The Ethos of a Caring Organization

In her seminal work, “Moral Boundaries”, Joan Tronto identifies four elements of an ethics of care:

  • Attentiveness: Care is about responding to need, so it makes sense that it would begin by being able to spot need.
  • Responsibility: Before one can address a need, one must take responsibility for addressing it.
  • Competence: To care ethically one must do so effectively.
  • Reciprocity: Ethical care giving is not just one way, the care giver must hear from the recipient to know they have really been effective.

How can this ethic be manifested at the organizational level?

An attentive organization is an organization in a constant state of needs assessment. Needs assessment studies shouldn’t just be one off studies that an organization does occasionally, or even frequently. Rather the very structure and work flow of the organization must put it in the constant position of assessing the needs of the communities it serves. This should inform everything from how an organization takes in and stores information (e.g. what information does it ask for on its contact us page? Does it have a client relation management system built with this in mind?) to the regular synthesis and use of that information to constantly improve its services.

A responsible organization has a fluid scope of service and a networked approach. One of the classic ways in which bureaucracies fail to take responsibility for the needs of others, even when it is confronted directly by them, is by saying “that’s not our department.” or “that’s outside the scope of our work.” Of course, there are many good reasons why organizations have limited scopes and mandates, from ensuring the organization remains focused to ensuring services are indeed within the competence of the organization. A scope of work that is too flexible is a recipe for overwhelming the caregiver. How can an organization take responsibility for a need while avoiding these pitfalls? Firstly, if it is engaged in a constant needs assessment and using that information, it should be regularly questioning the boundaries and focus of its services. But secondly, and probably more realistically and immediately practically, it should be fully equipped to refer people to others and have a meaningful relationship with those others to ensure the individuals get the care they need.

A competent organization is a learning organization. Taking responsibility for a growing array of needs whether through direct service or referral means committing to constant learning, both the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and context required to deliver the services, but also building the names, relationships, and trust to discern who else can deliver competent care. Fundamentally, therefore a caring organization must be constantly learning. The idea of a learning organization is by now well developed. What situating it in an ethics of care framework does is give a direction for the learning as well as priorities for who to learn from and how to learn from them.

A reciprocal organization is governed or at least accountable to the people it serves. Joan Tronto’s more recent work has built on this fourth point to talk about how ethical care is democratic. Indeed, this resonates more directly with caring organizations than with individuals I think. Not only do organizations needs to constantly “evaluate” how they’re doing (part of being engaged in a permanent needs assessment), but they need to actually be accountable to the people they serve. The most robust way to manifest this accountability is indeed democratically, i.e. the people served should actually have governance rights either directly as members or in some other capacity. In this way the governance-operations divide should be broken down.

Ultimately, this is just a theoretical framework. Practice is the hard part.