The Dark Side of the NGO Halo: Exploring moral goodness as a driver for NGO unethical behavior



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There are various examples of unethical behavior in and by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), yet NGOs are perceived as morally good organizations. Drawing on social identity theory and cognitive dissonance theory I develop a conceptual framework of the NGO halo effect to show that unethical behavior can be explained because of NGO perceived moral goodness. The NGO halo consists of people in NGOs glorifying the moral goodness of their organization’s mission, morals, and people and accordingly prioritizing them over other considerations, the effect of which can lead to NGO unethical behavior. Through 34 in-depth semi-structured interviews of people working and volunteering in NGOs, I find that NGO halo can drive unethical behavior through: (1) prioritizing mission over other organizational considerations, creating an end-justifies-the-means mentality (moral justification); (2) prioritizing the NGO’s morals over legal or social norms, motivating the NGO to trump others’ norms (moral superiority); and (3) prioritizing the NGO’s people over ethics management, leading to unethical behavior being dismissed (moral naivety). I draw on two studies (combined N=804), to develop multidimensional survey instruments to measure the NGO halo effect, to show that the NGO halo has a positive and significant moderate effect on unethical behavior. The NGO halo effect is a new factor that can explain the antecedents of NGO unethical behavior.