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

Written by Vu Le

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 said “Management 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.

Read the full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.