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The NGO Halo effect: The internal glorification of moral goodness and its relationship to NGO unethical behavior 

By Dr. Isabel de Bruin Cardoso

I considered doing a PhD for close to 15 years. My first full-time position after my Master’s Degree was as a researcher at the University of Pretoria, where it seemed that everyone in my department either had, or was doing a PhD. I found the PhDs a peculiar, but mesmerizing tribe – often murmuring to themselves in the hallways, and vacillating between three types of moods: elation, confusion, anguish. Yet while I enjoyed conducting research, and while the academic environment was ripe to undertake a PhD, at that time I didn’t feel like I had ‘the’ question for which the three types of moods could equally sustain me throughout the journey. In other words, I wasn’t driven and inspired enough by a specific question.  

Fast forward to my consulting for the UN and various types of NGOs, on the prevention of sexual harassment within organizations and abuse. They typically had safeguarding structures and programs in place, which were auditable. I, together with many others in the sector, believed that such tangible management controls within organizations should lead to a decrease in the number of incidents. However, I saw that these controls did not always work to prevent, detect, or respond to safeguarding concerns. I asked myself, “why not?” While deliberating with a colleague and friend over this, her answer was, “this is your PhD”, and she was right. 

I quickly came to realize that at the time of starting my PhD in 2019, not much had been explicitly written in the nonprofit and philanthropy literature on safeguarding in nonprofits. I found this surprising, as safeguarding amongst staff had been discussed in the business ethics literature for various decades. This made me wonder why safeguarding wasn’t explored to the same extent in relation to nonprofits. I wondered if it had to do with the perception that NGOs are generally considered as ‘good’ organizations, and thus whether there was a perception in NGOs that they don’t need any structures to manage safeguarding, i.e., whether because of an internal perception of their NGO’s goodness, there was also a perception that people will behave accordingly. 

The tension between the perception of NGOs as good organizations on the one hand, yet unethical behavior happening in and by NGOs on the other hand led me to my research question as to whether this tension should be considered as paradoxical. To investigate this, I first developed a conceptual framework. I refer to three inherent characteristics of NGOs (the non-distribution constraint, being private, and being voluntary), and, by drawing on social identity theory and cognitive dissonancy theory, I suggest that these characteristics contribute to a perception within NGOs that the NGO’s mission, morals, and people are morally good. I then suggest that as a consequence of such a perception, people in NGOs can glorify the moral goodness of their NGO’s mission, morals, and people. This can prompt people in NGOs to prioritize their NGO’s mission, morals, and people above other considerations, which can activate moral mechanisms that lead to unethical behavior being justified, motivated, or ignored within the NGO. I term the internal glorification of moral goodness and its relationship to NGO unethical behavior as the NGO halo effect. This is the first unified conceptual framework to look at how internal, rather than external, factors can lead to a perception of NGO moral goodness, and how this perception can relate to the NGO’s unethical behavior.  

As a way to generate support for the validity of the NGO halo effect as an explanatory factor for NGO unethical behavior, I test the premise through a qualitative study. Through 34 interviews with people working or volunteering in a range of NGOs, I explored how people in NGO’s can glorify their mission, morals, and people, and how this glorification can relate to different cases of unethical behavior. For example, I find that people in NGOs refer to their colleagues in a sanctified manner, referring to them, amongst others, as “heroes” and “angels”. In the 151 unique cases and 17 different types of unethical behavior I collected from the interviews, I related 45 percent of cases to moral naivety, i.e. where the NGO’s people are glorified and prioritized over ethics management. Moral naivety can explain why unethical behavior can be willfully ignored or downplayed. 

To establish an association between the NGO halo and unethical behavior, I further develop and test a survey instrument. The aim of this quantitative study was to measure the strength of the halo in NGOs, and whether the NGO halo can be correlated to NGO unethical behavior. Results from two studies (N=804) show that I developed a reliable instrument assessing the NGO halo, and that the NGO halo is positively and significantly associated with unethical behavior.  

My research identifies risk pathways of an inflated appreciation within NGOs of their mission, morals, and people for unethical behavior. The emergence of the NGO halo effect compels the nonprofit and philanthropy sector to re-evaluate their understanding of ethical dynamics unique to the NGO sector. It emphasizes that ethical frameworks, typically borrowed from the corporate world, may not be wholly suitable for NGOs. This model accentuates that an NGO’s mission, morals, and people, while generally stemming from benevolent origins, may unintentionally create fertile grounds for unethical practices. Recognizing these latent pitfalls demands a more bespoke approach to ethics management for NGOs. In light of this, NGO leadership must not only be reactive but foresee potential ethical issues by actively seeking out areas of moral glorification or exaggeration within their organizations. The aim of a tailored NGO ethical governance and management is thus twofold: to acknowledge the moral foundations upon which NGOs are built and concurrently, to sharpen their vigilance against ethical oversights that might arise from an excessive internal magnification of these morals. By understanding the driving factors and vulnerabilities introduced by the NGO halo effect, our sector can be better primed to steer strategies, trainings, monitoring systems, and an organizational culture to ensure that decisions and behavior resonate with both the organization’s mission and ethical standards.  

Dr. Isabel de Bruin Cardoso is a lecturer and coach at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and a visiting lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. She lectures in organizational ethics and nonprofit management and consults with a range of NGOs across the globe on navigating ethical dilemmas and strengthening an organizational ethical culture. Isabel also sits on various NGO boards. She is currently co-editing a book on the paradox of nonprofit discrimination. Before graduating with her PhD from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Isabel received her MA in Human Rights from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and a BA in International Affairs from University College Utrecht, Utrecht University.
Her dissertation, supervised by Muel Kaptein and Lucas Meijs, can be accessed here (two chapters are not publicly available but can be send to any interested by contacting Isabel).