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An Introduction to Ethics for the Volunteer Engagement Profession

An Introduction to Ethics for the Volunteer Engagement Profession

A hand with a pen checking Yes on a Yes/No checklist

Who do you consider to be an ethical person?

Undoubtedly, several people who clearly fit that description come to mind. We all have a fairly good idea of what “being ethical” means, based on our own experiences, values and beliefs. We recognize that ethics are relevant to every major social problem facing the world today and influence daily decisions made by individuals, businesses and nonprofits. Yet we still struggle in both our personal and work-related roles with tough, ethical questions that seem to have no easy answers. 

This two-part article on ethics for the Volunteer Engagement profession launches a new Engage section called Ethics that will focus on the professional ethics of leading volunteers. In this Part 1, authors Katie Campbell, former Executive Director of the CCVA (Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration) and Ethics Editor Erin Spink introduce ethics and explore the idea of the “ethical backpack” we all carry with us.* In the next issue of Engage, Part 2 of this article will introduce the code of ethics for the Volunteer Engagement profession.

Defining ethics and why are they important

Let’s start with a definition from the internationally recognized Josephson Institute for Ethics:

Ethics refers to principles that define behavior as right, good and proper. Such principles do not always dictate a single “moral” course of action, but provide a means of evaluating and deciding among competing options.

The terms “ethics” and “values” are not interchangeable. Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave, whereas values are the inner judgments that determine how a person actually behaves. Values concern ethics when they pertain to beliefs about what is right and wrong. Most values, however, have nothing to do with ethics. For instance, the desire for health and wealth are values, but not ethical values.

Most of us think of ethics in very personal terms. You might say you value punctuality, creativity or being organized. These are perfectly fine attributes to have or aspire to, and probably to affect your behavior. But they are not ethical values because they do not dictate what is right or wrong. However, if you also say you value honesty, we immediately feel the connection to ethical behavior. Honesty is an ethical value because we can all agree that a moral person should behave honestly.

Values assume a much greater meaning the minute we become part of an organization or an established group of people. At that point, individual values are not enough to define what behavior will or will not be acceptable or tolerated. Definitions of right and wrong may vary, even if the group is composed of individuals who all consider themselves to be “ethical.” This is why many businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and professions have developed codes of ethics and include this topic in their employee or member training. Within the organizational context, ethics is a system of rules or principles of behavior within a group against which actions can be judged. And it must be agreed upon by all members of the group to ensure consistency of action.

Within the nonprofit sector there are numerous benefits of implementing a code of ethics. Basing management practices and decisions on a set of core ethical values will result in an organization that:

  • Is accessible to diverse groups and individuals;
  • Attracts volunteers, donors and supporters;
  • Strives for excellence;
  • Maintains the public trust;
  • Sustains a helping environment;
  • Is at a lower risk for legal actions against it; and
  • Focuses on core mission delivery.

On a personal level, people have lots of reasons for acting ethically. Doing so may lead to greater self-esteem by gaining the approval of loved ones or peers. It may create a personal advantage in dealings with others. It may be a way of demonstrating commitment to religious beliefs. Or it may simply be a habit, ingrained in one’s character since childhood.

The ethical backpack

At this point, you may still feel a bit overwhelmed by the concept of ethics, so let’s simplify things a bit. Think of ethics as a backpack that each of us carries with us as we journey through our lives. My ethics backpack is part of who I am and influences how I behave. It is deeply personal and unique. Yes, I may have some of the same contents in my backpack as you have in yours, but other content could be quite different. Thus, I should never assume that another person’s ethical backpack is exactly the same as mine.

Now let’s look more closely at what’s in an ethics backpack. The content consists of three types of ethical values:

The words organizational ethics, personal ethics and professional ethics are pointing to My Backpack

The first type is Personal Ethics. These ethics are mine and very subjective. My values and principles are influenced by my history, experience, religious beliefs, ethnic culture, etc. My personal ethics are what guide my immediate gut reaction to a situation – the internal voice that says “no, that’s not right!” Based on the personal ethics contents of my backpack, “doing the right thing” may mean something different for me than for you.

The second type of backpack content is Organizational Ethics. This is usually a set of principles adopted by my workplace, or perhaps by an organization where I volunteer. Often called a “code of ethics,” this type of ethical values is designed to ensure consistency of action, rather than leaving it up to each person to behave according to their own personal ethics. When I sign on to join an organization as an employee or a volunteer, I agree to abide by the values and rules of that organization.

The third type of content in my backpack is Professional Ethics. Practitioners in many fields have developed their own code of ethics. In fact, one of the hallmarks of being a professional is a commitment to uphold a universally-accepted set of values and principles that governs practices  that exist in a wide range of settings. For example, medical ethics apply equally to professionals working in a hospital, a private practice or a free clinic. Similar to doctors, lawyers, accountants, HR and fundraising professionals, leaders of volunteer engagement also have a set of professional ethics to guide our work; we introduce and discuss the Volunteer Engagement profession’s code of ethics in Part 2 of this article.

Universal values

Years ago, the Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted extensive international research which led to the conclusion that all kinds of people everywhere agree on a set of core values, or what Josephson called “Pillars of Character.” Amazing though it may sound, these six core ethical values transcend cultural, religious and socioeconomic differences: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. As such, these core values provide a clear and credible thread between the various types of ethics in our backpack, reminding us of our common ground as human beings.

Because they are universal among all people, these core values also serve as the ideal foundation for creating a common set of ethical principles which can be applied when searching for “the right thing to do.” Many organizations and professions (including our own) have developed their codes of ethics based on these core values, which explains why many codes have very similar language.  

Ethical dilemmas

Given the three types of ethical content that we all carry with us, is it any wonder we encounter situations where some of the contents clash with each other? When one value system in our backpack collides with another, we find ourselves in an ethical dilemma – very uncomfortable and unsure of the “right” course of action.

Not every uncomfortable situation involves ethics. Sometimes it is simply a messy supervision situation or management challenge that we don’t enjoy having to deal with. Here are some helpful questions to help identify an ethical dilemma:

  • Are there unique aspects of the situation that make you question whether the “normal” policy or response is the most appropriate way of addressing the situation?
  • Are there multiple stakeholders involved who could be harmed by your decision?
  • Does the unusual complexity of the situation make it difficult to determine what is “right” and “wrong”?

If the answer to any one of these questions is “yes,” then ethics are probably involved. At the heart of every ethical dilemma is a conflict of values or ethical principles. That’s why we struggle with knowing how to respond. And it’s why it is so important to have a professional and/or organizational code of ethics as a compass. Being able to name the values that are in conflict will confirm that ethics are involved and provide a first step in ethical decision-making.

As humans, we have wrestled with ethical dilemmas for centuries. There have been times in history when certain issues have emerged as particularly “sticky,” galvanizing lots of public discussion and activism. As we consider the world around us in 2020, we can probably agree that conversations around equity, social and racial justice, rights of citizenship and accountability involve many ethical questions. It may feel as though the kinds of dilemmas we encounter today are more complex. We may even feel that our personal ethics are being questioned and challenged more than ever before.

As leaders of volunteers, some of the big ethical issues we face today occur at multiple levels and within multiple spaces. Consider these situations: 

  • With volunteers, are there ethical conflicts amongst volunteers with staff, donors, members of the public and even the people you are delivering services to?
  • Within your organization, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, are volunteers being placed at risk through their continued involvement with your organization? In doing their roles, are they unintentionally exposing their families to additional risk?
  • Within society-at-large, does your volunteer base accurately and representationally reflect the community it operates out of? What biases, micro-aggressions and barriers exist based on your current practices and organizational culture?

Conclusion and a poll request

In times like these, it is imperative that we become very familiar with the contents of our own backpacks and sharpen our ethical, decision-making skills.

In Part 2 of this article, we will dive deeper into the professional ethics which guide the leadership and management of volunteers. We will also take a look at recommended decision-making processes to navigate ethical dilemmas in our work or personal lives.

Till then, we leave you with a simple but important poll question:

On a scale of 1 to 5 – with 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “very” – how confident are you that you can identify and resolve ethical issues in your work as a leader of volunteers?

Please leave your answer in the Comment section below. Thank you! 


* Authors’ Note: The authors would like to note that much of the foundational concepts and examples provided in this article are based on the excellent work done by the CCVA, and is shared and referenced here with the organization’s generous permission.

Resources to Learn More

  • Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration  (content on professional ethics)
  • Independent Sector (search “Ethics & Accountability” in Resources section)
  • Josephson Institute of Ethics
  • “Complete Guide to Ethics Management:  An Ethics Toolkit for Managers” by Carter McNamara  (free 20 page booklet)
  • “How Good People Make Tough Choices” by Rushworth M. Kidder A good general introduction to ethical living, very readable.
To add or view comments

Mon, 11/16/2020

My answer would be 3/5. I think a year ago it might have been a 4 out of 5, but with the changes we have all faced in 2020, with COVID-19 constantly evolving and for me, a greater personal awareness and focus on the realities of inequality, I think 3 is more accurate. It’s up to us as leaders of volunteers to make sure we are moving towards a target of 5 through ongoing learning and evaluation and not remaining stagnant. 

Sun, 11/29/2020

Definitely agree, Erin, that the pandemic has brought to light a lot of realities that weren't as visible before and challenged the profession in some new ways which are a great opportunity for growth!

Mon, 11/16/2020

I answer 4 out of 5, largely because the CCVA resources and study process created a foundation that has allowed me to through ethical dilemmas over the past 15 years.  I look forward to this section of the journal, as this is a very challenging topic. 

Sun, 11/29/2020

Thank you Allyson! Fully agree, the CCVA has provided foundational resources and it was a no-brainer to use them to help launch this section!

Tue, 11/17/2020

Love this new section and great article. Ethics is so often seen as theoretical, but if there’s ever been a year to roll the sleeves up and get into praxis, this is it!

One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this year for me has been around enabling healthy debate and dialogue within the volunteer management team. The scenarios we’ve been thrown this year have stretched organisational protocol to breaking point, and that breach must be filled with a robust and honest discussion space among leaders. I’ve been practicing how to facilitate meetings to enable debate and welcome a diversity of views, as we grapple with competing claims around the ‘dignity of risk’, inclusion, pragmatism, and spheres of responsibility, all in an environment of dynamic uncertainty.

I think if nothing else we’ve become more comfortable with disagreement, consensus-building and negotiation, and that’s good!


Sun, 11/29/2020

Nicky, that's amazing! Would love to discuss further how disagreement, consensus-building and negotiation can be important tools to making ethical decisions using real-life examples. I smell a future article!

Tue, 11/24/2020

On a scale of 1 to 5 how confident are you that you can identify and resolve ethical issues in your work as a leader of volunteers?  I would have to split the vote and say 5 on identify and 3 on resolve! Seeing and naming the issue is easier than resolving a situation that may involve multiple stakeholders who may be carrying around very different backpacks.


Sun, 11/29/2020

Really important observation, Lynn, thank you! I totally agree that seeing situations is easing than resolving them, but I'd also say naming them has been hard without a solid understanding of why a situation is an ethical issue. It's my hope that this section helps illuminate all of these areas!

Wed, 11/25/2020

I'm excited for this proposed new focus of attention. I have felt rather alone for quite a few years now in talking about ethics in volunteer engagement: Over the years, I've blogged about

  • the ethics of voluntourism - where volunteers with no specialized skills pay to go abroad and do activities that local people would actually like to do themselves, or activities that weren't identified by local people as being a priority, and there's an overall feeling of "vanity volunteering" or "White Saviorism." 
  • the ethics of paying to volunteer - when is it acceptable and when not?
  • nonprofits that allow people to pay them a fee and, in return, those people get a letter saying they engaged in a certain number of hours of virtual volunteering, but the "volunteering" was watching videos, or putting donation boxes around town to raise money for the nonprofit. 

And the angry pushback from nonprofits who are promoting voluntourism or are charging volunteers for what I consider very suspect "volunteering", or from volunteers themselves, has been intense and, at times, scary. You can see these blogs by going to my blog site and searching for the word ethics.

A million years ago, Mary Merrill did a three-hour intensive workshop at a conference on the ethics of volunteerism. I think every attendee, at some point, cried. Some were angry, some felt heard for the first time, some saw something they were dealing with in their own organizations. I've never forgotten it. And I've never seen anything like it since. It's one of the best workshops I've ever been a part of.

So, in short, hurrah that you are doing this. But be ready - conversations are going to challenge a lot of people in terms of some deeply-held beliefs and practices they've undertaken, sometimes because they just haven't really thought about it. This gets really, really personal for a lot of folks. But it's a conversation that, absolutely, is needed. 

Sun, 11/29/2020

Thank you Jayne for being a solitary but crucial voice in raising these issues for many years. The editorial team's hope in launching this new section was indeed to spur conversation and push personal and profession-wide examination of the ethics involved with our work. If we don't, we cannot grow because growth always involves some  level of discomfort. As you so rightly say, it's a conversation that absolutely is needed!