A New Ethics Environment

You may think that choruses are immune from the transformations that will result from the business and ethics crises that beset politicians and corporations. Far from it. Ethics touches every element of a modern chorus—including board, management, artists, and audience.

For example, what if an involved and supportive board member offers to print your season brochure “at a reduced cost?” What if a father threatens to sue claiming that the new music director is “extremely friendly and aggressive” with his 13-year-old daughter? What if you know that the monies brought in from your last fundraising campaign were not expended in the way donors were told? What if your executive director is not disclosing what you consider to be a financial risk with the board? What if...

9/11/01, accounting scandals, lawsuits against the Catholic Church, changes in nonprofit governance and finances—as well as our fast-changing world—have all combined to produce a lasting impact on the U.S. business and organizational ethics landscape. Compounding the impact of these changes are the unavoidable reactions to such changes by the public, professionals, lawmakers—and each of us. “We live in a litigious age,” says Christine Bullin, president and general director of Chanticleer, one of the best-known professional choruses. “Appearances are important, self-examination is important. A responsible board wants to protect their organization, and a genuine ethics effort is one critical means of doing so,” she suggests.

Choruses are already feeling the impact and will feel it even more in the years ahead. New ethics expectations of leaders, a quickly changing nonprofit governance realm, conflicts of interest, the cascade impact of the newly passed federal laws, privacy matter concerns, trademark challenges, physical security demands, as well as numerous other difficulties facing communities and families are combining to create a very challenging environment for choruses to operate effectively—and ethically.

“In the past,” says Ann Meier Baker, president & CEO of Chorus America, “codes of ethics have been developed specifically for boards. But to be relevant and effective today, an ethics program needs to apply universally to everyone in the organization—including staff, volunteers, singers, and the music director, as well as the board.”

“We often talk about artistic excellence as being the gold standard,” says Diane Newcom, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Chorale. “But for us to be excellent we need to be equally sure we have excellence on the business side as well. Paying attention to ethics issues and developing a staff code of conduct has helped us sustain our overall excellence and increased financial opportunities.”

She adds, however, that successfully managing the myriad of newly blossoming ethical issues—and emerging regulations—takes a coordinated and persistent effort. Staff, board, chorus members, their parents, supporters, and the community all have to work together to create an environment in which high standards are fostered each day.

“This is particularly important for us as we are about children,” says Newcom. To uphold the safety and dignity of its young members (as well as the organization itself), the Chorale has developed a set of policies just to deal with the special issues of working closely with children. “We go on tour, we stay in peoples’ homes—we have to be absolutely sure that the children know what is (and is not) appropriate to the extent that it is second nature for them,” notes Newcom.

Best Practices

How can your chorus get started establishing such policies? Two critical questions quickly arise: 1) What level of responsibility and accountability does your organization really have vis-à-vis ethical issues (short answer: more than you think)? And 2) If you want to create a more positive ethical and leadership environment, what, in practical terms, should you actually do? You can start by asking yourselves the questions in the accompanying resource, Seven Critical Questions To Help Your Chorus Develop An Ethics Program.

The elements of a “best practices” ethics program often include the following:

  • Clear ethics/integrity vision statement
  • Ongoing leadership/management commitment
  • Some type of ethics management structure
  • Values statement and code of ethics
  • A designated ethics official
  • Ethics communications/training
  • A disciplinary or accountability system
  • Regular data gathering and monitoring

In many other segments of our economy (nonprofits, defense, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, etc.), it has been found that an effort simply to comply with the law is not enough. The key to building a positive organizational culture that operates successfully is a compliance and ethics effort. Each reinforces and strengthens the other.

Genuine ethics efforts along with ethical leadership are smart governance and organizational practice. They also help to build and sustain positive values and community.

Ethics Efforts Help Build a Strong Organizational Culture and Community

“As a community, this is a good thing,” notes Bullin, who suggested at a recent Chorus America meeting that ethics issues should be on chorus radar screens. “Choruses should act now to develop stronger ethical standards.” Accordingly, Chanticleer is currently engaged in the process of developing new board policies and a code of ethics. She goes on to note that “our entire community should hold itself to high standards,” enabling organizations and their members to be protected and better able to fulfill their goals.

The vast majority of the Fortune 1000 companies, professions and professional societies, many nonprofits, and nearly all government institutions now have a code of ethics and some form of ongoing ethics effort. This is not because they were all mandated to do so (although some were); this is because they have found an ethics program to be an essential component to the effective management of their organizations, institutions, and professions.

Of course, such ethics systems are not foolproof. There are, and will continue to be, failures. Nonetheless, the overall impact of an emphasis on ethics matters has been to legitimize the dialogue within many organizations and inspire both members and their leaders to act in a manner that strengthens organizational culture and builds community. Such programs, even if quite simple and humble, have been shown to lower instances of misconduct, raise trust in leadership, enhance compliance with rules and regulations, as well as encourage the handling of ethical concerns internally—before an ethics issue becomes a larger or more public matter.

In light of the other pressing concerns that face you on a daily basis as an involved chorus leader, you may consider the notion of a code of ethics or some type of ethics program a good idea, but one for the “future,” when your chorus can take more time to address it. In light of the rapid changes confronting the business climate in the United States that future may very well be now.

Why? Incorporating ethics more formally into your efforts will not only help to reduce risks, but it will help your chorus leaders and members develop a better overall organization. This is just one of a number of reasons why choruses should take steps to develop a stronger ethics focus:

  • A focus on ethics and high standards is, and has been for some time, simply a matter of good governance and good management.
  • Fostering an organizational culture in which values are taken seriously and shared is the very essence of building community—something choruses are ideally suited to do.
  • High ethical standards, and trust in particular, are absolutely vital to the very concept of a chorus and the community that you create.
  • The public and government regulators are increasingly demanding higher ethical standards for all types of organizations, including small nonprofits like many choruses.
  • The recent United States Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 strongly suggests that ethical standards for anyone involved in financial matters will soon become indispensable, if not compulsory.
  • Insurance companies could likely jump on the bandwagon and simply require certain ethics efforts before they agree to underwrite many insurance policies, such as directors and officers insurance for your board members.
  • Ethics programs help reduce risk and solve ethical issues before they become larger public matters.