52 Tips in 52 Weeks: Helping the Helpers

December 29, 2020

During 2020, my family and I have taken some extra time to sit down in our home to watch movies.  One of the movies I enjoyed most in this year was the 2019 movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks. I just loved this movie – just as I adored watching Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood as a young girl.  In these times, I find myself reflecting on the quote from Fred Rogers, “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’”

So many of these helpers are the folks leading, employed by, and volunteering for, nonprofit organizations.  I am grateful every day to work with people who are motivated by the world’s challenges and the problems who step up and help.  Central to the work of all nonprofits is the way that we work with others, the way we interact and treat individuals in our midst. Oftentimes, we are so laser-focused on the crisis immediately in front of us that we shortchange our efforts to support our staff and volunteer teams with guidance and assistance for how they can and should interact with the individuals we serve.

The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector states:

“In rendering its programs or services, a nonprofit should act with the utmost professionalism and treat persons served with respect. Nonprofits should provide an effective procedure for problem solving or reporting grievances, including but not limited to, legal or ethical misconduct by the organization’s employees and volunteers.  The procedure should include actions for addressing and resolving complaints effectively. Nonprofits should have policies in place that protect the confidentiality and privacy of personal information.”

This is a good time to pause to reflect upon how our nonprofits support the work of those who provide our services.  How can we best support our team’s effort to act with professionalism and respect?  How do we ensure that confidential information is carefully and appropriately protected?  How do we ensure that we have an effective procedure for allowing those whom we serve to report grievances or problems?   Many nonprofits have standards in place to provide guidance on their service.  Many nonprofits have well-considered grievance procedures that offer individuals the opportunity to express their grievances in a way that is respectful, effective, and without retaliation. Such grievance procedures should include different avenues for reporting grievances so that the individuals we serve are not forced to choose between not reporting their concerns and reporting their concerns to the very person they believe has wronged them. Confidentiality policies are a must for nearly all nonprofits, but because our services are so varied, these approaches to confidentiality are unique and varied as well. Consider the confidentiality concerns with a nonprofit hospital compared to the confidentiality concerns with an art gallery.  Confidentiality is important to both institutions but the details and how they are carried out will likely differ tremendously.

The Standards for Excellence educational resource packet on Working Professionally and Respectfully with Program Stakeholders addresses the three main topics of respect, confidentiality and grievance procedures and features a sample statement on privacy, a sample statement on confidentiality, and a sample policy on fundamental human rights.    

This educational resource packet and the full series of all packets – including sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management – can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner,– one of the over 175 Standards for Excellence  Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director of Programs for Maryland Nonprofits and the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-four years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management.