When neutrality is not an option


Saerin Cho


Some civil society organisations, or individuals associated with them, engage in egregiously distasteful behavior. This includes activities that are illegal, discriminatory, hateful, disrespectful, bullying, fraudulent, deceptive, or offensive. TechSoup’s real examples include an executive director arrested for mismanaging funds for private benefit, a CEO arrested for suspicion of child prostitution, and an organisation designated as a hate group by another organisation.

When informed of these conducts, we simply do not have the luxury of remaining neutral or not engaging. At TechSoup, a disqualification – of an otherwise valid civil society organisation under the localised eligibility definition in its jurisdiction – means being excluded from a community of 1.3 million civil society organisations that work with the TechSoup Global Network of 60+ partners worldwide, and access to resources from our donors, strategic partners, and funders.

The Neutrality Paradox is real and so is our responsibility to respond to these inquiries while pursuing our mission to create a more equitable planet. We take both very seriously. Here is what we have learned so far and wish to contribute to the larger dialogue on the Neutrality Paradox:

1. Maintain appropriate policies and procedures.

Creating and maintaining appropriate policies and procedures shows transparency, manages expectations, and demonstrates integrity in our decisions. They do not have to be extensive or perfect, as they can and will grow with our experience. They also ensure independence from others’ decisions or designations.

2. Decide what to review and how to review.

Be clear about what you are reviewing and how to evaluate such information. Is the conduct illegal under local law, or in violation of local customs? If the conduct is neither illegal nor violative of local customs, will you impose your own customs of what is acceptable? The organisation’s website, social media, and news articles discussing the organisation may shed light on its actions and values. How much credibility and weight should you place on each of these sources?

3. Presume innocence until guilt is proven.

Presumption of innocence is a legal right of criminally accused in many places around the world. It is also an international human right under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11. The individuals whose actions we review may not be criminally accused. However, with discrimination, explicit and implicit bias, and social polarisation disturbingly still prevalent across the globe, this is a principle I feel very comfortable recommending. My hope is that this presumption will invite grace and creativity in how we respond.

4. Resist the temptation to attribute a person’s conduct to an organisation.

Take a pause and look for strong ties to justify such attribution. What is the individual’s role and how much influence does the individual exercise in the organisation? How does the conduct relate to the organisation’s mission? Did the organisation explicitly or implicitly condone the conduct at issue?

5. Keep calm, objective, and factual.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines objective as dealing with facts ‘… as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.’ No matter how distasteful or disagreeable the conduct, we must set aside our emotions and review the facts as objectively as possible. Where we face a designation by another – such as a hate group – we must look beyond the emotions elicited by such designation and again, look at the facts.

6. Avoid getting stuck at discussions.

‘Indecision and reveries are the anesthetics of constructive action.’ – Sylvia Plath.

It is often too easy to get stuck at discussions and more discussions. To avoid getting stuck, first, set up a fact gathering and analysis process. Second, establish a clear decision-making process, including the owner and deadline. Finally, during the entire process, remind everyone involved that our endeavour is not to make the right decision, but to make the most appropriate and defensible decision given all circumstances.

7. Ensure appropriate representation in the decision-making process.

It turns out ‘who should be involved?’ is a tough one to answer. How do we achieve proper representation, efficiency, and fairness in our decisions? The challenge is amplified in a global setting where we have different laws, customs, risk tolerance levels, and even different time zones, at play.

For TechSoup, we have a dual process involving anti-discrimination policy and community standards. The anti-discrimination policy was amended in late 2016 and the decision-making processes have been greatly refined since. Upon a submission of a review request, the legal team has a two-tier review process and sometimes holds a group discussion before a decision is made on qualification.

Our community standards review – which reviews organisations for potential conduct that is demonstrably fraudulent, deceptive, or offensive – has been less formal thus far and is currently being more refined. The initial review and assessment will continue to be performed by a legal team member. However, because the community standards are not limited to the confines of applicable laws, the final decision appropriately rests on a larger group representing different teams and stakeholders.

8. Preserve a diligent record for reference.

Memories fade and people change jobs. Having a record of past cases is helpful for new staff to reference, honour the established procedures, and ensure consistency in decisions. We often spend more energy on supporting our decision to disqualify but we are learning that it is equally important to keep a record of why we decided not to disqualify as well.

9. Continue learning and growing.

Nothing ever stays the same. Nor should it. We must regularly assess the sufficiency of our policies and procedures and adjust as necessary. How is the intake and fact-gathering process? Is the review and decision-making process transparent and objective? Are the policies and procedures still transparent, relevant, helpful, and equitable? How do we adapt to meet the changing needs – including appropriate risk tolerance levels – of our beneficiaries, our donors, supporters and strategic partners, and our organisation? As long as we continue to seek, we will find ways to keep learning and growing. We always do.

Saerin Cho is Chief Counsel of Global Eligibility and Associate General Counsel of TechSoup.

Tagged in: neutrality paradox

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