On a train a few weeks ago, I saw a woman buy a muffin from the trolley, which she left on her seat table because the train came into her station before she could eat it.
A couple got on and one of them spotted the muffin, clocked it was abandoned and muttered: “Yum! Free muffin! I’m starving!” His partner chastised him, saying: “You can’t eat that muffin, you don’t know where it’s been!” When he pointed out that it was still in the plastic wrapping, ergo probably not contaminated, she retorted that this was irrelevant.
I was reminded of the muffin incident recently when discussing with a couple of fellow chief executives whether or not a donation from a Russian oligarch should be accepted by a charity.
According to the Charity Commission, trustees would typically be expected to accept or keep any donation unless they had good cause not to. Indeed, it isn’t deemed unreasonable to keep funds, regardless of provenance, provided trustees can demonstrate it was in the best interests of the charity to do so.
But even if, technically, we can take any money, should we?
We know that many donations to charities have come from the profits of the immoral, unethical or criminal behaviour of philanthropists (Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes, Jimmy Savile spring to mind), or from businesses engaged in problematic practices such as gambling or porn. Should we accept donations from high-profile people accused, although not convicted, of sexual offences?
It’s not just the obvious risky people and businesses to consider. High-street banks make some of their money from investments in questionable industries; household name companies may have supply chains in countries that exploit child labour or have terrible human rights practices.
When we know that many folk in desperate need could benefit from that money, does it matter where it came from?
Which matters more – the source or the destination?
For many of us, it’s not that simple. What if the charity turns down money that could’ve been used to save a child who might otherwise die? Is that more of a moral failure than taking money from, say, an oligarch who has benefitted financially from a relationship with a president who commits war crimes?
Ultimately charities can only weigh up the pros and cons and make their best judgement based on the risks or consequences of accepting, or indeed rejecting, potentially tainted money – even if it is “wrapped in plastic”.
If your charity is starving, maybe you have to choose to eat the metaphorical muffin and accept the risk to your charity’s reputation of “tainted” money, because your beneficiaries will suffer without it. And if it’s just a bit peckish, then maybe you can afford to decline?
Whatever you do, it’s incredibly important to be absolutely transparent, open and keep a record of what you decided and why.
PS: For the curious – he ate the muffin. I probably wouldn’t have.
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change