Gift Acceptance Policies

Dear Kim:

Recently the primary cultural center in our town, always known for its progressive arts and film premieres, has accepted a large donation from a corporate weapons manufacturer in our state. Our cultural center has promoted many programs around peace-making and questioning war, and some of us in the community feel the acceptance of this corporate gift is in conflict with the center’s goals and mission. I have been unable to find articles discussing the ethical dilemma for progressive nonprofits of accepting corporate funds. What are your thoughts and can you make any suggestions on where I can read further about it?

Thanks,
In an ethical quandary

Dear Quandary:

Your dilemma is why all organizations should develop a Gift Acceptance Policy early on in their organizational lives. Hammering out such a policy forces you to discuss these issues while they are still theoretical and to make decisions about what kinds of gifts you might or might not accept before they are offered to you. There are two key resources on this topic: the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (ncrp.org) has a booklet on creating Gift Acceptance Policies, and my article, “The Perennial Question of Clean and Dirty Money,” can be downloaded from my website, www.grassrootsfundraising.org.

In this case, however, the organization has already accepted the gift and it is already causing problems. Here are some questions you may want to raise with the cultural center before you get too upset:

1. Did the organization solicit the gift? If not, possibly someone in the corporation likes the work of the cultural center and wants to support it, so arranged for the gift. Possibly a board member works for this corporation and is having his or her gift matched. Organizations sometimes accept gifts that are employee driven because they reflect the commitment of the employee and not the corporation.

2. Did the gift come with any strings attached? Your letter does not indicate any. A “gift” from a corporation that insists on having its name on the group’s written materials or asks that you tone down your work is different from a gift that is simply given to do your work. That doesn’t mean the organization should accept it, but I think it has a different flavor.

3. How much is the gift? I have seen organizations spend hours debating the ethics of taking even a tiny donation from some person or place. There needs to be some kind of threshold that would cause you to be upset. You can’t trace the source of all your money; for all you know, other funding is indirectly derived from the weapons business. If the gift is less than $250, I would be less concerned than if is more than $5,000.

4. Do you think having this gift will affect the mission of the cultural center? And if so, how has it come about that the mission is for sale?

Using these questions as points of discussion, as well as reading the articles mentioned above will help you sort through the issues in deciding whether to let this go, or to ask the cultural center to give the gift back.

It is a sign of health that the organization has people like you involved and caring about the work that it does.

Hang in there.

–Kim Klein