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Why You Might Need to Revisit Your Gift Acceptance Policy

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When I worked full time in fundraising, I felt like I was scrambling to find money to fund our many programs. We took money from Nike. From Boeing. These companies would be considered anathema to some nonprofits because of their involvement in the abusive Chinese labor factory industry, and in arms manufacture. We simply quietly took the money. Were we wrong to do so?

When we fund our nonprofits with the money of the uber-rich, is this morally right?

Will it just enable them to continue to act without conscience in a world that will not hold them accountable to their actions?

What if we’re the ones who are mistaken in thinking that any sort of fundraising can ever overcome the vast, rising income inequality that we now face?

When I first learned about what motivates people to give to nonprofits, I learned that guilt is a powerful motivator. In my naiveté, I thought, surely, if we can make people feel guilty, we can put their money to the highest good? Surely, if we get from the rich, and give to the poor, we’re like modern day Robin Hoods? Well, maybe it’s not that simple.

Maybe I was wrong.

When I read this article by Chris Hedges on Truthdig, it made me pause when he said:

“This is why the uber-rich carry out acts of well-publicized philanthropy. Philanthropy allows the uber-rich to engage in moral fragmentation. They ignore the moral squalor of their lives, often defined by the kind of degeneracy and debauchery the uber-rich insist is the curse of the poor, to present themselves through small acts of charity as caring and beneficent.”

When you fundraise for your cause, at first, you don’t stop to think about where the money comes from. Sometimes the money comes from companies or people that aren’t in line with your values. And then you either have to have a conversation with your leadership and figure this out and revise your gift acceptance policies, or just take the money.

What if our nonprofit world has been set up from the beginning to make the uber-rich feel better about their vast wealth? Our language thanks them over and over again in the most glowing terms. This is what I teach in my workshops and courses. We want them to keep giving. We want them to give greater and greater gifts. We want them to remember us in their wills. What’s wrong with that?

Think for a moment about the words “money” and “values.” What we spend money on shows what we value. Likewise, when we accept money from certain donors, our reputations become tied to their values. That is why the Gates Foundation decided to stop working with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over his administration’s alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As a nation now we are being forced to look at our values, our reasons behind WHY we do what we do. Remember, “A virtue is a value in action,” as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write in The Power of Full Engagement. What does it say about our values, when we take money from a company or a person that stands against what we fight for?

Are we making their bloody hands clean?

Whether you call it white-washing, pink-washing, green-washing, or simply moral fragmentation, are we helping the uber-rich feel better about the vast divide between what they have, and how little most people have here in the US?

Perhaps being Robin Hood is giving guilty people a moral get-out-of-jail free card.

But giving to us allows them to take our nonprofit towel, and wipe their hands until they look clean again. But like Lady Macbeth, their hands will never be clean. When they can ignore the basic emptiness of their lives, their moral bankruptcy, by volunteering in our soup kitchen for a night or giving a paltry $1000 gift, they can think the balance is paid on their many misdeeds.

Do you have an up-to-date gift acceptance policy? If you, like the Gates Foundation, are now rethinking the money you get from some of your biggest donors, perhaps you should.

Read more about gift acceptance policies here.

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