When Should You Refuse a Gift?

From opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I learned of two stories that both raise an important question:

When should a charity refuse to accept a donation?

The first story concerns Lucy the Elephant,  an historic six-story tourist attraction in the US. Built in 1881, the wood and tin structure is in need of major repairs. The nonprofit organization that operates Lucy the Elephant is raising money for the project.

Lucy the Elephant by Doug Kerr via FlickrHearing about the repair effort, the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered to make a significant, though not huge, donation. However, the gift would come with major strings attached.

PETA wanted to use the attraction for anti-circus messaging. “PETA wanted to decorate Lucy ‘in a way that would educate visitors about the grim lives facing elephants in circuses.’ That would have included shackling one of her feet and affixing a teardrop below one eye,” according to the Associated Press.

However, the board of trustees for Lucy the Elephant rejected the PETA offer. Richard Helfant, the CEO of Lucy’s board of trustees, said that accepting PETA’s terms would risk scaring or upsetting children who visit the site. “Lucy is a happy place,” he said. “We must always ensure that children who visit Lucy have a happy experience and leave with smiles on their faces. Anything that could sadden a child is not acceptable here at Lucy.”

In other words, the board of Lucy the Elephant found that the conditions of the PETA gift offer were not in alignment with the organization’s own mission and, therefore, it could not accept the donation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a children’s charity in the UK was offered a gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust. Under normal circumstances, this would be considered great news. Jimmy Savile  was a huge celebrity in the UK. He worked as a DJ, radio and television personality, dance hall manager, and a major charity fundraiser. He was sort of the Dick Clark of the UK.

Unfortunately, Savile also had a very dark side. Following his death in 2011, hundreds of people came forward to accuse the media star of sexual abuse. His alleged victims were eight to 47 years old at the time of the abuse. A Scotland Yard investigation and an ITV documentary looked into the allegations and the alleged cover up of the crimes.

In 2014, UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt delivered a public apology in the House of Commons:

Savile was a callous, opportunistic, wicked predator who abused and raped individuals, many of them patients and young people, who expected and had a right to expect to be safe. His actions span five decades — from the 1960s to 2010. … As a nation at that time, we held Savile in our affection as a somewhat eccentric national treasure with a strong commitment to charitable causes. Today’s reports show that in reality he was a sickening and prolific sexual abuser who repeatedly exploited the trust of a nation for his own vile purposes.”

So, why would a charity, particularly a children’s charity, even consider accepting a gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust?

Raising the issue in the Institute of Fundraising Discussion Group on LinkedIn, the Fundraising Manager for the charity and participants provided some insights:

  • The charity does not have a gift-acceptance policy. (Big problem!)
  • The Fundraising Manager plans to take the matter to the organization’s trustees. (Good move!)
  • The Fundraising Manager would like to recommend to the trustees that the charity “bank the money and designate it for safeguarding training.”
  • Many discussion participants have encouraged the charity to take the money since it needs it.
  • Some members of the discussion group suggested that the organization take the money, but keep it a secret.

The three leading justifications for accepting the funds seem to be 1) that the charity needs the money and can put it to good use; 2) that the Trust, though named for Jimmy Savile, was substantially funded by the donations of others; and 3) no one needs to know the charity accepted the gift.

He Groomed the Nation by Mikey via FlickrClearly, many charities oppose the idea of aligning themselves with the name of Jimmy Savile. Shortly after the scandal made headlines, many places and organizations named after Savile were renamed or had his name removed, according to a BBC News report.

The fact that some fundraisers think the charity should keep the gift a secret is, in itself, a red flag. If there’s nothing wrong with the gift, why keep it a secret? Furthermore, in this day and age, there are no secrets, especially if you’re going to discuss the issue on social media.

However, the biggest problem here is that Savile’s actions were not in alignment with the mission of the children’s charity. Rather than helping children, Savile grievously harmed them.

After reading about the Trust’s offer, I emailed Chris Kirchner, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance,  to get her view of the situation and discover what she would do if her organization was in a similar spot. Here’s what she stated:

I would recommend [to the board] that we not accept the money. It just sends the wrong message, to the victims of that offender, and to all child sexual abuse victims, as well as the community. We know so much about the potential life-long negative impact of child sexual abuse. The last thing we want to do is send a message that implies that the abuse wasn’t so bad or that the offender is now off the hook because they supported our work. Also, what if victims learned of the donation and then felt uncomfortable coming to us for help. The first thing we try to do when a child walks in the door is convey a message of safety, e.g. ‘this is a safe place for you to tell your story and get help.’ If we aren’t careful, accepting such a donation could certainly compromise our ability to deliver on that message.”

In other words, the major problems for Kirchner involve organizational mission and the relationships the organization has. That’s exactly why Lucy the Elephant rejected the gift from PETA. It’s why Kirchner would reject a gift from a trust bearing the name of a pedophile. While there are other reasons a charity might reject a gift, mission alignment and impact on relationships are critical.

In her book Ethical Decision Making in Fundraising, Dr. Marilyn Fischer, a Professor at the University of Dayton, shared a superb ethical decision-making model. In my article for the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, I provide a summary of the Fischer Model and a useful chart. To download the article for free, click here.

Fischer believes, when making decisions, one should consider three ultimate areas of concern: organizational mission, relationships, and personal integrity. The first step of the ethical decision-making process is to clearly identify the dilemma. The next step is to think of all of the possible resolutions. Once you take these two steps, you’re ready to ask the following questions related to each possible course of action:

Organizational Mission: Does this alternative promote or detract from the organization’s mission? Basic philanthropic values? How does this alternative affect those ultimately receiving the services?

Relationships: Does this alternative strengthen long-term relationships with colleagues, donors, volunteers, and community members?

Personal Integrity: In what ways does this alternative help or not help you develop into the person you want to become? How does it strengthen or weaken your own integrity?

By using the Fischer Model, you may not necessarily arrive at the perfect solution. There might not be a perfect solution. However, you are more likely to arrive at the best possible, most defensible solution. In the end, you’ll be able to gain stakeholder buy-in to the final decision, and you’ll be able assure critics that a thorough, deliberative process was used.

So, what do you think? Should the children’s charity in the UK accept the gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust? Let me know by responding to the poll and/or leaving a comment. Would you ever reject a donor’s gift?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

12 Responses to “When Should You Refuse a Gift?”

  1. It it were smart, the Jimmy Savile Trust should jettison its name or use its assets to pay for the suffering of his victims. That trauma never goes away.

  2. Intriguing post with some controversy in it really! It’s interesting to think about charities refusing gifts but it does happen.

  3. I agree completely that charities should not accept gifts that compromise or are not in alignment with their mission.

    So, the Elephant case appears clear cut to me. The children’s charity is a bit less black and white.

    Much in the same way we allow past drug offenders to come to schools and talk to children about the dangers of drug addiction, why couldn’t the charity accept the Savile gift for the explicit purpose of preventing sexual abuse and/or helping to heal those who’d been abused? Is the ethical issue whether Savile, currently, is reformed and remorseful? If so, can he use his money to help repair wounds he created? In this case, it’s not even his money but the Foundation’s money, so it’s a bit more removed from the harmful acts. If the money can be “cleaned” by putting it towards a positive, cleansing use, is that really unethical? It’s a balancing act where one must look at the good that can be accomplished with the gift and weigh that against any potential negative consequences.

    Making children playing on an elephant sad is a negative. Helping children heal after sexual abuse is a positive. It’s not easy, but that’s just what I’m currently thinking.

    • Claire, thank you for sharing your thoughts and illustrating how complex ethical decision-making can be. Dilemmas are usually dilemmas because there is not a clear-cut right answer. All options come with pros and cons. The key is to methodically consider all of the options, and then select the one that is best. Choosing the best option might still come with an uneasy feeling. Best does not necessarily equal perfect.

      Your comment reminds me of a situation involving Princeton University’s Woodrow School. In 1989, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation endowed the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leadership Fellowship Fund at Princeton. At first glance, that seems wonderful and not at all controversial. Ryoichi Sasakawa was a successful Japanese businessman, politician, and philanthropist. However, he is also believed by many to have been a war criminal during World War II. So, Princeton’s decision to accept the gift led to controversy.

      In its defense, Princeton argued that it applied its usual standard which went something like this: “Will accepting the gift do more good than harm?” Those who objected to the acceptance of the Sasakawa gift were unimpressed. While Princeton did not return the donation, it did promise to review its gift acceptance policy and adopt a more robust decision-making model.

      Your position regarding the gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust seems to be based on a decision-making model similar to what Princeton used. Using that model, I can see how you could arrive at the conclusion you did. Unfortunately, as Princeton learned, that model is not particularly robust and makes defending the ultimate decision more challenging. That’s why I personally like the Fischer Model.

      The other issue involving the gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust is that Savile never admitted to his crimes, never was brought to justice, never expressed remorse, and never stopped being a sexual abuser. The only thing that stopped Savile was his death.

      When you draw a comparison with allowing “past drug offenders to come to schools and talk to children about the dangers of drug addiction,” I get it. Unfortunately, Savile only became a past offender when he died. I believe that’s a significant difference. If Savile had confessed his crimes and expressed remorse, I might be more willing to recommend the acceptance of the gift. However, that’s not the case.

      Given the extent of Savile’s crimes and his lack of remorse and reform, I believe accepting the gift from the Jimmy Savile Trust would have two major negative side-effects: 1) It would help rehabilitate the name of a non-repentant heinous sexual predator. 2) It would offend and emotionally hurt Savile’s victims. It’s also possible some other donors would not want to be associated with the name Jimmy Savile. Would you want your name listed along with his in the annual report? I wouldn’t.

      I also want to point out that the gift from the Trust is not a lifesaving donation for the charity. Without the gift, the charity will go on perfectly fine. So, there’s no existential reason for it to accept the contribution. Furthermore, whatever the gift would have funded can still be funded by getting other support.

      Now, having said all that, I recognize that reasonable people can arrive at different conclusions. I also recognize that decisions can be situational. For example, a sister with an order of nuns based in a small town once remarked, “If we didn’t accept money from the Mafia, we’d never raise any money.”

      In any case, using a robust ethical decision-making model will help charities arrive at the best possible solution to ethical dilemmas. Not only that, but the decisions reached will then be more defensible.

      Finally, I believe it would be wonderful if the Jimmy Savile Trust renamed itself and dispersed funds to combat sexual abuse.

      • Michael, you have made a thoughtful and wonderfully erudite argument. Thank you. I don’t know if you’re aware, but I’m a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, so perhaps that’s why I inadvertently headed in the direction of their ethical decision-making model. 🙂

        You make some excellent points. I did not know all the circumstances of the Jimmy Savile case, including the fact that he was dead and remained unrepentant. Of course, that makes us detest him all the more. And, yes, wouldn’t it be lovely if the trust changed its name and gave away money to fight this crime.

        To your point about this not being a “life-saving” gift for the children’s charity in question, that’s an interesting conundrum. What if it were not life-saving for the charity, but what if the gift could literally save someone’s life? Would it then be ethical to refuse it?

        I have no answers; just questions. These are difficult dilemmas.

      • Claire, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Yes, this is a difficult dilemma. But, if it wasn’t difficult, it really wouldn’t be much of a dilemma. 🙂 By the way, I did notice that you are a Princeton alumna. However, I didn’t notice until immediately after I posted my response. By the way, shortly after the Sasakawa controversy, I hosted the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School for a keynote address and discussion for my AFP chapter conference. Sometime, I’ll have to tell you about something crazy that happened during the program.


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