Friday, June 15, 2012

When Civic Engagement Imperils the Bottom Line

Free speech and civic participation are cornerstones of democratic society. Individuals who take part in public debate, governance activities, or personal expression through blogs, letters to the news, or yard signs are not only enacting their rights, they are strengthening our social institutions. They bring the perspective of the citizenry (“the average American”) to inform policies and programs. Even when individuals have personal investment in a given cause (more dog parks for the pet lover, safer neighborhoods for the homeowner) their involvement enhances our communities. In doing so, these civic volunteers typically give more in time and effort than they reap in influence and change. Sometimes, they and their employers pay a price for their civic duties.   

A recent article in The New York Times outlined the repercussions experienced by Replacements Ltd, a Greensboro, NC based tableware distributor, when the company publicly and actively worked in opposition to a recent referendum to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. The article reports a deluge of letters and emails from customers terminating their relationships with Replacements. Bob Page, the company’s founder and chairman, didn’t intend to his actions to be “in your face”. They were simply an authentic reflection of his status as a gay man and his refusal to hide on such a significant matter. As Page says in the Times piece, “I am always concerned I will hurt our business. I know we have lost business. But I don’t have a board or shareholders I have to answer to. My life is not about money”.

But what about organizations that have boards and stakeholders? Another compelling example concerns John Tedesco, elected in 2009 to the Wake County (NC) school board while he also served as Chief Development Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle (BBBST). In his role on the school board, Tedesco championed changes is the district’s diversity and school assignment policies that made him a highly visible target on volatile issues. News reports indicate that Tedesco’s employer was the target of criticism and donation boycotts as a result of the positions he took on the school board and the perception that those views were at odds with the mission of BBBST. While BBBST has not commented on the reports, Tedesco resigned from his job with them in 2010.

These cases present the classis ethical dilemma of “competing goods” – it is good to exercise one’s rights to civic engagement and it is good to hold one’s employer harmless for those activities. What can nonprofits feasible and legally do to balance these imperatives? I’m eager to hear from you about your thoughts and experiences.

No comments:

Post a Comment