Nonprofit Ethics: Valley Medical Center Foundation earns Seal of Excellence

Tweet Share The public’s faith in institutions of all sorts may be crumbling. But one Santa Clara County-related organization fortified its reputation for strong nonprofit ethics: the Valley Medical Center Foundation.
The foundation is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the County-run Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. It recently became the first U.S. hospital foundation to earn a full accreditation for nonprofit ethics and governance from the Standards for Excellence Institute in Baltimore.
The yearlong effort to win the institute’s Seal of Excellence also made the hospital foundation the first nonprofit of any kind on the West Coast to earn the accreditation, aside from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Markkula is the institute’s West Coast replication partner and guided VMCF’s effort.
VMCF’s achievement, coincidentally, comes amid eroding public faith in all sorts of institutions. These include Hollywood, the federal government, the news media, the NFL, and the election system.

Ethics blow at Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Even one of the Bay Area’s most prominent nonprofit institutions has been buffeted. Last spring, allegations of workplace bullying and harassment by a high-ranking executive at the $8 billion Silicon Valley Community Foundation prompted the ouster of longtime CEO Emmett Carson.
It was against this backdrop that Chris Wilder, CEO of the $11 million VMCF, said his organization sought the nonprofit ethics Seal of Excellence from the Baltimore-based institute.
The best way to raise money is to have a great cause, he said. But now more than ever, donors need assurance they’re dealing with an ethical outfit. “We’ve always had that. Now we can prove it a lot more easily,” Wilder said.
Within the social sector, holding the institute’s Seal of Excellence is comparable to a business earning the coveted ISO 9000 quality award. It is, Wilder said, “the most difficult ethics and operational accreditation a nonprofit can get.” Most ethics training programs in the nonprofit sector “aren’t very good,” in Wilder’s experience, being superficial and prescriptive.
The Standards for Excellence application, however, required VMCF to delve into every aspect of the organization. Financial operations, board oversight, transparency, fidelity to mission and succession planning. In all, Wilder said, there were 130 boxes to check off. It was all backed up by 600 pages of documentation. The institute scrutinized all of it and demanded clarification before awarding the seal.

All-hands effort

Highly motivated, every staffer and board member pitched in. Thus, a process that typically takes three years to successfully complete, if ever, wrapped up in a year.
“It was every bit as difficult as we thought it would be to go after it, and every bit worth it,” Wilder said. “It has made us a better organization.”
VMCF must continuously document that it’s living up to the Standards of Excellence code because the institute reviews accreditation every other year.
According to the Standards for Excellence Institute’s website, only 225 nonprofits currently hold full accreditation.  The biggest cluster of seal-holding nonprofits is in the mid-Atlantic states. Local and regional nonprofits, like VMCF, predominate, although some are chapters of familiar national organizations.
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