Elaine Fogel

donald-sterlingI don’t know about you, but when I heard that LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, had made many charitable donations, I grew suspect. What were his motives? Was he trying to boost his image?

Well, now we know. According to Paul Blumenthal and Jason Cherkis of the Huffington Post:

“Since 2007, Sterling’s foundations have spread small sums of money around to multiple nonprofits supporting the African-American and Latino communities as well as a number of education, health care, homeless, and Jewish and Israeli groups. These contributions have been criticized in the past as an attempt to direct attention away from Sterling’s long history of being accused of racial discrimination.”

Apparently, allegations of racism have circulated for years. “He has paid multimillion-dollar settlements over lawsuits accusing him of discriminatory housing policies in his real estate holdings. Documents and interviews related to those cases claimed that Sterling refused to rent to blacks (‘they smell’), Latinos (‘all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day’) and families with children (‘brats’).”

It makes me cringe. But, there’s a bigger issue at play here. Should charities accept gifts from donors whose motives or backgrounds are suspect? Aren’t their brand reputations at stake?

This situation isn’t new. It has plagued nonprofit boards of director everywhere. “Do we take the money knowing what we know?”

I personally experienced this when I worked for a national breast cancer charity. The board had to decide whether to accept a gift from a national drug store chain that also sold cigarettes. Most board members wanted to reject the gift until one woman - a breast cancer survivor - spoke up. “Take the money and let’s cure the damn disease!” An audible gasp filled the room. I still get goosebumps every time I recount that story.

Let’s be realistic. Big charities can have tens of thousands of donors in their databases. How can they possibly know everything about each one of them?

Donald Sterling is in the news and under a microscope right now. Yet, there are countless “regular” people who may also have unscrupulous backgrounds, but they’re not in the news. It’s a real dilemma.

Many of us are idealistic and hope that people give to causes for altruistic reasons. But, that’s folly. People give for all kinds of reasons.

According to Alison Griswold in her recent Slate article, “When a charitable donation isn’t just that—a simple act of kindness—it’s made as an investment, of sorts. Sometimes the investment is in lowering taxes or gaining access to a network of people who contribute to the same cause. In other instances, it’s designed to bolster the reputation of a company or individual.

Sterling’s contributions to the Los Angeles NAACP and other charities presumably fall into this second category. But all of those donations, regardless of the motivations behind them, tend to be sorely needed by nonprofits. And so when the interests of the donor and recipient misalign, groups find themselves in murky ethical territory.”

Griswold makes another good point. She says many nonprofits take money from people or organizations with murky motivations, with the justification that they can use it to do more good work.  The question she asks is whether the good work will outweigh whatever harm is done by buffing the donor’s image. 

Unfortunately, this approach has worked in the past. She cites Margaret Mitchell, the acclaimed author of Gone With the Wind and romantic racist, who donated money to Morehouse College, the future alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. Alfred P. Sloan, the longtime General Motors executive and major donor behind the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is another. He was once scrutinized for alleged Nazi collaboration.

Over time, the public forgets. 

What do you think? How should charities handle these types of situations? Should they return the money?

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2 Responses to Using Philanthropy as a Cover for Sterling’s Bad Behavior

  • As you say “there is a bigger issue at play here”. How right you are.

    To me, the bigger issue is simply go about and do your work. I have no time to worry about D Sterling and his situation.

    I think it is interesting and verifiable that as a person’s wealth increases they are less likely to be charitable to poor people. I am not absolutely sure for the reason for that.

    They are charitable, but typically their wealth goes toward art, healthcare (hospital wings), music…..places to get a name on a plaque.

    So which is worse, someone that makes a comment like Sterlings or someone that looks down on the poor? Just something to think about.

    I have no idea what goes on in a person’s mind or heart. So whoever wants to donate to our organization, for whatever reason, I will gratefully accept.

    The moral high ground is a slippery slope. And the truth about another is never known completely.

    No conform

    • Thanks for your comment, Jim! I don’t disagree with you that many wealthy donors enjoy the accolades they receive when they make large gifts. I suppose it goes with the territory. However, I can’t agree that the more wealth one gains, the less s/he gives to the poor. I don’t think there are any studies on that, so it’s speculative at best.

      Here’s a good donor story. I read that actor, Keanu Reeves, gives away a ton of money and gifts to his film crews and several charities, and that he prefers it to be low key. Now, that’s honorable, isn’t it?

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