Several years ago, my wife and I quit our jobs and sold our house to head for Cambodia, where we (with a healthy dose of idealism and perhaps a pinch of self-importance) were joining the leadership team of an educational nonprofit started by fellow ND grad Daniela Papi. Jacqueline and I had both been working with the homeless for several years and thought we had a feel for the complexities that accompany the social service sector.
It turns out that we vastly underestimated how challenging a context the “developing world” could be. The constellation of issues facing the population we were there to serve was staggering. Though our organization existed ostensibly to increase access to quality education in the rural villages we targeted, each attempt to make progress toward that goal uncovered another barrier. This made the whole focus-on-your-core-competency approach extremely hard to execute. When people don’t have access to safe drinking water, transportation (even via bicycle) to school, or sufficient resources to feed their families, it makes getting them involved in supporting their local schools quite an uphill battle.
This made our work challenging, but it didn’t create an ethical dilemma for me. In fact, I don’t know that I would’ve recognized the ethical dimension of the situation at the time if Daniela hadn’t been such an incredible leader with a relentless commitment to doing our work the right way and learning as we went.
See, we had devised programs to address the challenges that students and their families faced. A specific example: teacher attendance was a problem, because the woefully inadequate salaries they earned (we worked in public schools that were funded by the government at ridiculously low levels) didn’t allow them to even come close to making ends meet. Thus, during rice harvesting season, teachers needed to be in the fields instead of the classrooms. So the Teacher Assistance Program (TAP) was born. Teachers whose attendance for the month and quality of instruction (based on random observation) were both above a certain threshold were rewarded with rice and cooking oil. The program worked. Results were being accomplished. Donors were happy.
But Daniela wasn’t. And by extension, neither were we. Why? Because the success we were seeing wasn’t sustainable. And when you work in a country like Cambodia—when you step in and mess with the ecosystems of small communities—sustainability is a lot more than a buzzword. We knew that as soon as we stopped funding a program like TAP, the results would soon fade. Real progress would have to be supported with resources from the local communities themselves and would thus be a heck of a lot harder to achieve.
Around us, other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) large and small were making inroads on their projects, able to provide funders with spreadsheets and presentations that told happy tales. I remember originally thinking that Daniela was overly skeptical about other organizations. It took a while to realize that she was actually demonstrating what I consider to be one of the highest forms of ethical leadership: unwavering commitment to doing things the right way, especially when it jeopardizes the short term “success” of your efforts.
The lesson she instilled stays with me today. In a business culture of quick wins and quarterly earnings, the specific practice of anchoring the progress we set out to make in results that will last long-term is as important as ever to keep in mind. It matters for nonprofit work, but it’s just as crucial in the rest of our economy, where it sets apart, over time, the companies that truly add value.
And the broader point—that it’s more than hitting our goals, it’s how we get there—also ends up being the ultimate differentiator. A corporate executive recently told me that one of the most important events in his development as an ethical leader was missing his quarterly number for the first time. As he was rising through the ranks and became known for always hitting his target, pressure started to build little by little to achieve results no matter what. When he didn’t make his mark once (for a legitimate reason), he realized that life went on. He didn’t get fired. In fact, he developed a more important reputation—one for doing the right thing when it mattered.
Is there an area in your organization where you aren’t convinced that results are being achieved in the right way? Are you willing to do something about it?
Blog post published by Notre Dame Alumni Association as part of its "Ethics in Action" series.