A question of judgment—and self-preservationby Jessica Abrahams / December 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
It is the season of giving—a critical time for many charities, non-profits and cultural organisations that rely on the Christmas boost to get them through the following year.
But what about when money is donated from questionable sources—controversial companies, say, or disreputable individuals. Should it be accepted?
General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was clear about his view on the matter. “I shall take all the money I can get, and I shall wash it clean with the grateful tears of widows and orphans,” he is alleged to have said.
It is a question that has reared its head frequently in recent times, as with the long-running protests against BP’s sponsorship of the Tate and National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps the highest profile case has been that of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, a company that is accused of profiting from the opioid crisis in the US through the sale of painkiller OxyContin. The family, which denies wrongdoing, has been a major donor to educational and cultural organisations, to the tune of around £80m in the UK. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a Sackler Courtyard, while the British Museum and National Gallery both have Sackler Rooms, and the Serpentine has a Sackler Gallery.
But as controversy surrounding the business increasingly hits the headlines, those institutions have come under pressure to reject new donations and strip the name from their buildings. Many conceded; others did not; some took a while to decide.
It’s a tough challenge for any charity or institution strapped for cash and trying to keep its programmes going. A similar diversity of responses emerged last year when a newspaper investigation made allegations of rampant sexual harassment at the annual President’s Club fundraising dinner, which had donated millions to charitable causes including Cancer Research and Great Ormond Street. Some charities said they would return the donations, others that they would not accept new ones, and yet others remained silent. The trustees of the President’s Club say the allegations were unsubstantiated.
It is tempting to see such things in black and white—whether you accept General Booth’s utilitarian argument that the source of charitable funding doesn’t matter so long as it’s being used for good; or believe that charities have nothing if they don’t stand by their morals.
But the answer…