Morals matter: What’s to learn from nonprofit research?


Tracey Coule


‘The real issue is about moral compasses in leadership.’ This was the statement made by Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK, on leadership development in civil society organizations (CSOs) last month.

He suggested that many of the biggest challenges that leaders face, now more than ever, are not technical matters but ethical ones and candidly questioned the extent to which leadership development equipped people to make difficult judgment calls on such issues.

Etherington, and much recent global media attention, links the increasing demand for moral and ethical judgments to the changing relationship between CSOs and the state.

One example is the anticipated rise in state-based regulation, sparking concern in some corners over damage to CSO’s freedom to campaignadvocate and pursue charitable missions more generally.

Such situations present tough tensions and choices for those leading CSOs in an increasingly constrained civic space. One response to such environmental pressures is to ‘professionalize’ or become more business-like by adopting practices imported from the for-profit world.

This phenomenon has been widely promoted by states, civil society media and practitioners and adopted by many CSOs in many countries.

Supporters claim business-like, professionalized approaches make CSOs more effective, efficient, accountable and financially disciplined. Others fear that conforming to such pressures threatens the very identity and distinctiveness of civil society organizations and the health of local democracy.

There has been considerable academic attention to this area, with NVSQ articles usefully exploring the causes, structure and processes, and effects of becoming business-like as well as how the professionalization of practitioners occurs.

Beyond this, specific approaches and practices that encourage democratic renewal, participation and critical thought within our field have been identified, including:

  • organizational practices for schooling citizens in democracy and linking participation in the organization with broader political participation;
  • communication practices that can be used to manage the mission-market tension (i.e. the tension between social mission and operating within a market economy); alternative governance practices and their implications for which accountability relationships are prioritized, why and how.

We cannot uncritically assume that morality and ethics are inherent to all nonprofit work, that all CSOs are sites of democracy and participation or that all civil society leadership development pays sufficient attention to such issues.

But, the featured NVSQ research – which will receive in-depth coverage direct from the authors in future posts – is testimony that there are nonprofit practitioners globally who remain committed to advancing democratic and participatory organizational forms, processes and practices; committed to what is often considered to be the essence of CSOs’ distinctiveness.

It is through observation of such practices that nonprofit researchers are providing insights into the very tensions and dilemmas that require a strong moral compass from our leaders.

Classrooms, lecture theatres and training rooms are exactly the places where we can come full loop and connect these kinds of research insights back to practice by asking serious moral and ethical questions about how to make difficult judgment calls.

Tracey Coule is research-to-practice editor, Non profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (NVSQ) and reader in non-profit governance and organization at Sheffield Business School. Email

This article originally appeared on the NVSQ website blog on 14 November 2016. The original article can be found here.

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