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March 20, 2019
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April 5, 2019

Controversial Dollars: Where and When to Draw the Line?

In recent weeks, a growing number of nonprofits have turned their backs on the Sackler family as charges were made and, just this week, a settlement was reached around their aggressive marketing of OxyContin through their company Purdue Pharma, despite their knowledge of its dangers for abuse. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have died from OxyContin overdoses. And that’s not counting the Oxy addicts who turned to the cheaper opiate option of heroin and then died of heroin overdoses.

In light of the emerging facts about the family’s repulsive business tactics, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate Museums in London, among others, have announced that they are not accepting any further gifts from the Sackler philanthropies.

According to The Guardian, the Tate acknowledged the Sackler family’s history of significant donations and then said: “However, in the present circumstances we do not think it right to seek or accept further donations from the Sacklers.”

What present circumstances?

The circumstance that the owners of a pharmaceutical company engaged in unethical decision-making that ultimately killed people? Gasp! Are we really surprised?

Actually, the current “circumstances” prompting nonprofits to distance themselves from a major donor isn’t just the Sackler family’s heinous behavior. No. The tipping point is the tide of public opinion.

In particular, photographer Nan Goldin has led some high profile protests at institutions that have been recipients of Sackler funding. It’s been in the news. A lot. Public pressure is on and now, the domino effect is in full swing as one museum follows the other.

But, where will these museums ultimately draw the line? Surely the Sacklers aren’t the only “blood money donors” in their portfolios.

Reputation laundering, green washing, pink washing. Companies have long used philanthropy to rosy up the public’s perceptions of them.

Look at 3M. They’re busy supporting environmental stewardship from the philanthropy side of their wallet, while paying off a series of settlements for covering up what they knew about the effects of perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s) on the environment and human health. We now know that these pernicious plastics are present in the drinking water of millions of Americans. They cause all kinds of cancer and the future health impacts are terrifying.

Yet we haven’t seen a wide scale rejection of 3M’s money of late. As far as I know, anyway.

So, what to do? Where do YOU draw the line when accepting funds from corporations?

It’s common for nonprofits to have policies that eschew gifts from tobacco and liquor companies. Many environmental organizations reject contributions from the oil and gas industries. But what about soft drink companies? And my goodness, what about the banks?! Surely their money is not untainted.

The same question goes for gifts from individuals. Where do you draw the line?

Surely, none of us want to name something for Jerry Sandusky. But what about Mr. and Mrs. Anonymous who are lovely and generous, but whose money was inherited from a deceased father who made it by employing slave labor overseas.

Andrew Carnegie, a pillar of philanthropy, was a draft dodger (yep, he paid someone to take his place in the Civil War) and used violence to squelch union organizers asking for wage increases. Yet there are libraries and other institutions that bear his name in every corner of the U.S.

I’m convinced that if you dig deep enough, if you look hard enough, if you connect the dots – all money is dirty money.

So, what’s the answer?

I wish I could say – accept money only from companies and individuals who you know came by their money by ethical means. But to say that would, in fact, be the same as saying – shut down your fundraising program.

Instead, you have to figure out how and when to draw the line. I suggest that you:

1. Have a gift acceptance policy. You can read more about that here.

2. Let that policy be flexible enough for your board to act when it needs to.

3. Try to be sane about it.

For the most part, fundraising is a joyful enterprise. But we do need to keep an eye on how it dovetails with our missions and how we want to engage with the world.

Good luck! And, let us know what your thoughts are on this issue. It’s not an easy one.


  1. Lisa Radelet says:

    Ann, what are your thoughts on accepting donations or event sponsorships from the cannabis industry, a question that comes up for a lot of Colorado nonprofits?

    • Ann Goldman says:

      Great question, Lisa! This is an example of why every nonprofit has to decide for itself whether or not to accept particular contributions. We’ve worked with rehab facilities that are deeply opposed to the legalization of marijuana and would therefore reject any contributions from the industry. Other organizations see it as a legal commodity and consider it in the same category as liquor and tobacco — perhaps OK for adult events, but probably best left off of children’s programming. Still others are concerned that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level and prefer to steer clear for that reason. In other words, I don’t have an answer for your organization, but it’s a conversation worth grappling about at the board level. Perhaps you could put together a small board/staff task force to do a little research and come to the board with a recommendation? I’d be curious to know what you decide!

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