I have written on this before, and was recently reminded through two conversations of the need to keep this topic or concern present to those who are following this blog.
It was very awkward recently to be in a meeting where everyone in the room knew that there was an obvious conflict of interest. Someone was speaking to an issue and voting against a matter that clearly affected this person directly. It was awkward because we all knew and, of course, no one wanted to say anything and put the person on the defensive, but still . . . you could feel it in the room.
In many respects, it is not complicated: know when you are in a conflict of interest. Or even if there may be the appearance of a conflict or a potential conflict. Just name it. State that there is a conflict or a potential conflict. And then advise the group how you will be handling it. You have three options: you can make it clear that you can no longer serve on this committee or this board because you are in conflict – by virtue of your personal interests or those of another institution. Or, you can recuse yourself from the matter at hand – and a recusal usually takes the form of not being present for the discussion, debate and vote. Or, thirdly, you can make note – and ask for it to be in the minutes – that you will be abstaining from the vote [by virtue of the conflict of interest].
Note: you may not think you are in a conflict of interest. But you are only not in a conflict of interest if those on this board or this committee agree.
In another instance – it happened recently for me – I was in a committee when someone shared something that was privileged information from another non-profit. I immediately knew that this was information I should not have known and that I am sure the other organization would prefer that that information not be shared with our committee. Again, it was an awkward moment. Not all in the room knew that we had just witnessed a conflict of interest; but for those of us who did recognize this, it immediately left us unsure how to proceed: do we act on this information? . . . or do we just ignore it and act like what was said was not said? We went with the second option, but it was for me a reminder: be attentive to and responsive when it comes to actual or potential conflicts of interest. It is a matter of institutional integrity to be attentive to this matter; you owe it to yourself and to those who are served by your organization.