ASAE Annual Meeting

Ethics 101 for Association Professionals

By Association Adviser staff • August 17, 2021

It’s time that we rethink the ways we look at ethics.

Conversations about ethics are often thought to be (and in some cases rightly are) punitive in nature. We tend to only talk about ethics once they’ve been breached. Instead, our expectations around ethical behavior should be part of an ongoing dialogue across all areas of our associations, agreed Nabil El-Ghoroury of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Lindsay Childress-Beatty of the American Psychological Association, and MaryAnne Bobrow of Bobrow Associates, Inc. The three presented a Learning Lab titled Ethics 101 for Association Professionals at the ASAE 2021 Annual Meeting.

An open environment where ethics are discussed and displayed improves our relationships, promotes professional behavior, encourages accountability, and protects the public served by our association and our members. 

It’s important for associations to create a culture where ethical behavior starts at the top with leadership and ethics policies are clearly communicated and understood by everyone – staff, members and volunteers – who play a role in your association. It’s a mistake to assume that “everyone knows what’s right,” when human tendency is to cut corners or go through the motions, especially when under stress.

At the end of the day, ethics is about trust, so it’s important for even the smallest of actions to be done well and with ethics in mind.

El-Ghoroury, Childress-Beatty and Bobrow went into detail on a few areas in particular where associations tend to run into ethical challenges, including embezzlement, conflict of interest, social media and gifts. But no matter the specific action in need of addressing, they offered a flowchart and three broad steps your association should take:

Ethical Decision-Making Flowchart

> Document the problem

> Ask yourself, Is the action legal?

> If legal, is there still an ethical issue?

> Consider conflict of interest and objectivity

> Review relevant policies and precedents (what have you done before in similar situations)

> Brainstorm and evaluate options

3 Actions to Take for a More Ethical Association

  • Consult! Talk to colleagues, your community, your industry association and leaders for guidance and advice
  • Develop clear policies and procedures. A clear policy sets expectations and provides a framework for how to handle any situation with consistency. 
  • Consider behavioral ethics concepts. Take the time to learn about why people make the decisions they do. The book “Blind Spots” by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, which outlines human tendencies over the assumption there are always bad actors, is a recommended place to start.

The ASAE Code of Conduct and Ethics Toolkit are two additional resources available to associations as they focus on ethics as a cornerstone of their culture.