Archive for August 28th, 2019

August 28, 2019

Would You Have Accepted Money from Jeffrey Epstein?

A reporter for The Miami Herald interviewed me recently about whether charities should have rejected charitable contributions from Jeffrey Epstein, an admitted child sex trafficker who faced new accusations prior to his suicide earlier this month.

Now, I’ll ask you, would you have accepted a donation from Epstein?

Your knee-jerk response might be, “No!” Or, you might have a more emphatic and colorful response. It’s even possible that you would have accepted a charitable contribution from Epstein. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. Many nonprofit organizations have accepted substantial gifts from Epstein including Harvard University, the Ohio State University, the Palm Beach Police Scholarship Fund, Verse Video Inc. (a nonprofit that funds the PBS series Poetry in America), Ballet Florida, and other nonprofit organizations. Some nonprofits accepted Epstein’s money before his legal troubles, some after his initial plea deal on prostitution charges, and some around the time of the swirling accusations of child sex trafficking this year.

So, once again, would you have accepted a donation from Epstein?

As I told the reporter from the Herald, it’s not a simple question. It’s complex. It’s nuanced.

One factor is timing. Some might consider donations made before Epstein’s legal troubles to be completely problem-free. On the other hand, some charities might have more of an issue with an Epstein contribution made after his 2008 plea deal. However, after Epstein served his sentence, some charities would have been willing to accept an Epstein contribution once again.

Another timing issue involves whether a nonprofit had already spent Epstein’s donation prior to his legal difficulties. For example, Harvard says it spent Epstein’s donation by that time. In other words, there was nothing left to return.

Another factor to consider is the type of recipient charity. For example, a university might have been more willing to accept an Epstein donation than a child welfare charity would be.

Consideration of Epstein’s philanthropy gets even more complicated when we consider broader cultural issues. For example, in our society, we believe that ex-felons have paid their debt to society and, therefore, should be free to live life as full citizens including having the right to be philanthropic. Furthermore, we believe in a presumption of innocence. Epstein was not convicted of any new charges prior to his death.

More broadly, we must consider whether charities are supposed to investigate and pass judgment on donors before deciding whether to accept a gift. Many major donors, I dare say, have done something that they probably would prefer you didn’t know about, even if not rising to a criminal level. When does due diligence turn into snooping? Do you want your organization to have a reputation of hyper-scrutinizing prospective donors? Would major donors want to submit to that kind of treatment or would they simply take their money elsewhere?

When doing your due diligence, keep in mind that some of this nation’s greatest philanthropists were also troubling figures such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and others. Charities are not in business to turn away contributions. They exist to take donations and use the funds to enhance communities and the world.

For example, I know of an order of nuns who accepts donations from known Mafia figures. They believe that they can take the funds and do more good with it than would be done if the money were left in the hands of the mobsters.

Having said that, the issues surrounding Epstein are certainly complex. I’ve only touched on some of the issues. The Miami Herald did a great job exploring some of the complications. You can read the article by clicking here.

To navigate a complex ethical dilemma, charities should consider all possible courses of action from multiple perspectives. In my article in the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, I wrote:

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