Charities Are Only as Sound as Their Most Fallible Representatives

Charities Are Only as Sound as Their Most Fallible Representatives

Brighter days ahead?

Well, what is in your wallet? If you’re like most, you probably have a credit card or two, your bank card and maybe a few dollars for the parking garage or a specialty coffee in there. But if you work for a non-profit such as the Sheboygan County Humane Society, you’re not like the majority of us and that’s not necessarily because of what’s in your wallet. Instead, it’s because of what motivates you to get up and go to work every single day – the prospect of helping others, whether those others are people, animals or even historical landmarks.

Even if you do work for or volunteer with a charity, you still are human, however. And while your motivation to work might be atypical, you are just as fallible as the rest of us when it comes to making mistakes or using bad judgment. Let’s take the case involving Eilene Ribbens, former executive director of the Sheboygan County Humane Society, as an example of our shared vulnerability.

Last month, Ribbens pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was placed on a two-year DPA, or deferred prosecution agreement, for a felony. Why? Well, as many of you probably already know, it’s because Ribbens used a credit card that belonged to her employer, the non-profit, “Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project,” to fraudulently purchase prescription drugs that she subsequently sent to her own relatives. As part of her DPA, Ribbens stepped down from her position as the executive director of the Sheboygan County Humane Society.

So, now we know what was in Ribbens’ proverbial “wallet” at the time she illegally purchased potassium bromide and Tramadol, a prescription pain killer – a credit card that did not belong to her. Presumably under the guise of ordering medicine for a dog whose owners couldn’t afford medication to treat their pet, Ribbens fell prey to the temptation of ordering drugs and sending them to her sister and niece using resources that were not hers.

The question now is, “Why is Ribbens’ offenses perceived as more shocking than they would have been if she’d been employed by one of the many players that make up corporate America?” Is it because she’s a local resident and we don’t want to believe negative things about the people we live close to? Is it because she committed her crimes when she worked for a non-profit that existed to help homeless animals? Or is it due to some other reason?

Well, to be honest, I don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is that there seems to be a presumption that people who work for non-profits, particularly those that exist to preserve and protect defenseless animals, are more moral and ethical than those who don’t. I also know that this widely accepted perception is often mistaken for a fact.

The truth, again, is that we are all human and, as such, we are all equally susceptible to making poor, sometimes criminal choices. In fact, the only difference between Eilene Ribbens and the vast majority of us might be that she got caught with her hand in the cookie jar, so to speak, while a lot of others were not held publicly accountable for their actions.

Unfortunately, another part of the “truth” is that when people who represent charitable organizations break the law, their actions will lead to more than just them being punished. Even if these individuals are charged, tried and ultimately jailed for their crimes, their actions impact the beings that their charities exist to support as well those who support the non-profits with their time, money or both.

It’s difficult for members of the general public to continue to support a given charity when they’ve been given reasons to suspect that the organization is not operating with complete transparency or employs people who’ve been known to be dishonest in the past. Why would any of us continue to donate our hard-earned money to a charitable organization, for instance, if we knew there was even a slight chance that its executive director was simply going to use the funds we contribute for his or her own benefit?

The obvious, initial response to that is, “We wouldn’t!” The not-so-easy answer is that we should continue to support charities even when instances like the one involving Eilene Ribbens make us question an organization’s integrity. Why? Because charities exist to preserve the well-being of living things, structures, artifacts and many other things that we and our families, friends and neighbors benefit from.

Regardless of the intent or criminal activity of any single person, charities remain pure entities in the sense that their collective goal is to achieve a greater good, a good they can only achieve with our continuing, unshaken support of them. Just as none of us would be willing to let someone walk out of our homes with our possessions, we shouldn’t let the actions of any person affect our faith in and support of organizations that exist to improve the environment in which we all exist.

Eilene Ribbens’ past behavior is atrocious and she has been punished for her crimes. But what about organizations in which corruption is more wide-spread and involves more than one person? Are we being naïve with assuming Ribbens’ is the only person who has been involved with the Sheboygan County Humane Society or the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project who has compromised the mission of these two organizations? Well, considering a lot of the same people who are on the board of directors at the Sheboygan County Humane Society also hold positions of authority at the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, this is a very meaningful question that should be answered by the individuals who represent each one or both of these charities openly.

Despite the fallibility of their human representatives, charities deserve our support and loyalty. Unfortunately, because of people who allow themselves to act on their temptations individually or en masse, non-profits also need us to demand that they operate with complete transparency and accountability.

Until the boards of directors at both the Sheboygan County Humane Society and the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project hear and respond to the public’s call for transparency, the assumptions we make about these organizations have to take into account the fact that people who represent both organizations testified about Ribbens’ presumably high ethical standards even after the truth about what she’d done became apparent. For that reason, our assumptions about these non-profits also have to include suspicion about how these facilities operate behind closed doors…doors that really should be opened before any of us donate money, supplies or time to either outfit.

So…what’s in your wallet now? If it’s the few dollars you set aside for a specialty coffee, consider donating the money to a local charity that operates with transparency, but know that the list of truly transparent non-profits does not currently include either the Sheboygan County Humane Society or the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project…and it won’t until the boards that govern each organization make some visible changes. So, if your choice is between enjoying a latte or giving some money to the Sheboygan Humane Society or the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, please enjoy your beverage!