I’ve had two different bosses over the years share the same response when questioned about the ethical implications of accepting this or that donation, “You know, there is cocaine on every dollar bill.” Which is to say that our job in fundraising is not to judge, but to share opportunity, encourage generosity, and fund our critical non-profit missions.
And I’ve largely held that belief myself. I worked once for a university art museum, and we accepted a project grant from Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris cigarettes, for an academic exhibition and related publication of Italian line drawings. Did anyone start smoking as a result of the modest recognition we provided for a six-figure grant from a company that has done some really terrible things? I did not think so then. Wealthy people and institutions generate wealth in myriad ways, and the unpleasantness of building empires is a by-product of our American system.
I have tended to have considerable tolerance for generous donor’s politics and belief systems. I have enjoyed soliciting investment from donors of every political bent over the years for educational programs, arts and culture, and community projects. For me, the end has largely justified the means. How do you value the impact of building the only outdoor pool for a largely African American part of town, where kids will have the chance to learn a vital lifesaving skill like swimming? I will (and have) listened to foolish political opinions all day long to get that done.
Or at least I used to believe all that. Now I am not sure. About any of it.
The question for today, asked brilliantly by Vu Le and others, is this: Should philanthropy be a tool for creating equity in the United States?
Is our job to help create a more just world for everyone? If that’s really the question, philanthropy is failing. We are working on the margins, treading water. The rich are getting richer (which is okay if everyone is doing better, but everyone isn’t), and being less generous (which is their business but not great for philanthropy). Human services working directly in communities are struggling to win general operating support, while our wealthiest private universities get outrageously wealthier each year. Our non-profits must focus time and energy with the most affluent donors by necessity, meaning generous, but not wealthy, donors are often ignored. None of this is making America a more fair place for all of us.
And then, what we do about the racist donor, the man (almost always a man) who makes casually cruel and bigoted remarks to staff? Those guys are out there. Your gift officers are dealing with them, and worse: The misogynists, the homophobic, and the wildly inappropriate. You listen to them because they give you cash, or are on your board, or might be someday.
A few years back I had to listen for an hour to a board member carry on about President Obama, his true religious affiliation, and the various freeloading ethnic groups who voted for him.
The Executive Director and I were there to accept a sizable check insuring a critical fundraising target. Did we do the right thing in ignoring his behavior while accepting the money? The organization almost shut down that year, but has come back strong, doing amazing work since in a community that needs its services. Should we have argued? Walked out of the meeting? Reported his behavior to the board chair and demand his expulsion? Called the media?
I don’t know. I can tell you what we did, which was to take the check, get out of there as quickly as courtesy allowed, and shake the whole thing off over margaritas an hour later.
But maybe there is a new way.
Recently the organization Black Girls Code turned down a $125,000 gift from Uber, citing an insincerity to change their recent history of misogyny and regrettable corporate culture.
The non-profit wisely took their story public, explaining why they turned down such a large grant, while soliciting (and raising) at least that much and more online in direct response. Good for them.
What would I have done? Probably said to Uber, “If you are serious, add a zero to that grant, make it for three years at $1.25million a year, and let’s hold a press conference next week to announce a national expansion of our programs to encourage and train African American women as coders. Let’s change the world.”
And my way is probably wrong for our shared American future.
A $125,000 one time grant to help a PR challenged tech company redeem themselves probably won’t change the world. But standing up for what’s decent, for values larger than cash in the door, might just change philanthropy in this country.
I am making a gift of support to Black Girls Code. May they change the world, and may the rest of us working in non-profits learn from that example. What would it look like if we kept the courage of our convictions with every donor? We would lose some funding, surely, but what opportunities might come out way?
Is it time to try?