A question of ethics

Sorry readers!  It’s Reunion Weekend (a.k.a. Homecoming) at the school where I work, and so it’s been a busy week preparing for the celebrations.  As a result, I didn’t post yesterday (Friday) when I was scheduled to.

But, I’m up early on a Saturday (before I head to campus) and wanted to write a quick post so that I left you with something to ponder until my next post (which will happen on time!).

There’s been a question of ethics stuck in my head for the past week or so… For readers outside of Canada, or even outside of Toronto, let me give you a brief overview of the situation: Rob Ford is the Mayor of Toronto.  Ever since his election, he’s been involved in scandals, screw-ups, bad decisions, embarrassing moments with the press… it just never stops!  The worst of it has been the latest discovery, which was a video of Rob Ford smoking crack-cocaine.  Now, no one (except a select few) has seen this video, so it hasn’t yet been proved that Rob Ford is smoking from a pipe in the video, or that the pipe contains crack-cocaine.  However, the drug dealers who own the video are willing to sell it for somewhere in the 6-figures.  I believe certain newspapers and magazines have attempted to buy it, but the price hasn’t been right yet.  The news website Gawker has been on the story, and they started a crowd funding mission via kickstarter.com which is now being referred to as Crackstarter.  Basically, people become backers of this mission and support Gawker’s goal to reach $200,000 and buy the video as a collective so the people can watch the video and decide for themselves what’s going on in it.  I haven’t been keeping up with every advancement of this story, but I believe that takes us to today.

Firstly I want to say that I love the crowd funding model and hope to discuss it further in a future post.  However, the question of ethics I want to pose has to do with what will happen to the money that’s been poured into Crackstarter if they aren’t able to purchase the video. The intent is that if they can’t buy the video, they’ll donate the funds to a centre for addiction or the like.  A very noble idea, but….. would a centre for addiction want to accept funds that were initially intended to go to drug dealers???

I’ve been pondering this question since it was posed by my friend Brock Warner.  When money could make a large impact at a charity, but ethics are at play, what does the charity do?  I would love to know what you think!  Comment here, email me at maeve@whatgivesphilanthropy.com, or tweet me @fundraisermaeve.


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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4 thoughts on “A question of ethics

  1. Because you called me out on this Maeve – here’s my two cents on the topic, which I can’t possibly fit into a tweet.

    I tossed the question up on Facebook because I would love to be in the CAMH President’s office if/when John Cook shows up with a duffle bag stuffed with $200,000 in small bills because he couldn’t locate a drug dealer that wanted to use it to relocate his business to Calgary. I would hope they would at least run through the potential PR scenarios, positive and negative, that might come of this.

    Take the money – and you fund amazing work. Mother Theresa said she would take money from anyone, and that her work “cleaned” the money. That’s one angle, to intentionally turn a blind eye to the source of the money.

    Don’t take the money – you’ll take some heat, and risk sending a message to your donors that you don’t actually need the money as urgently as you’ve been telling them in your direct mail appeals. You’ll need to be ready to effectively articulate why the “how” is just as important to you as “how much”. The charity will send a message that charity is not just a monetary transaction in their eyes, it is a meaningful relationship between donor and beneficiary.

    You can bet however, that if the Crackstarter hits $200K and the video doesn’t materialize, some charity WILL accept the cash. Then maybe Maeve should interview that CEO for a part 2 of this post???

  2. If you don’t take the money, people will die. Literally. Addiction is a killer.

    The money in question is not the proceeds of crime, it does not come from the drug dealers themselves (or the mayor).

    And what if it did? “Gold doesn’t stink” as the old saying goes.

    When faced with an ethical issue such as this, the principled questions to ask are:

    Q1. Will the gift interfere with the charity’s ability to speak out on important issues?

    Sometimes self-censorship becomes a problem, if charity staff or volunteers fear that criticizing the donor will prevent future gifts.

    That does not apply here, and if it did, the charity would be wise to contract with the donor that they can still disagree on issues in public and private, and perhaps immediately issue a news release that reflects both appreciation for the good the money will do, and expectation that the donor will do better in future.

    Q2. Does the donor expect recognition that could embarrass the charity or whitewash / greenwash the donor’s reputation? Is there a corporation involved that wants to use and abuse the charity’s name to convince the public they do more good than harm?

    Not in this case, and if there were, the solution is to contract that neither party (donor or charity) can use the other’s name or logo without permission. In some cases, the company will even agree to new behavioural standards, verified by a third-party.

    Queen’s University gave back a $1 million dollar gift and took the name plaque off the business school walls when a donor was convicted of a white-collar crime. The optics were bad.

    A major hospital kept Conrad Black’s gift, and his name is still on the wall. Giving back the money could have affected a patient’s life.

    Q3. Are there strings attached to the donation that could restrict the good the charity can do?

    Not this time, and if there were the charity would have to negotiate a no-strings gift, or consider refusing it.

    Q4. Will other donors be less likely to give the charity money, so that you lose more than you gain? Will your good name be badly tarnished?

    Not likely in this case, but the solution is to carefully weigh the balance. Some donors may leave if you do, some may be unhappy if you do not.

    Q5 a. If you refuse the donation, either in a very public manner, or in private, what are the consequences. Would that cause the donor to stop doing something bad?

    Not likely, but perhaps. If not taking the money does more good than taking it, your choice is clear.

    Q5 b, Would the donor give the money to another willing (but perhaps less deserving) charity than yours?

    Probably, in which case the only people who suffer are your patients (or whatever you call the people you help). Your choice is clear.

    This is not the entire ethics workshop we offer Humber Fundraising Management graduate students (or my private consulting clients), but it is a sample of the challenge to knee-jerk ‘holier-than-thou’ thinking, and the focus on working solutions.

    “The only trouble with tainted money,” said African American leader Booker T. Washington, “is there t’ain’t enough of it.”

  3. haha – Brock, you’re awesome. Good idea to post here.

    As someone who spent much of her undergrad studying ethics and all its nuances, I must say I’m glad that you present both scenarios in your argument above.

    The problem originates over the ethics of taking money that was intended for a drug dealer. A drug dealer that was going to use the money to relocate his business to Calgary.

    Thus, the ethical dilemma revolves around accepting such “dirty” money.

    But is that really the situation at hand? If this money was a result of funds gained through a drug business or prostitution business or any other ethically unsound type of act, I could absolutely see why it would be unethical. Unethical to accept and “clean” such money because in many ethical theories, the means [of the funds] are more important than the ends they served.

    However, in my view, we are not dealing with such a situation. Let’s put it this way, remove the part about the drug dealer. In other words, forget, for a moment, that this money was being raised to go towards someone who’s profession was dealing drugs. What are we left with? Does the purpose for why the money was raised CHANGE if the intended recipient of the money was, say, a professional paparazzi, a banker or a teacher?

    No, it doesn’t – I’d argue. The money was raised by public demand to expose the truth regarding a scandal that has paralyzed their city. The cost of exposing this truth ($80,000…$200,000) is why the public came together and launched this crowdfunding campaign. Thus, the intentions here are clear and they do not change EVEN when we change the recipient’s profession.

    That the recipient of the intended funds is a drug-dealer is a non-issue to the intentions and purity of the money. The intentions of the raised funds was to purchase the “Rights” & “ownership” for “Distribution”. Thus, to get hung up on the original media owner’s profession is, in my opinion, a moot point.

    As for the part regarding charity being more than a monetary transaction, I couldn’t agree with you more. Relationship building with donors is critical to successful charity. However, if I were CAMH, I would take this as an invitation to understand the power of crowd funding for charity. I would take this as a starting point to interact and remain engaged with these “donors” (that’s what they would have become at this point, yeah?). This would be a door-opener – why close doors on such a meaningful and beautiful act of kindness by the city and its (younger*) residents/members?

    Intentions are critical to the ethical soundness of a situation. So, let’s not forget the true *intentions* at hand, here. My two cents… Thanks for engaging in conversation, Brock! And thanks to Maeve for starting this :)

  4. Pingback: Happy 2-year Anniversary!!! – Maeve’s Top 10 Favourite Posts | What Gives???

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