17 September 2019

In episode 56 we take a deep dive into the issue of 'tainted donations'. Is some money 'bad', and if so can it ever be turned to good uses through philanthropy? Including:

  • Recent versions of the tainted donation issue: Epstein & MIT Media Lab, the Sacklers, The President's Club
  • The history of tainted donations: medieval prostitutes, Rockefeller & Carnegie in the firing line, George Cadbury, George Bernard Shaw, William Booth
  • What do we mean by tainted? In cases where there is no clear illegality, how do we navigate much more contested ethical grey areas?
  • Do we need to differentiate between criticisms of specific ways in which has been made (e.g. fossil fuels, arms manufacture, tobacco) and broader structural critiques of capitalism as a whole?
  • Do the ethical concerns associated with a particular source of money relate directly to the way in which the money was made, or are they indirect? Does this affect the moral status of a donation?
  • In a highly interconnected world, with global financial systems, does it make sense to talk of any money as ‘tainted' or ‘pure’?
  • Is it better for charities to refuse ethically dubious donations in order to avoid damaging themselves by association, or do they have a responsibility to take the money and put it to good uses?
  • What level of control is a tainted donor seeking to exert over how their money is used? How does this affect the decision about whether to accept it or not?
  • Will the donor get personal benefit from their donation- either in the form of tangible thanks or recognition, or in the form of more intangible social status and connections? Does this make accepting a gift more problematic?
  • Does a organisation’s decision to take money always imply approval of the donor to some degree? Is it possible to counteract this implication through overt condemnation whilst still taking the money?
  • In order to justify taking a charity accepting a tainted donation, does its work have to address a harm related to the way in which the money was made i.e. does there have to be some element of reparation?
  • Is there a statute of limitations on tainted donations? What should we do in cases of historic wrongs that occurred so long ago that no one affected is still alive?
  • On what legal basis can charity trustees decide to refuse a donation?
  • How do trustees balance the potential reputational risk of accepting a tainted donation against the certainty of financial loss from not accepting it?
  • Does public opinion actually support charities turning down donations from tainted sources?
  • If a donation has already been made, is it even possible in charity law for it to be returned?

useful links

Related Links

Ronan Farrow's New Yorker article on Jeffrey Epstein and MIT Media Lab

CAF Giving Thought Blog, 'When Should Charities Say No To Donations?

CAF Giving Thought Blog “The Wages of Sin: Doing good with bad money”

The Criticisms of Philanthropy” chapter from Rhodri Davies' book Public Good by Private Means

Matthew Ross’s HistPhil article about the history of donations to Notre Dame

Ben Soskis’s Atlantic article Dirty Money: from Rockefeller to Koch

G.K. Chesterton's attack on Rockefeller, Gifts of the Millionaire

Beth Breeze’s Guardian article Should charities accept contrition cash from dubious donors?

John Picton’s Conversation article Sackler donations: why museums and galleries can be stuck with gifts – even if they don’t want them

MIT_Media_Lab_new_building (1)
The new MIT Media Lab building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT has been shaken by news of extensive links between its prestigious Media Lab and Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in a New York jail cell after being arrested on sex-trafficking charges.

About the Giving Thought podcast

The Giving Thought podcast is an exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society. Launched in 2017 it is recognised as an insightful and influential source of philanthropic debate.  Rhodri Davies director of our Giving Thought Think Tank hosts the podcast, discussing contemporary issues and interviewing sector experts. Episodes are also available free on iTunes and Libsyn.

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Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Rhodri leads Giving Thought, our in-house think tank focusing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. Rhodri has spent nearly a decade specialising in public policy around philanthropy and the work of charities, and has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics. He has a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.   Read more about Rhodri



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