Classroom Ethics Translating to the Real World: It Can Be Painful



By Kelly Mendenhall, Foster Parent Recruiter/Trainer and Home Study Writer, Youth Villages, Tennessee

In my senior year of my bachelor’s program at EMU, I really had no idea what I wanted to do long term. One day I was standing in the Political Science Department lobby when a fellow student mentioned something about a Master of Public Administration, with certification in nonprofit management. I thought, “Eureka! This could be the answer!” I returned in 2008, and one of my very first courses was Foundations of US Nonprofits with John Fike. This was when the issue of ethics in the nonprofit sector was first introduced to me. Over the years, John Fike and Drs. Ivers and Bernstein drilled home those ideas of ethics: ethics in money, ethics in budgeting, ethics in reporting, paying attention to what data is actually telling us instead of what we want it to be telling us.

I was beyond excited and passionate coming into the nonprofit sector. This was my answer on how to change the world and stay employed doing it! This was how I was going to impact lives and communities and still support myself! I started out in grassroots organizations, totally ignoring the advice of my mentor and teacher John Fike. I was going to be a fundraising and development professional, write grants, win all the money for my favorite causes and organizations, and be happy doing it! Or, so I thought.

I started hearing responses like, “Just report whatever numbers we need to have; no one is going to check it anyway.” I was watching people use company debit cards and credit cards with no system of accountability, receipts not being turned in, endless piles of Lost Receipt Forms stacking up, and administrators who seemed oblivious to the implications or fallout of these types of practices (or lack thereof). Over and over again I was seeing employee burnout and lack of buy-in to the mission of an organization because no one really knew what the mission was anymore. I kept reaching back into my mind about the things I’d learned in school and realized that I was consistently running into everything my professors had taught me to avoid.

Raising money under these circumstances was horrid. I felt like I was in a constant conflict between my personal ethics and my livelihood. If you push too hard against the established norm of an organization, you get chased out. In short, those years were horrible, but last year I got into a large organization that has been at it for 35 years, has amazing checks and balances in place, and has an entire department dedicated to research and making sure we are current in the world of best practices, and I left fundraising and development behind. I was great at raising funds, but I hated it. Some people are cut out for it and love it; I didn’t. I’m so glad I made the change and didn’t let my bad experiences chase me out of the nonprofit sector.

The bottom line: ethics in reporting, budgeting, and spending is vitally important to the functioning and long-term sustainability of any nonprofit organization. However, the trick is not everyone in the nonprofit sector is trained to work in the nonprofit sector. Not every professional in the sector is, well, a professional. Bills and payroll have to be paid, milestones have to be met or grants will be lost, programs need to exist to help vulnerable populations (especially kids), and >sometimes folks get carried away with the idea of doing good work and forget to do that good work well.

My advice to folks thinking of joining this sector:

  • Listen to your mentors and professors. Let your professors become mentors; don’t keep them at arm’s length. The Political Science Department at EMU is unique in its talent pool and professors with a true passion for teaching.
  • Realize that the best laid plans, and lessons taught, are not going to apply to every organization you work for. You will likely come up against having to choose between ethics and livelihood, and it is a hard reality. I advise that if you find yourself in this position, get out as quickly as possible for your sanity’s sake.
  • One of the most frustrating things about being a professional in the nonprofit sector is that some administrators lack a formal education or training in the sector and, therefore, often set bad examples for their employees – rise above, become the boss, and do things right.

Try to remember why you started this all in the first place – to change the world and your community and make an impact. The reality of how that all shakes out isn’t always pretty, but the world needs people like us to keep fighting the good fight.

Kelly Mendenhall is two-time alum of the EMU Political Science Department, with a bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public administration. A Flint native, Kelly now lives in South Central Tennessee with her boyfriend, Nathan, dogs Rosebud and Buster, and cats Omelet and Pequeño. Kelly is a self-proclaimed bleeding-heart-liberal auto-worker kid, living in the conservative south amidst civil war battle sites and historical plantations, causing her to regularly ask herself what planet she is actually living on. Kelly works for Youth Villages as a Foster Parent Recruiter/Trainer and Home Study Writer.


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