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This advice column offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector.

Do I have to accept a donation from people I consider to be immoral: Gift Acceptance Policies

I'm the development officer for a nonprofit that supports the families of chronically ill children under the age of five.

Recently, I received a call from the manager of a strip club in our town. The dancers had been moved by an article our organization wrote about the plight of these kids and decided to donate the proceeds from customers on one Saturday night to my organization. I almost fell off my chair!

And get this — they collected $10,000, which also gets them a free table at our next gala! For heaven’s sake — it makes me very upset to think of this dirty money going to help our children. And then, we must honor them at our upcoming major fundraising party.

I don’t want to take money from this immoral and disgusting place. Our sick little ones are innocent angels who need our prayers and goodwill, as well as donations. They don’t need money from the seedier side of our community.

I have refused to accept the check and my CEO is now furious. She wants me to apologize in person at the strip club, thank everyone who helped and accept the funds.

Should I stick to my beliefs or let my CEO push me to do something I find repugnant?

Kathryn says ...

The simple answer is that exotic dancing is not illegal, the dancers are human beings and they too have hearts that can feel for the plight of very sick children.

The more nuanced reply is that strippers are like everyone else. There are many different reasons for women to choose exotic dancing as a profession. Maybe they are drug misusers with an expensive habit. Maybe they were abused as children and see themselves as primarily valued for their sexuality. Or, and this is important — for some, stripping is a very pragmatic way to make good money, save money and move on to a better future.

Perhaps it might help to flip the script: your organization's mission touched these donors and provides a way that they can contribute to their community, maybe one of the few times when they don’t live in a shadow world or see themselves as “less than” other women. They are not breaking the law and they are just one cog in the dissonant world of how our culture looks at overt sexuality — both as an elevated form of entertainment or as a vilified form of perversion.

I'd go further ... I’d make a point of honoring them at your gala and make clear how proud you are of telling your story in a way that makes many different types of groups reach out to help. By the way: kudos to you....you told a very good story in your article that got the attention of women (and mothers) who are routinely segregated from "good" society.

And remember, the $10,000 these women have collected — via a perfectly legal process — buys just as many lifesaving medicines or critical health care services as a $10,000 donation from a group of virginal nuns. In fact, we'd all take contributions from a religious organization, despite the fact that one very large group we know is embroiled in a scandal that has revealed the systematic and cruel sexual exploitation of young boys and girls. 

Still feel so sure of whose money is clean and whose is dirty?

If it were me, I’d gladly go over, apologize, take the much-needed donation and try to get to know these women who care so much about what your organization provides to little ones. They may need your help, as well.  If not, they still are a component of our community and I do applaud their efforts to be part of the solution.

If it really sticks in your throat, then I guess you will have to endure the wrath of your CEO and take what comes.  Your "holier than thou" attitude is not a good flag for your organization to wave.  Nonprofits, more than most, should understand that at-risk or under supported people, every day, are confronted with choices that result from desperation. Life isn’t always fair, is it? Just ask the marginalized exotic dancers who unnerve you so much.

A colleague of mine says: "This is a great example of why every non-profit needs a "gift acceptance" policy. For example, organizations that work with alcoholics may decide not to accept gifts from liquor companies, or suicide prevention groups may refuse support from gun makers, etc. If a company is viewed as the cause of the problem you're working on, you may not want to let their donations whitewash their reputations at the cost of yours.

Other factors to consider in establishing your gift acceptance policy include the levels of strings attached to a gift, or the costs (cash/staff time) in turning a gift-in-kind into spendable funds (i.e. will you accept a gift of a time-share or real estate you have to renovate/repair and sell)?

Public relations impact should also be considered. Will your other major donors be so upset by your acceptance of this gift that they will stop supporting you? A gift acceptance policy means that the Board has evaluated the risks and benefits of accepting a variety of gifts and donors, and set a policy that prevents the personal preferences of one employee setting policy for the whole organization. Since this organization did not have a stated policy, and the CEO clearly expects this gift to be accepted, it should be accepted.

Just remember that scene in Gone With The Wind when Belle Wattley, the madam of the brothel, attempted to give a donation to help care for the wounded Confederate soldiers. Scarlett indignantly declined the gift, but Melanie accepted it graciously, and said she'd be proud to be seen with Belle, who is so charitable. If the virtuous Miss Mellie can accept a gift from an "unseemly" profession to help the greater good, perhaps the writer can too."

I will welcome a day when there aren't lines drawn between different segments of our community (at least those who are working within our legally sanctioned system). Who are any of us to decide whose donations are clean and whose are not, again, as long as they make that money in a manner that is legal.  I get it if you don't want to take drug-related, sex-trafficking sourced or mob-related dollars ... I wouldn't either.  That's more than understandable and good unto itself.  But to turn your nose up at one community-sanctioned profession's donations (lap dances and all) vs. another seems like one of the sources of our social problems, rather than a cure.

For-profit companies that donate to a mission like your own can sometimes be guilty of nefarious practices.  I'm assuming you don't question charitable contributions from these business folks.

I suspect it behooves us all to tread very carefully when we are making moral judgments about people regarding whom we have little insight or understanding.  It's an old problem and it never seems to resolve.

Here's what I think is an apt quote from Shakespeare to wrap up this response:

Isabella, in Measure for Measure Act 2, Scene 2, 114-123 says:

Merciful heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

 

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Disclaimer

The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

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Co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, founder and president of MissionBox Philanthropic Fund, founder and past CEO of Community TechKnowledge

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