“Doing the right thing” over “doing things right,” a critical principle for advancing equity and justice

[Image description: A red sign on a concrete post. It says “do you want a future of decency equality and real social justice.” Image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I try to call out crappy or nonsensical things in our sector. (Those of you still using double spaces after periods, I will hunt you down!) And every time I do, there’s usually some pushback, such as detailed in the recent #DAFGate. I don’t mind it, and in fact, I like it, because as a sector, we need to be a lot more assertive about our needs and to be able to argue and defend our points of view. (Plus, I failed at being a lawyer, so I like arguing with people to make up for it.)

However, there is always a line of pushback that is predictable and tiresome, and it’s summed up with “well, that’s the rules and we need to follow it.” For example, last week I posted about the nonsense of delusional funders requiring an accounting for what their specific grant pays for, forcing nonprofits to play a pointless and time-wasting game of Financial Sudoku. Like a funder or donor giving $5,000 and needing to know whether that money paid for pencils or insurance or whatever. It’s as if I hired a plumber to fix my leaking sink, paid them $500, and then demanded to know what they spent that $500 on (“And no more than $50 of the money I paid you to fix the sink had better gone to paying your rent, Eddie, because that’s overhead!”)

Amidst the sea of agreement, one colleague wrote “Hardly anyone here has a clue about GAAP, I gather?” Now, I’m not going to judge someone based on a single comment on social media, and I’m not going to address the accuracy of whether Generally Accepted Accounting Principles require organizations to break down which funder is paying for which portion of which line item, because it’s not relevant.

What concerns me is that this line of thinking is so prevalent in our sector: The idea that doing things the “right” way, which means following the rules no matter how nonsensical and ridiculous, is somehow more important than actually solving the issues we set out to solve.

I’ve mentioned in the past the difference between “doing things right” and “doing the right thing.” Discussions on the importance of this difference has been going on for years, usually in business or management contexts. Peter Drucker saidManagement is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

We in this sector need to have a much better understanding of it, as I consider it one of the most important principles guiding our work, and so many folks in our sector are confused or have not done much reflection on it.

To put it simply, doing things right is about following rules, policies, procedures, and norms. Whereas doing the right things is about aligning with our values and moral compass. When the two philosophies align, there’s no issue. But when they clash, we often are forced to choose. For example, an afterschool program has rules prohibiting staff from driving kids home for any reason, due to liabilities, but because of a sudden snowstorm and power failure the program closes early and a neglected kid may have to walk five miles home in the dark if the staff don’t give them a ride home. Should the staff drive the kid home, or should they let the kid walk home in the storm? (Assume they already tried other things, like calling the kid’s emergency contacts, etc.)

As another example, a foundation has a deadline for a grant proposal. A small, marginalized-community-led organization writes in asking for an extension because they are short-staffed and have been supporting the community through a tragic event. Should the foundation follow the established protocols and deny this organization’s request to turn in their application late because it may not be fair for organizations that turned in their proposals on time, or else make an exception after considering the context that this organization is working under?  

Many of the arguments and conflicts we have are because some folks are aligned with doing the right thing, and others are aligned with doing things right, though sometimes it is hard to discern which one is which. In the cases above, I would say driving the kid home is doing the right thing, as well as making the exception for the organization so they could submit a proposal after the due date. Refusing to drive the kid home and refusing to make a grant deadline exception would be doing things right, as it is about following rules and protocols.

You may disagree. And that’s OK. It’s important we have more conversations around this and get clear. But ultimately, if we are going to be effective at our work of advancing a just and equitable world, our sector must align more with doing the right thing than doing things right.

This is more than just about GAAP or driving a kid home or a grant deadline. It is a mindset that affects our work, and affects far more important issues. Throughout history, there are countless examples of people believing they were “doing things right” because they “followed orders,” which mean obeying horrific laws and policies.

And there are just as many examples of heroic people who instead chose to “do the right thing”: Those who protected their Jewish neighbors from Nazis even though the law required them to turn them over. Abolitionists who spoke up against the enslavement of Black people. Civil rights leaders who were beaten and killed while calling out unjust laws. Indigenous leaders fighting against oil pipelines being built across their land.

The main reason nonprofit and philanthropy exist in the first place is because many laws, policies, and procedures in society continue to be unjust and inequitable. That’s why we’re here, and protecting people against these laws, policies, and procedures while trying to change them is what a significant portion of our work entails.

Yet over time, many of us—and I include myself in this—often forget this, and we default to prioritizing following the rules instead of examining whether they make sense and are just and equitable. Probably because it’s easier, safer, more comforting, and less messy to just go along with the current.

More and more unjust laws are being passed and weaponized against the most vulnerable people in society. The criminalization of abortions. The vicious attacks on transgender people. The banning of books by Black authors and about Black history. The crackdowns on immigrants seeking a better life (“They should have done it the right way.”) It is vital we understand that our sector’s work often goes against what society has deemed are acceptable laws and procedures, against what it deems as “doing things right.”

As I said earlier, it is not always easy to discern what the right things are. That’s why we all need to constantly work to develop an equity mindset. Here are some equity-aligned questions you can ask yourself when things are murky. We can practice by continually reflecting on our thoughts, decisions, and actions, in all matters big and small, recognize the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing, and choose the latter whenever we can.

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