution. You can read it in about 20 minutes. Although, most people seem never to have read it. I used to teach the Constitution and I had my students read it out loud during class so I could be sure they’d be prepared in later classes for the discussions. But the Constitution is a set of broad principles. We have in freedom of the press and other freedoms, but they don’t mean anything until you have a reason to act on them, or if there is a conflict. The right of free speech is meaningless unless you exercise it; challenge it with something other people might not like. That’s what I try to with the Ethics Corner (on the Washington, DC planned giving site:, and that’s what I do with these books: I try to look at the conflicts through an ethics prism to develop a real understanding of how to approach a dilemma. You have to give words and ideas meaning, and in ethics you have to embody the codes – make them come to life. They cannot just be read.

KM: In general do you think professional fundraisers understand the need for more ethical engagement within the sector?

DW: I am afraid that I have to answer that question in the negative. In general, I do think that fundraisers understand it. There was a blog article once regarding an ethics survey that noted most fundraisers don’t think ethics are important. They are confronted with ethical decisions regularly, so the blog itself really said that ethics – or at least a serious examination of how decisions are made – is not a big deal. They are saying they think that people are basically ethical, so why worry about it? There were five people who responded to the blog, including me, [noting] that this is not about reflecting issues in daily life, but in nonprofits. And there are questions that come up all the time. Even if we don’t think we are confronted with ethical issues, we are.

KM: Including your book, can you suggest a few good resources for those interested in learning more about ethics in the sector?

DW: The Institute for Global Ethics in Maine; they don’t concentrate on nonprofits, but they ask the right questions and they have a considered approach to issues. Guidestar ran an article that said, “all nonprofits need to pay attention to ethics”…it is the important thing.

KM: Why ethics? Why has this become your passion?

DW: It began in the 1980s when I was involved in planned giving. In 1982 the markets started their twenty-year surge. Around that time planned giving started taking off and people started talking about tax benefits. In the process, people were talking about how the tax benefits were great for donors, so great, in fact, that the benefits could outweigh any need for a charitable impulse. I said, “Hey there are charities here that are involved. The tax benefit should play a subservient role to the philanthropic benefits.”

We need to do more about understanding the complexities of things and this is where the idea of ethics comes in. People need to recognize that there are lots of things that the law does not answer – and most of these are ethical issues. If you are development officer and a donor offers you a gift, are you ethically obligated not to accept it? If you become a friend to that same person and then he or she dies and wants to leave you money – is that wrong? The answer is not always definitely yes or no. It is intellectually lazy not to consider the ramifications. I think we need some robust discussions on this topic. And I know we have room for exploration…lots of room.

KM: With so much focus on international fundraising and philanthropy, what is the role of ethics within the context of cultural differences and cultural competency among U.S. fundraising professionals?

DW: Clearly, as cultures around the world are varied, the ethical challenges are enormous. This is because the idea of ethics is so closely related to cultural norms. The biggest challenge, by far, to me, is to determine which customs are to be worked with and which are to be rejected. That is, are there some practices that United States fundraising professionals find so abhorrent that we cannot condone them - under any circumstances? For example, should the issue of bribes, which are often useful to get things done with the approval of some governments, be fought with the same strict ethical rules that apply to nonprofits in this country?

The mission of understanding the role of ethics in other parts of the world has two prongs: determining what questionable practices we find acceptable - without declaring them acceptable in our world - and then creating a strategy to challenge the unacceptable ones.

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