Integrity and help – a conversation – Part 1

Nonprofit people in conversation

I ran into a former colleague recently, at a conference for nonprofit organisations in the human services arena. We spoke delightfully for about thirty minutes across a range of topics, mostly to do with nonprofits.

My friend opened by asking me whether or not I believed nonprofits should provide human services, or whether this was the job of the government. I replied although some people think it’s the job of the state to provide for its people, I didn’t necessarily share that view (although neither was I opposed to it).

Equally, I continued, I didn’t necessarily believe the task should fall to nonprofits and, potentially, there was no reason why for-profits couldn’t also deliver human services, as many already do.

Why did I think this?

Because the legal form an entity adopts to deliver its services – whether it is for or nonprofit or operating under the umbrella of a government department – shouldn’t have any bearing on the matter. What really matters is whether an organisation – be it public, nonprofit or privately owned – operates with integrity.

The only reason we tend to want to rely on the nonprofit and public sector forms is we know they are required by law to re-invest their surpluses in the organisation. For-profits of course lack this constraint, and are therefore deemed less trustworthy.

However if we consider that:

  1. nonprofit does not mean no profit and that today all nonprofits need to behave in a business-like fashion if they are to survive
  2. some for-profits might well be extremely interested in providing services which both operate with integrity and properly remunerate their managers, shareholders and staff, and
  3. there are nonprofits that behave corruptly, operating as ‘for profits in disguise’ (that is, finding ways to covertly reward key personnel without overtly distributing profit),

does it really make much difference if the service provider is a for-profit, nonprofit or a government agency?

Moreover, what if we focused on integrity first and worked towards that, rather than relying on legal structures to do it for us?

Granted, as a human race we are perhaps a long way yet from dispensing with legal frameworks. One day however I trust we will have less need for them.

Indeed, as I told my friend, I already knew of one for-profit company that already operates in this way – with utmost integrity and for humanity. And in Australia, there are a growing number of other ‘hybrid’, profit-for-purpose organisations around, many of these occupying the social enterprise space.

The blurring of the line between non and for-profit shouldn’t alarm: nonprofit doesn’t always equal ‘good’ just as for-profit doesn’t always equal ‘greed’. At the end of the day, if an organisation is operating in the human services space (or any space), it needs to first be concerned with integrity – a quality its legal structure will neither confirm nor deny.

by Victoria Lister

6 Comments on “Integrity and help – a conversation – Part 1

  1. This is a very worthy conversation and a very much needed one as well – what this topic brings up for me personally is how integrity in the work place has impacted on me in both for-profits and not-for-profits. Both at the moment do not allow true self care which already shows in the well-being of society in general.

  2. What a fascinating subject! It was not until I read this article that I realized that I equate ‘For profit’ organizations as less trust worthy than non profit organizations. Having worked for the government in the care industry for the last 20 years I know first hand that the quality of care that is delivered comes from the integrity of the individuals delivering it. Someone can work for a non profit organization and have anger issues which always get passed onto co workers and clients and conversely someone can work for an organization that makes profit but if that individual has impeccable integrity then everyone they meet will receive the benefits.

    • I totally agree Alexis. There is definitely an assumption people who chose to work for nonprofits have more integrity and that all corporations are evil! That’s just simply not the case. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 12 years I can tell you I have come across a lot of people and practices that lack integrity and also dealt with many businesses who make profits who care deeply about the community and their place in it. Calling out and breaking down these blanket assumptions and beliefs are what Nonprofit Explore is all about. Lets really shake things up and get to the truth!

      • So true Megan, I’ve seen similar in that I have equally met people in the business space who are all about people and people in the nonprofit sector who are all about self.

  3. I am interested in the term ‘human services’ – what does that really mean? Okay human – that is people, so we have ‘people services’. Now for services does that mean ‘to serve’? Or does it mean to provide something for someone? For me, if we bring it all back to basics and simplicity I would say ‘human services’ means that people care for people. So how is the best way for people to care for people? Firstly it comes back to individual responsibility, that is personal responsibility, meaning caring for self first. After all, until we take personal responsibility for caring for our self first then somewhere in our life we will need to have someone take care of us and then the cycle continues into a ‘human services’ explosion of people trying to help those who are unable or unwilling to take any care for themselves. This is already bankrupting countries worldwide. Can we afford to continue with this never-ending wanting for someone else to take care of us when we have given up our power to take care of ourselves?

    • Susan, I agree completely. Your comment reminded me of a saying I heard once: “I’ll take care of me for you, and you take care of you for me.”

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