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Code of Ethics
MHLS Across The Board | Spring 2007
“We strongly urge all nonprofits and foundations to adopt a code of ethics to guide their governance and operations. The process of developing such a code by the board and staff helps to infuse into the culture of the organization a recognition of how important it is to address issues of values and ethics on an ongoing basis.”
– Diana Aviv, President and CEO, Independent Sector
Lawmakers, donors and the general public are all taking a closer look at how public entities conduct business, especially in the area of transparency and accountability. In addition to a board member’s legal and fiduciary responsibilities, a code of ethics gives all trustees common ground on which to base actions and decisions. This commonality can help steer the board clear of potential arguments and smooth the way through some of the rough patches it might face.
Library trustees are covered under not-for-profit law (association libraries) or public officers law (public libraries: i.e. municipal, school district and special district libraries). Codes of ethics are similar for either situation, emphasizing three key areas: conflicts of interest, personal benefit and confidentiality of board business.
A sample code of ethics statement for a board should begin with a Statement of Commitment. This general statement should emphasize the responsibility of the board and board member in their provision of quality library service to the community. Follow the Statement of Commitment with Ethical Guidelines including, but not limited to:
The Association For Library Trustees and Advocates (ALTA) and the Public Library Association of the American Library Association have provided a sample “Ethics Statement for Public Library Trustees” that could also be incorporated:
The library’s bylaws need to state the course of action the board can take if someone violates the code of ethics. This would probably mean a method of investigation and list of possible actions. Here the difference between an Association board and a Public Library board is significant. Since members of an association board are volunteers, there are more ways to remove someone from the board. Public boards are made up of public officers, publicly elected in the case of district libraries, so removal from the board needs to be more carefully considered- both in terms of legality and public relations.
It is incumbent upon a board of trustees not only to govern ethically but also to be perceived as governing ethically. A Code of Ethics sets the tone for ethical standards on a board, and throughout an organization. Board approval of a code of ethics can be the first step to ensuring that it becomes part of your library’s culture.
Following are the “Golden Rules for Trustees” from the Massachusetts Public Library Trustees Handbook:
Tip: What should a trustee do if they disagree with a board decision? Once the board has reached a decision, it is the responsibility of board members to support that decision in all official statements and actions. A board member who disagrees with a decision can publicly state why they voted against the decision, but to use their position as a board member to advocate against that decision could be considered unethical.