03/28/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Honesty: More Than an Ethical Platitude

Something happened recently that was a stark reminder that honesty is more than a matter of ethics -- honesty is good business.

I was contacted by the director of development of a major state university. She was going to be in town the next week and wanted to meet me at a local coffee shop between appointments.

I explained to her that I was glad to meet with her, but she should know in advance that I was not interested in contributing money to that particular institution. She was quick to say that was not the reason for our getting together. She said she was relatively new in the position, and knowing that I had served as a college director of development and had written a book on fundraising, she just wanted to talk with me about being a director of development.

In all the positions I have held during my professional career -- clergyman, college director of development, college president, paid consultant -- I was always under the gun to raise money from new sources, and I suspected she was wanted more from me than discussing being a development professional. Although she had not been in her present position all that long, she was far from being new to the profession of fundraising, and I figured she knew the ropes pretty well without needing to meet with an old-timer. Nevertheless, I agreed to meet with her.

I decided to take a copy of my book on fundraising to her. Although it is very sound in presenting the fundamentals of successful fundraising, it has not been updated statistically since its second printing nine years ago, and it is out of print and no longer available from the publisher or bookstores. I still have a few copies remaining, and it can only be purchased via my website.

I met her at the place and time we had agreed on. After ordering, we sat down at a table to talk. She started the conversation by telling me that she had purchased a copy of my fundraising book earlier that day. She then apologized for leaving it in the car; she had wanted me to autograph it.

I immediately recognized that she wanted to impress me by making me feel important, but this clearly was not the way she should have started our meeting. I knew only too well that she had not purchased my book earlier that day. Furthermore, had she had a copy and wanted me to autograph it, she could have quickly gone to car to retrieve it.

I thought at the time that I could suggest that she go back to car to get the book, or I could have said that I knew she had not purchased a copy today -- that is was only available through my website. But I saw no reason to embarrass her.

In hindsight I have wondered if I would have done her a favor by calling her on what she was doing right at the time, in order to help her realize the fallacy of attempting to impress me or others with cunning compliments that would seemingly put her in a good light. But, quite the contrary; her lying caused me immediately to "write her off," and before long I found a reason to excuse myself from our meeting. Oh yes, honesty is more than a moral or ethical platitude; honesty is good business.

Some books on the suggested reading lists in graduate schools are more than mere academic exercises; many actually have practical value. It has been nearly 45 years since I have given much thought to one such book, but on my way home it came to mind. The book -- Dear Charles by Wesley Shrader, a well-known Baptist minister and faculty member at Yale -- consists of a series of fictional letters of advice written by an imaginable professor to one of his students who had recently graduated.

In one of the imaginable professor's letter he recalls "one of the most stupid things I ever did... I noticed... the advertisement of a new volume by one of my former students... I took out my pen and wrote a brief complimentary note to the author... I simply said that I was very proud of my former pupil, that the book was well written and to the point, and that in every way it lived up to my expectations of him. What I failed to notice, in extremely small typed at the bottom of the advertisement, were the words, 'To be published in March' (two months later)" (Pages 25-26). It was obvious that the good professor could not have read the book, and it caused one of his favorite students to know that the professor was both insincere and dishonest. How embarrassing and degrading!

Doing what the director of development and the imaginable professor did may seem of little consequence; after all, they only told little white lies in order to impress others by make them feel important. Was that so terrible? The answer lies in the results. In both instances not telling the truth -- even telling white lies -- turned out to be rude reminders that honesty is not a mere ethical or moral platitude; honesty is good business.

The professor ended the story of his blunder by writing: "There is no excuse for permitting a thing like that to happen." And, of course, he is right, whether it involves an imaginable character in a fictional letter or an actual person in real life.