12/20/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

No Truth or Consequences

Nonprofit leaders, as well as those in the corporate world and government, seem unwilling to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. We got an all too painful reminder of this over the weekend after the Newtown tragedy as officials of the nonprofit National Rifle Association refused invitations to speak to reporters and to explain why they have acted to block assault weapon gun-control laws. When releasing an unapologetic statement days later, the NRA still declined to speak to its record.

Along similar lines, the president of the nonprofit Social Accountability International failed to live to its name when she vaguely defended her organization's award of its highest certification to the Bangladesh garment factory that burned down killing over 260 of its workers, and that just weeks after its last inspection.

As in so many other scandals, instead of accepting accountability and consequences, leaders make every effort to push responsibility down the line and lay it off on others - and then try to impose only minimal repercussion on those assigned blame. The corporate world has just done this with one of the greatest environmental disasters of all times, the Deepwater Horizon blow-out that flooded the Gulf of Mexico with crude oil. Although the corporation was fined, BP executives remain free while two on-scene platform employees are indicted.

Similarly, when it comes to the financial meltdown, those corporate leaders who crippled our economy with their deceit and cavalier greed have escaped responsibility for their wrongdoing. Not one has gone to jail. The top executives of Countrywide Financial, A.I.G., Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, and other Wall Streeters and their colleagues continue to enjoy their immense wealth while millions of Americans still suffer the economic consequences of their actions.

Hyper-partisan politicians continue to ignore the public will and paralyze our nation, working for their campaign contributors instead of for the salvation of our economy or the resolution of other problems. Conservatives are bent on protecting their richest supporters and on cutting funding for the neediest among us. Rather than to raise taxes on the highest income people as favored by the vast majority of Americans, they threaten to send us over a fiscal cliff - or even into the immensely destructive chaos of a US default through their promised intransigence in the coming debt-ceiling debate.

Other politicians are unwilling to even acknowledge their positions when it would be unpopular to do so. NBC reported that not one of the thirty-one pro-gun members of the U.S. Senate was willing to appear on "Meet the Press" following the recent Newtown school massacre to share his or her views on assault weapons or to address the consequences of past votes on gun legislation. CBS also reported that beyond the NRA, over 24 congressional pro-gun politicians refused invitations; they acted as if they had no responsibility to explain their positions on this critical issue or to accept accountability for them.

And nonprofit sector executives also have generally and shamefully been absent from the fiscal debate, working mightily to defend the charitable tax deduction while remaining silent on the larger and much more consequential battles facing us today and tomorrow. Even the last minute statement in support of higher taxes by one infrastructure group betrays the fact that it and others have steadfastly refused for months pleas to leave the sidelines - instead they poured resources into maintaining the deduction.

Grandly-compensated infrastructure and other CEOs fail to lead and instead sink to the lowest common denominator they share with their members: self-interest. They forget that the public interest is more significantly and extensively served by government than by charitably-funded groups.

A similar dynamic of unaccountable self-interest allows nonprofit university presidents to remain unchallenged in their avarice. In even modest-sized institutions, many command huge salaries and benefits disproportionate to their peers and their own staffs. Over twenty percent of them earn greater than $600,000 a year, with better than seven percent pulling in over $1 million annually.

The university presidents and other administrators draw these large salaries while higher education has close to 750,000 workers paid less than poverty wages. These executives ostensibly lead charitable institutions, but they are known to best serve students of privilege while failing to provide affordable opportunities for upward mobility to so many who desperately need them.

Out-sized financial compensation is also characteristic of many health and cultural institutions as well as other large charities. Executives seem set on enjoying a pernicious norm rather than championing their institutions' charitable missions. To whom are they accountable?

Occasionally assignment of responsibility and accountability is imposed from outside nonprofit organizations. The New York Attorney General has just forced the president of one organization, Educational Housing Services, to repay millions in excess compensation and self-dealing gains while also requiring derelict board members to pay $1- million for their "stunning" negligence in allowing such abuse.

And punishment may come to the former president of Pennsylvania State University. He was indicted last month, joining other administrative colleagues also scheduled to be tried, for helping to establish and maintain a "culture of silence" surrounding the then continuing child sexual abuse committed by a coach in the university's renown football program.

But these consequences are among the rare exceptions.

Rather, what is common is the tendency to both perpetuate and to blame an amorphous "institutional culture" instead of ascribing responsibility to individuals. Too often there is a failure to hold miscreants to account for their sometimes criminal, certainly selfish, decisions and actions. Rather than to demand accountability from those with personal responsibility for gross malfeasance, we instead act as if faceless institutions and organizations somehow cause abuse without human agency.

It's as if entities do wrong, not people -- banks and not bankers, Wall Street not investment brokers, corporations and not their CEOs, Congress not elected legislators, universities and hospitals and not their administrators, charities and not their board members or executives. We even talk of a sector's culture as if people are powerless to do anything but acquiesce - often to their own benefit - to dysfunctional practices that profit the individual over the common good.

It is time for that to stop. America continues to be confronted by serious abuse in some of its most important institutions, including charitable ones. While many are affected by such sometimes calamitous actions, the responsible individuals appear to face few meaningful consequences. That is wrong.

Too many nonprofit organizations functionally allow, even encourage, practices that further victimize those they should be serving. This remains even more often true in the market and in politics. We're much more likely to lock up a street criminal than a corrupt executive - although on balance it's the latter who has caused the greater harm. We need to change that.

Charity leaders should encourage and support efforts to hold one another accountable for serving the common good over private interests. Those efforts must extend to elected officials and other public leaders, and to corporate executives. We need powerful and effective new mechanisms, both voluntary and regulatory, to accomplish those purposes.

If as a society we don't insist on individuals taking responsibility for bad decisions and actions, it is always others who will suffer the consequences. That may be in the interests of organizational and institutional elites, but it victimizes the rest of us.

Mark Rosenman is an emeritus professor at the Union Institute & University, and directs Caring to Change in Washington, DC. Version of this piece also appear in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and PhilanTopic