The Sacklers (of OxyContin fame), disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, and the financier Jeffrey Epstein were all big donors to nonprofits. How do we deal with the problem of ‘tainted donors’ going forward?
Michael Moody and Michael Pratt filed this report for Pro Bono Australia:
In today’s hyper-connected world, concerns about supposedly tainted donors or money are more easily raised and more rapidly spread. Yet nonprofits and donors have never really developed a sophisticated way of addressing the thorny ethical questions raised in these cases. And this might be the silver lining in the current wave of controversies. They can force us to think and debate more deeply about the ethics of giving and receiving, and to develop better conceptual tools for handling these sorts of challenges in our field.
To do so, we first need to better understand these challenges and their context.
First, what exactly “taints” the money or the donor, and what variations are there in these claims? The distinction between tainted money (problems with how money was created) and tainted donors (problems with who is giving money) seems a primary one to clarify. Also, are there variations in severity that might matter – eg the stigma attached to donors accused of child abuse might be more problematic than that attached to donors accused of not paying their workers a living wage? And perhaps most important, who gets to decide whether a certain money or donor is tainted or not?
Beyond these conceptual questions, and even more urgent, are the practical questions, especially for nonprofits – questions about the range of possible responses, the process of deciding how to respond, and protocols to preempt or mitigate the risk of future tainted donations. What choices do nonprofits have beyond just refusing or returning the donation? And who should be consulted?
…we need to always remember that establishing general policies and procedures is not enough to find our way through these ethical quagmires. Context matters in every case. What is “right” might depend on many factors of the situation and the parties involved. For example, might oil companies be considered tainted donors to environmental organisations, but not so much to arts ones? Will an organisation on the brink of insolvency be more willing to accept suspect donations just to keep their doors open? And if a nonprofit has accepted donations from a donor repeatedly in the past, does this change their decision about whether to continue to accept donations when new allegations are made against that donor?