Ethics, Lies, and Exaggeration in Proposals

Dear Kim,

Perhaps I should be writing to ‘The Ethicist’, but I am interested in your response. I have worked as a development officer in a library for several years. We now have a new director and she wants me to portray our library as conducting literacy programs in proposals for funding and gifts-in-kind. As far as I can tell, we do not conduct anything that resembles literacy programs. We have one small group of disadvantaged children who use the library, but we are not teaching them to read. It is true that many funders wish to support literacy programs, so perhaps these funds are easier to obtain than plain old library or book funds. What is permissible in proposals? Slight exaggeration? White lies?
—Don’t Wanna Cheat

Dear Don’t,

I am glad you don’t want to cheat and I suggest you don’t. The problem with lying in a proposal, aside from the obvious moral quandary, is that you will probably get caught. Funders tend to be sophisticated and even a little cynical and eventually the truth comes out. Slight exaggeration is the stuff of proposals–“we are one of the best programs in the county” or “our track record is exemplary” cannot be scientifically verified. “We are nationally known” may mean just that, or may mean you went to Kansas for a national conference and gave a workshop which was well received. Most of these hyperbolic statements just indicate a healthy degree of pride and self-esteem, which is actually a good thing. Lying is another matter and I think most of us know when we have crossed the line.

I am struck by something you didn’t say, which is that you had gone to the director and asked her what literacy program she was referring to. Possibly there is one that you are not aware of. Possibly she wants to start one, in which case the proposal is for something that will happen in the future and is not a lie. If you are right that she wants you to write something untrue, she may back down. Before you conclude that she is dishonest, make sure you have had an honest conversation with her. Before we know what is true and what is not, we have to have as much information as possible.
—Kim