Ian MacQuillin: There t’aint enough thinking about tainted money

Since fundraisers have been pondering tainted money dilemmas for so long, you’d think we’d be pretty good at resolving them, but we still seem to be getting tied up in ethical decision-making knots

Headshot of Ian MacQuillin

For a long time, the topic of ethics in fundraising consisted mainly of just two topics: commission-based remuneration, and ‘tainted’ money – should charities accept money from dubious sources.

If you went to a conference session on ethics in the 90s or noughties, I’d bet a pound to a penny the only things you’d have heard about were commission and tainted money.

Since fundraisers have been pondering tainted money dilemmas for so long, you’d think we’d be pretty good at resolving them. Yet over the past few years, we’ve had a number of examples of tainted money that have tied fundraisers in ethical decision-making knots.

With the Presidents Club, charities said they would not just refuse new donations, but also return donations they had already spent.

To do that, they’d have to draw down from reserves, ask for it from donors, or cut services. Doing the last two means someone who is not morally culpable of wrongdoing pays the price for it.

The non-profit MIT Media Labs allowed Jeffery Epstein to donate and serve as an intermediary with other donors, despite knowing about his wrongdoing.

When this secret relationship was revealed, the whistleblower received huge praise.

But as the US fundraising strategist Heather Hill has pointed out, since this whistleblower took the job on condition of keeping this donor relationship under wraps, the truly ethical thing would have been not to have taken the job in the first place. That she did take the job exposes, in Hill’s words, a “crisis of ethics” at American non-profits.

Now we have Prince Andrew and his donation to Virginia Giuffre’s charity as part of his settlement to her.

There have been claims this brings philanthropy into disrepute. It may well do.

But that is a matter of giving ethics. In the ethics of accepting or refusing a gift, criticism is more often directed at charities who accept money from a tainted source, as with Sackler and various fossil fuel companies.

In the Prince Andrew case, if we are being consistent in our ethics of accepting/refusing donations, there should have been criticism of Ms Giuffre for accepting the money.

I am not for a moment saying Ms Guiffre deserves criticism and should be criticised, only that this is a case that highlights there are still many ethical challenges about an issue we’ve supposedly been focused on for at least 30 years.

As the survivor, Ms Giuffre is the primary ethical stakeholder, and her interests and wishes should perhaps take primacy.

If she wanted this donation, then perhaps that trumps other ethical positions. And it points to an argument that beneficiaries should have more of a direct say in the ethical decisions that affect them.

Other than that insight, the Prince Andrew case carries very little learning for the ethics of gift acceptance/refusal as it is such an outlying case study. It’s not even really a ‘donation’.

Donations are normally the culmination of a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship between charity and donor that brings meaning and satisfaction for both. Prince Andrew’s ‘donation’ was none of these and was more in the nature of a fine.

Our challenge is that despite talking about the ethics of gift acceptance and refusal, we haven’t done a lot of thinking about it: most commentary is in the form of opinion pieces, but there’s little in the way of guidance (though see this from CIoF) and not as much as you might think in the academic or grey literature (though see this recent article).

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, reportedly said the trouble with tainted money is there “t’aint enough of it”. The trouble for fundraising is there t’aint enough thinking about tainted money, and talking about it at conferences or in blogs t’aint enough.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare

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