As defined by Oxford Languages, ethics are moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. Every organization requires activity, so the subject of ethics is always relevant and especially related to governance.
Myriad courtrooms, board rooms, congressional settings, online forums and more provide examples of what seems like a never-ending string of ethical quandaries. Non-profit common interest communities governed by volunteers are certainly not immune. It's important to remember that requirements established by law (federal, state or local) and/or by an organization's governing documents do not identify strict ethical boundaries and often lack specific consequences for ethical blunders.
Ethical compliance requires accountability. Accountability often requires human beings to confront one another about their actions and/or lack of action and execution. Regardless of what language you adopt, a code of ethics is usually only as good as the people running the show.
Many volunteer board members seem content to conduct business according to their own flexible ideas of what's right and wrong instead of abiding by statutes, governing documents and ethical codes. That kind of "situational rationalization" often creates serious challenges. In that kind of environment, attempts to to perform due diligence, ensure adherence to statutes, governing documents and ethical standards is sometimes labeled as "meddling" or "micro-managing" and flagged as its own behavior to avoid. Doing the right thing becomes incredibly difficult when an organization fails to acknowledge, confront and correct unethical behavior.
In many states, nonprofit board members are bound, at minimum, by a duty of care. Some state statues go further to require a fiduciary duty. Ken Harer's Condo Law Handbook provides an thorough introduction with multiple legal references:
Board Members and officers of Common Interest Communities owe a duty of care to their Associations and to individual Owners. They owe a lesser duty of care to members of the public. An Association can be held liable if its Board Members breach their duty, but courts avoid holding a Board Member personally liable unless the member engages in intentional Misconduct, self-dealing, or otherwise operates in bad faith. ...Board members and officers owe a duty to discharge their duties:
If you'd like to know more about duty of care, you might enjoy reading the landmark court case Riss v. Angel which was ultimately decided by the Washington State Supreme Court.
"Follow your North Star" is a great read recently published in CAI's Common Ground as part of the Guiding Light series. While the author, Steve Spanier, discusses some requirements from CA's Davis-Sterling Act, the content of his piece is a wonderful lens when considering ethical conduct. Here's an excerpt:
...a board member's North Star is found in the answer to a simple question: "What is best for the community?"
If board members focus on that, their jobs become relatively straightforward. They don't make decisions based on their own personal interests or the interests of their friends or neighbors. They don't make decisions based on what's least likely to create conflict or controversy. They don't make decisions based on what's expedient or easy...
Board members are expected to conduct their actions in an ethical manner, making decisions based on reasonable discretion observing applicable statues, governing documents, and established processes. Eschewing a principled approach for a 'make-it-up-as-we-go’ and/or ‘what’s most popular?’ line of reasoning is unlikely to promote the best interests of your community.