The Idiotic Politics of Philanthropy

I went to one of those “elite” private small liberal arts colleges that the cultural conservatives love to hate and love to ridicule.  And, I must admit, there are a couple of knee-jerk liberal reactions that deserve some ridicule. One of the largest is the demand that any institution of higher learning (or any other not-for-profit institution) “give back” funds donated by individuals viewed as problematic.

In my case, it was the class of ’68 (oh, yes, the aging hippies) demanding that my alma mater return funds donated personally by a family whose head of household owns and operates a business related to guns.  The funds were donated in support of an educational program designed, developed, and delivered by the College that had no relation to the donor’s business endeavors.  The College and administration suffered through protests at alumni events , vehement language, and accusations of evil intent among other unsavory things.  The protesters were outraged that the College would take this “blood money” (their words, repeatedly).  I thought the protesters’ concept was ridiculous and their behavior boorish and reprehensible.

Today, Harvard and MIT, among others are being pressured to return, deny, reallocate funds donated by the repulsive, despicable, and now deceased Jeffrey Epstein.  Art museums are taking down the Sackler family’s (Purdue Pharmaceuticals) names and donations.

We are reaching the point where we are asking charitable institutions to make value judgements regarding their donors and, of course, that judgement depends entirely upon what side of which issue you end up on.

Here’s my take. Don’t force institutions to blackball potential donors simply because you disagree with the donor’s politics or behavior or source of income – as long as the donation supports a program or building or other endeavor consistent with the institution’s mission, accept the funds and put them to good use.   And if a non-profit institution accepts funding, and the donor’s reputation is subsequently tarnished, the institution should keep the money but strip any recognition of the donor.

Why?  First, because I do not trust “those people’s” judgement as to what is a good and honorable donor and one that is not.  Don’t like a lawyer’s client, reject her money.  Don’t like a doctor who does abortions, reject his money.  Don’t like their political stance (Hobby Lobby anybody?) reject their money.

I don’t agree.  You can boycott the donor’s business but to throw away donations is inane and insane.  If David Duke offered a million dollars to the Anti-Defamation League with no restrictions,  I would take the money.  If Liberty University wanted to donate to Lambda Legal with no strings attached, I would take the money.  And if the surviving Koch brother (whose politics I abhor) wants to give unrestricted money to a college or university, I say take the money.

Second, the implication that taking to donation indicates agreement with the donor is equally inane.  Henry Ford was a complete and thorough bigot.  So, should any Jewish or African American or Female recipient of a Ford Foundation grant turn it down?  I don’t think so.

Let’s take the specific case of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.  It does increasingly look like Purdue knew about and ignored the addiction problem.  Worse, they purposely misled users and doctors about the risks of addition, the likelihood of addiction, and the consequences of an OxyContin addition.  Moreover, they ignored the data and continue to enrich the company and the Sackler family by continuing to misrepresent the facts and actively advertised and promoted falsehoods to continue the drugs growth.  The company’s behavior and that of its owners and management is despicable and evil.  Purdue has now declared bankruptcy (to enable a settlement) and both civil and criminal charges against the company, the managers, and the Sacklers are likely and, it would appear, deservedly so.

So, what to do with the money they gave you and the naming that went along with it?  I think the new standard should be take down the name and keep the money unless contractually obligated, in which case, take down the name and return what funds remain.

However, this argues for a new clause to be created in these gift agreements.  What we need to add is language that indicates that in the case of behaviors which tarnish the reputation of the donor, and therefore the recipient, the receiving institution has the right to keep the money but withdraw recognition.  Consider it the “conduct unbecoming” clause.

Take the money and do some good in this world even if the donor has demonstrated their inability to do so.  Two wrongs do not make a right.

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