Commentary

Sussing Out Taint In Charitable Donations

Does a cause face ethical challenges to accepting money funds raised via cause marketing? That is, does associating with a company’s service or product taint the donation? Can causes accept money generated via cause marketing in good conscience?

My RSS reader is set to find mentions of the phrase “cause marketing” and so I come across its mention every single day. Not surprisingly in our pluralistic world, not all the mentions of cause marketing are portrayed in a positive light. That’s fine, since for many years I’ve found many cause marketing efforts to complain about, too.

My goal in criticizing bad cause marketing is to improve its practices. Others disparage cause marketing because of its direct link to commercial interests. For some, it’s okay for a cause to accept money from a business or its charitable foundation, but not if the sale of a product or service is connected in a perceivable way to the donation.

Angela Eikenberry, at the University Nebraska Omaha, argues that “consumption philanthropy individualizes solutions to collective social problems, distracting our attention and resources away from the neediest causes, the most effective interventions, and the act of critical questioning itself… And it obscures the links between markets—their firms, products, and services—and the negative impacts they can have on human wellbeing. For these reasons, consumption philanthropy compromises the potential for charity to better society.”

I find Eikenberry’s line about individualizing solutions to collective problems a bit of head scratcher; heaven forbid that individuals feel a responsibility to personally address society’s ills. But the implication is that if a company sells enough of its product or service to permit a donation to a cause, that’s fine, maybe even good. However, if that connection to the company’s product or service is directly made, then the donation is tainted.

I’d argue that every cause has to come to terms for itself what kinds of funds are tainted and what are not. The question of when money is tainted is more situational then Eikenberry would have us believe.

 A ballet company might decide not to accept money from a disgraced hedge fund manager, for instance. But a cause that provides direct human services to the poorest of the poor might accept money from anyone. Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, took money from Charles Keating, who was later imprisoned for fraud, and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, former president of Haiti, who made some of his millions selling the body parts of deceased Haitians. 

I worked for many years for a children’s charity that refused to do cause marketing deals with companies that made alcohol or tobacco products. For that charity, money from alcohol and tobacco companies was tainted, even though alcohol and tobacco are both legal products. Other children’s charities would do those deals any day of the week. Certainly, schools in more than 40 states accept funds from state-operated lotteries, notwithstanding the irony that lotto tickets are disproportionately purchased by society’s poorest, and least-educated people. 

A few years ago, Girlguiding Scotland refused a large bequest from the estate of Reginald Forester-Smith, who had been convicted late in life of many years of child sexual abuse, notably his own daughter. For the Girl Guides, those were tainted funds.

While we can say that a cause accepts or refuses monies institutionally, the question of what money is tainted… and what is not… is put to humans, not institutions. At the time of the bequest to Girlguiding Scotland some suggested that the Guides could have used the money to create programs to help girls in abusive situations. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that no one at the Girl Guides could think of an effective way to do so, or a way to sell that idea to their constituencies. Whereas Mother Teresa knew exactly how to spend Keating’s $1.2 million donation; on food and medicine for the orphans of Calcutta.

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