Reconsidering the Racist Donor.

2017-07-28 16.42.14

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?

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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4 Responses to Reconsidering the Racist Donor.

  1. It’s really hard to get past the bias in your article to the real meat of your point. However, I mucked through it. There are SO VERY many reasons why people give, and since I work with those living in poverty class , I must say I run into just as many with hard hearts and selfish motives there than I do anywhere else. I’ve been a fundraiser for 30 years. It’s not about the money one has, it’s about the life you want to live. Find the people who want a life of significance. Yours is just another tirade in perpetuating class war, dressed up through the lens of bigotry. And the New York Times is hardly an unbiased resource. By the way, the tacos in my city are amazing at Molino’s.

  2. Robin Steiner says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece! It seems to me that the non-profit and activist world is often stuck between a concern for purity (staying true to one’s cause) and efficacy (doing the most you can with what you have) of which this issue is a good example. I would argue that the positions in this conflict stand for different approaches to activism, purity is a consumption oriented, identity based approach (that emerges out of the idea that our social change comes from ‘who we are’ and how we express that through our choices) and efficacy is about social change by getting things done. I prefer efficacy; I think purity always raises the question of what is ‘pure enough’. Any donor or non-profit that has money in a mutal fund, for instance, is probably profiting off Monsanto, the prison industrial complex, big tabacco, etc., or is at least getting some fraction of their profits from owning companies who do business with others involved in questionable activities. The economy is messy and interconnected…I don’t think striving to ‘not associate with’ specific companies or donors does anything other make us feel like we are better than everyone else whose hands are still dirty.

    • jeremymhatch says:

      Thanks Robin: I largely agree with you. Not sure the distinction or the line. I am worried that we (non-profits) are not these days the force for equity that we could be, but you are right. There is not really any purity out there. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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