By Irene Rabinowitz
In the early 1970s, I participated in a small group class on Judaism and Ethics held at Columbia University’s Adult Education program taught by Rabbi Seymour Siegel, z”l, a professor of Ethics and Theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I had not yet started my career in the nonprofit sector; that came more than ten years later. My remembrances are hazy, but what did stick with me is that in all business dealings there is a responsibility to not only protect your own interests, but to make sure that you are not harming the interests of the other party.
Now, having spent over thirty years in the nonprofit sector, the guide on ethics in my work has been the Association of Fundraising Professionals Ethical Standards. Recently, however, I had to look back at the lessons learned decades ago about how we, as Jews, decide what is ethical in our work life. In our sector that means paying attention to these issues within our organizations and when working with clients as a consultant.
The global pandemic has created economic havoc for our sector, both for organizations and for funders. With furloughs, colleagues doing work that we always saw as essential, such as educators, are now seen as non-essential. CEOs of nonprofits have had to make tough decisions about staff resources and funders have to watch their bottom line as endowment investments roller coaster with the financial markets.
For those of us who work as free-lance consultants, economic security is on hold for most. So, when the opportunity to work with a client on a very worthwhile project is presented, we are eager to jump in and do what we do best. Although my work encompasses other areas such as organizational structure and best practices in donor relations, I also still enjoy the process of working on grants for organizations with limited in-house resource development staff.
When approached to write a complex grant for an organization recently, it was important to look at all factors. It was a format that I was familiar with and could have easily tackled. The client has recently received information about the funding although the RFP had been released almost a month earlier. Still, I knew that the project was doable. My quote for services would have provided me with a much-needed cushion in my quickly diminishing bank account.
Slow down, I said to myself. Through lengthy and detailed email exchanges with the organization, it became apparent that they had not fully looked at the requirements needed to meet the needs of the funder. The sample proposal provided to me by the organization outlined a project much smaller than that which was being sought by the funder. The project would have to be scaled upward by tripling the budget and goals in order to meet the funder’s requirements for the funding round. As we continued to exchange emails, I felt obligated to point out that, with the time limitations, this would need to be done quickly. And the question had to be asked: does the organization have the capacity to scale upward in such a quick and dramatic manner?
After re-reading the request for proposals form the funder, I also realized that their project was skating on the edge of the scope of acceptable areas of funding. At that point, the potential client asked for a quote from me and I provided it, with the caveat that I had some concerns.
And then I started to think more about Rabbi Siegel’s class, more than I was thinking about my dwindling bank account. Was it ethical and within Jewish values to skirt around the issue with the potential client? Was I not obligated to be forthright and to express what I had discovered? Which was that their return on investment (paying me) would not be realized because there was little, if no, chance that their project would be funded. Knowing how competitive this round of funding would be and knowing that the parameters would most likely not include this project, I had to be forthright and say just that.
Overnight I worried if I had not been firm enough in convincing them that moving forward was not in their best interest. But in the morning, an email arrived telling me that they decided not to submit a proposal and thanking me for the guidance. And asking me for what other services I could provide to their organization.
These times are difficult. Resources are limited. It is at times like this, especially times like this, that we need to check our standards as professionals. Once recently, I warned a grant writer that the proposal being submitted was unlikely to be funded because it was not within the parameters. And it was not. The organization used resources that could have been used elsewhere. As I was emailing with my potential client, I remembered this.
But mostly I remembered the lessons learned decades ago from Rabbi Siegel about how we must take care to put our interests on a level with those with whom we are doing business. As those in the medical profession say, do no harm.
Irene Rabinowitz lives in Jerusalem after making aliyah in 2014. Her 30+ year career includes eighteen years as the Director of Helping Our Women in Massachusetts. She has served as the Development Director at the Jerusalem Open House and recently retired as the Resource Development Manager at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center. She is the US Charity Specialist for Fogel CFO & Management Services. Irene also consults privately with nonprofit organizations in both Israel and the United States.