The commitment to service inspires local government professionals to volunteer their personal time to community-based organizations. Nonprofit organizations often seek out local government leaders to add to the talent pool on their boards. Employees often look to volunteer opportunities to build both their community network and enhance their professional capabilities.
While service to the community is certainly a public benefit, local government staff need to consider whether the volunteer effort will conflict with, or even undermine, their primary full-time commitment to serve their organization.
The ICMA Code of Ethics does not prohibit community service although Tenets 3 and 12 add an important dimension to consider whether an offer or opportunity to serve is appropriate.
There may be some pitfalls in serving on boards of directors of nonprofit organizations that could put members in an ethically vulnerable position. ICMA’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) encourages members to be good citizens, but it also recommends members consider the following questions:
- Are your local circumstances such that it would be wise to consult with elected officials before making a commitment, or to inform them after having made it?
- Could your board service lead a reasonable person to question your loyalty to your employer, which is, of course, primary?
- Is there a likelihood that the organization will come before your local government to request funding or other consideration?
- Would your involvement appear to lend support to one group in the community over another?
- Is it likely that you will be in a position of having to abstain from a decision of the nonprofit board because of a conflict of interest? The CPC has consistently determined it is unacceptable for a member to abstain from or avoid advising elected officials because of the member’s position on a community board or commission that creates a conflict of interest. Your primary duty is to provide advice and counsel to the governing body, and circumstances in which such advice might be withheld must be avoided.
- In instances in which you must abstain from voting on a board decision because of a conflict of interest, can you still be an effective board member?
- Will you be expected to engage in fundraising? Consider the intent of Tenet 12 which advises members to avoid accepting gifts when “it could be reasonably inferred or expected that the gift was intended to influence them in the performance of their official duties.” Engaging in fundraising within the community can create a similar conflict, i.e., the person made the donation with the expectation of leveraging the donation to obtain a favor from the local government at a future time.
- Are there rules about soliciting donations within the local government organization?
- Are potential donors, whether employees, developers or individuals who have no specific relationship with the local government, really free to “just say no?”
- Having said “yes” to your favorite charity or cause, will the donor expect special consideration, treatment, or access?
- Could you be just as effective by devising a fundraising strategy but not making direct solicitations?
- Will the local government be a beneficiary of a successful fundraising effort?
- How might the media factually report your participation?
- Are you free to terminate the outside involvement without difficulty in the event a conflict of interest arises that cannot otherwise be avoided?
Applicable Tenets and Guidelines
Tenet 3. Demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity in all public, professional, and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the trust and respect of the elected and appointed officials, employees, and the public.
Guideline on Public Confidence. Members should conduct themselves so as to maintain public confidence in their profession, their local government, and in their performance of the public trust.
Guideline on Conflicting Roles. Members who serve multiple roles—either within the local government organization or externally—should avoid participating in matters that create either a conflict of interest or the perception of one. They should disclose any potential conflict to the governing body so that it can be managed appropriately.
Tenet 12. Public office is a public trust. A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.
Guideline on Gifts. Members shall not directly or indirectly solicit, accept or receive any gift if it could reasonably be perceived or inferred that the gift was intended to influence them in the performance of their official duties; or if the gift was intended to serve as a reward for any official action on their part.
The term “Gift” includes but is not limited to services, travel, meals, gift cards, tickets, or other entertainment or hospitality. Gifts of money or loans from persons other than the local government jurisdiction pursuant to normal employment practices are not acceptable.
Members should not accept any gift that could undermine public confidence. De minimus gifts may be accepted in circumstances that support the execution of the member’s official duties or serve a legitimate public purpose. In those cases, the member should determine a modest maximum dollar value based on guidance from the governing body or any applicable state or local law.
The guideline is not intended to apply to normal social practices, not associated with the member’s official duties, where gifts are exchanged among friends, associates and relatives.