How should we respond to misconduct?

“Misconduct in grant-funded projects is rare but, when it does happen, the means and opportunity to intervene need to be available. There is no cause to lose confidence, but new methods are definitely needed,” Kone Foundation Executive Director Anna Talasniemi writes.
Photo: Philipp Wüthrich / Unsplash

“We are accustomed to accepting various modes of operation in the name of art. However, the line must be drawn at activities that harm others. Far too many incidents of this nature have come to light in recent years in both employing organisations and in educational establishments in the sector. If the conduct of groups or individuals is cause to suspect inappropriate or even illegal activities, the resolve to intervene must be found – on the part of the funder as well as others.” These are the words of professional organisation for the arts and culture fields TAKU ry in the important demand they issued before Christmas.

Recently at Kone Foundation, we have also been considering how we, as a funder, could better help prevent various forms of misconduct. Organisations are the focus of TAKU’s demand, but it is self-evident that causing harm to others is also unacceptable in less formal research and art groups. What recourse do funders have to intervene in cases of misconduct?

Before we consider this, we need to ask how we can uncover misconduct. We encourage all grant recipients to get in touch with us if they suspect that ethically intolerable activity is taking place in a project. However, it is understandable that it may be difficult to talk to us about sensitive matters. Could the answer be a channel through which grant recipients could contact their funder anonymously? While a contact method such as this could also be misused to smear people and organisations, we feel it is important to create an easily accessible, low-threshold contact method.

Of course, it is even more important to help prevent misconduct before it takes place. Returning to the activities of the kinds of organisations that TAKU is writing about, we can consider why misconduct takes place in art and culture organisations in the first place. Scarcity is often raised as one reason: many organisations operate on small financial resources that make it difficult to invest in training for managers and other employees. This is certainly a subject that we, as sponsors, can consider. What kind of competencies could we be fostering by directing funding and other support into improving management skills in art and culture organisations?

Atro Kahiluoto, theatre director and chairman of Trade Union for Theatre and Media Finland, Teme, broached an important subject in his December article. In small organisations, often associations, the responsibilities of the employer are usually carried by the board of managers, led by the chairman of the board.

“If the art director (or executive director) and the chairman of the board are the same person,” Kahiluoto writes, “then roles and responsibilities are in conflict. If a person working with or under the art director feels they have been mistreated, they have no one to contact. Further compounding this, the director also has no superior to contact for advice or support.”

Kahiluoto’s suggestion is that a minimum requirement for the structure of an organisation such as an association be that these two roles are not filled by the same person.

“This is also a requirement that the funder can verify in the association’s official papers and which could act as a condition for the receipt of grants,” he writes. I think that this is a good suggestion or, at the very least, something that we, as funders, could afford to pay more attention to.

In his article, Kahiluoto ponders the ways in which funders can intervene in misconduct taking place in small organisations. Rumours cannot be a sufficient reason to suspend funding for organisations or recover money from them. When we combine this with the fact that funding decisions are usually not provided with a written justification, the result could be, as Kahiluoto puts it, “a Kafkaesque” atmosphere.

“If funders are made responsible for the misconduct of their grant recipients, it would put pressure on them to react to even the vaguest of misconduct rumours. The applicant would never learn the real reason that their application was denied and would have no forum or recourse by which to respond to suspicions. I don’t think anyone wants this kind of Kafkaesque atmosphere.” Of course no one wants that, but there must be a way to intervene in misconduct.

As I write this, misconduct that has been uncovered in children and young people’s synchronised skating is in the headlines in Finland. Without much knowledge of the world of children and young people’s sports, it looks like it has a code of conduct in place – even though the process has no doubt been slow for many of those affected. The Finnish Center for Integrity in Sports (FINCIS) launched the enquiry into inappropriate conduct when skaters recounted their experiences to the Et Ole Yksin (You Are Not Alone) service.

It seems exceedingly unlikely that any field of human activity is immune to misconduct. In addition to art, Kone Foundation supports research, which, rather than taking place in small organisations, is most often carried out in universities and other research organisations that have structures in place to intervene in cases of misconduct. Instructions and procedures for good conduct in research can be applied in some cases.

One constructive practice that could be adopted is that we, as funders, would codify clear principles of good conduct for the projects we fund. For example, the City of Helsinki has recently published ethical principles for its employees that the City also requires its stakeholder groups to respect.

Giving grants is largely based on trust; grant decisions are made with the information provided by the applicant themselves. Occasionally, a rotten egg slips thorough, but, in the context of the total sums of money given out by large foundations, the number of these has been considered so low that it would not be sensible to allocate significant resources into preliminary inspections or supervision.

This becomes problematic in cases of misconduct because projects are tracked almost entirely based on information provided by the project itself. There is, therefore, reason to consider ways to preserve a well-functioning, trust-based system while simultaneously adopting new methods for preventing misconduct and advancing better forms of grant-based work. We would also be more than happy to hear the thoughts of those working in the arts and research sectors.

Author

Anna Talasniemi

The Executive Director of Koneen Säätiö
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