What is your dissertation about?

“My research is about why charitable organisations behave unethically. There are many examples of unethical behaviour, for example, staff at Oxfam abused and exploited women and girls in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. In this, you saw that the executives knew about it but hid it. There are also examples of fraud, corruption and bullying. I am not the first to investigate this phenomenon, but I am the first to have looked at whether there is a unique factor about charities themselves that can explain unethical behaviour. You expect a charity to do good. So my question was: can that perception of goodness explain why they behave unethically?”

And does it?

“Yes. The good can lead to the bad. That is not a paradox, but to be expected. I call that the halo effect. If the mission, the values behind the mission and the people involved are glorified by the people within the organisation, or in other words, if that goodness is idealised by them, there is a chance that unethical behaviour will not be seen or rationalised.”

“Glorification of the values and mission can also be a motivation for unethical behaviour. For example, an organisation may consider its values more important than other values, such as the law. Think of Greenpeace taking to the streets while blocking roads is prohibited. Greenpeace thinks that breaking the rules is necessary to convince the government to do more for the climate.”

Does the halo effect also work inwards – that people condone their own behaviour because they think they are ‘good’?

“Very simplistically, you can compare it to: ‘I ate salad all week and now I can have pizza and burgers tonight because that’s what I allow myself to do.’ That translates to: ‘I am working very hard and well here in Haiti, so that woman over there, I can have that.'”

Do you recognise this from your own charity work?

“Yes and I was definitely part of the workings of the ‘halo’. I saw myself in the mission of the charities, I recognised in it the values I myself stand for. I quite quickly saw my colleagues as friends, because we stood and strived for ‘the good’ together. Indeed, my assumption was that if you pursue a good mission and work for others, that makes you a good person. And you make sacrifices, because you get less salary than people with the same position in the business world. So I knew that perception of goodness up close.”

Why exactly did you want to investigate unethical behaviour anyway?

“Most NGOs have all kinds of controls and mechanisms to prevent and address unethical behaviour. And yet it still occurs. So I was fascinated by why it keeps happening and how they can do it better.”

How did you experience the PhD process?

“Sometimes people outside science think it’s a detailed master’s thesis. It is absolutely not. It is a much more complex journey, scientifically, mentally and emotionally. To go back to science after almost fifteen years, I had to unlearn a lot – science is very different from practice: you talk, write and think differently. Working with colleagues is also different. It’s a real struggle with yourself. In terms of intelligence, but you also ask yourself bigger questions.”

Such as?

“I felt like I had to switch identities when I was working on my dissertation and when I was working in practice – I asked myself, ‘Who am I today?’, but also, ‘Am I happy with who I am and where I am in life?’ And I really wondered, for example, if I myself was part of that halo and maybe I had unconsciously done bad things myself. I am still reflecting on my blind spots and whether I also had that ‘the end justifies the means’ mentality. And whether or not I want to be part of the world of charity in the future, since the halo can have a blinding effect. I figured that I shouldn’t worry about that too much: yes things can go wrong, but so can things at Shell, for example.”

“Furthermore, doing a PhD is a lonely process, you really have a romantic and narcissistic relationship with yourself. You are constantly working on your own ideas, I had dreams and nightmares. I couldn’t suddenly think of anything else at 5pm or on weekends.”

I saw in your acceptance speech that you thanked your children for not playing songs with ‘halo’ in the lyrics too often.

“Haha, yes with all due respect to Béyonce, but at some point it becomes such a part of your mind that you can’t hear the word ‘halo’ anymore. My children are 10 and 13 so they have experienced this process very consciously. It was important to me that they were taught that you can follow your dreams, but that it is also hard work. And that saying ‘no’ is part of that. And I wanted to show my daughter that women can achieve what they strive for. And she read it! She also asked great questions like: ‘Would the halo look different in other countries?’ A very relevant question. Despite that lonely bubble, the moments when I could share it with them were very precious.”

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