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‘NGO halo effect’ associated with unethical behaviour in & by charities, research finds

Melanie May | 5 April 2024 | News

A halo around the sun. By troubletrace_ux on pexels

The aura of moral goodness coming from within charitable organisations can blind employees and volunteers to unethical behaviour, according to research from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.  

Detailed in the thesis ‘The Dark Side of the NGO Halo: Exploring moral goodness as a driver for NGO unethical behavior’, lead researcher Dr Isabel de Bruin found that people in charities can glorify their charities’ noble goals, noble values, and noble people, which can lead to unethical behaviour, termed by de Bruin as the “NGO halo effect”.  This, she states, can also be considered an additional factor to preventing, detecting, and addressing this behaviour. 

The research saw a survey conducted with 256 employees of various charities across the globe in 2023 and showed that respondents strongly believed their cause to be ‘sacred’, ‘extraordinarily important’, and felt deeply connected to it. Interviews also showed respondents to perceive their charity’s mission as ‘part of their DNA’, ‘a life calling’, and ‘embodiment of their moral identity.’

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Quantitive & qualitative research

The research included two empirical studies—a qualitative and quantitative study—to generate support for the validity of the NGO halo effect as an explanatory factor for NGO unethical behaviour. The qualitative study saw an analysis of 34 interviews with NGO staff and volunteers, with 151 unique cases and 17 different types of unethical behaviour identified within the sample. 92% of these cases were related to the NGO halo effect with 22% explained through moral justification (i.e., an ends-justifies-the means mentality), 25% through moral superiority (i.e., where the NGO’s morals are prioritised over legal or social norms) and 45% through moral naivety (i.e., where NGO’s people are prioritised over ethics management).

The quantitative research included regression analysis, which was run with unethical behaviour as the dependent variable. This found that it is positively related to employees’ or volunteers’ glorification of the NGO mission, the glorification of NGO morals, and the glorification of NGO people. A measure for the NGO halo effect was also developed and tested to help identify risk pathways of an inflated appreciation within organisations of mission, morals, and people for unethical behaviour.

Findings

In the thesis, Dr de Bruin says that an internal perception of moral goodness leads to a tendency for self-glorification in which the mission, its underlying values and the people within the organisation are idealised to the extreme. Because they are idealised, the charity’s mission, morals, and people are then prioritised above other considerations. For example, she found, when people in the charity are inherently trusted, trust may be prioritised over upholding the charity’s rules regarding ethics and integrity. Dr de Bruin refers to this as ‘moral naivety’.

In the interviews conducted, moral naivety was identified as a frequent explanation for transgressive behaviour such as discrimination, sexual harassment or bullying; in 45% of cases of such behaviour noted in the interviews, colleagues were given another chance while rules regulating such behaviour were weakly, or not, implemented.  

Dr de Bruin commented:

“When someone works for a charity, it can affirm one’s identity. Professionals and volunteers carefully select which organisation they join because their personal beliefs and values are aligned with those of the charity. But there are potential pitfalls to a strong sense of identification. You then expect people in the organisation to behave according to your expectations, and when they don’t, it can lead to cognitive dissonance. It can be psychologically easier to downplay or ignore unethical behaviour as it means asking fewer, harder questions about yourself and your own perceived identity as ‘good.’

 

“A strong sense of identity with the mission can also explain an ‘ends-justifies-the-means-mentality’. Our survey showed that charity staff and volunteers at charities strongly believe that achieving their charity’s mission by any means necessary is OK. This can extend to organisations manipulating data to exaggerate the impact of their work to raise more funds for their mission.”

The research highlights the ‘NGO halo effect’ as a new risk factor associated with unethical behaviour in and by charities, and calls for the need for oversight of and reflection in charities regarding the extent of the NGO halo.

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