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:

Dr. Marilyn Fischer believes, ‘Making a good ethical decision rests, in part, on whether one has asked enough good questions.’ When making decisions, she argues that one should consider three ultimate areas of concern: organizational mission, relationships, and personal integrity. When confronted by an ethical dilemma, first clearly identify the problem. Then, using a chart, note all possible resolutions for the case. Be sure to consider the absurd as well as the obvious. By considering the full range of possibilities one is more likely to exercise greater creativity than would be possible if operating with filters. In addition, by including obviously unethical alternatives, insights that can apply to less clear-cut solutions will be discovered and the task of identifying better solutions will be easier. Once all possible solutions are noted across the top of the chart, one is ready to answer a series of questions, one possible solution at a time.

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 [the fundraiser] develop into the person you want to become? How does it strengthen or weaken your own integrity?

When answering the above questions, one will be informed by his or her organization’s culture, professional code of ethics, general cultural mores, and personal religion and values. Unfortunately, despite all of the inputs and a carefully implemented methodology, an ‘ethically correct’ decision will seldom be yielded. Instead, arriving at the ‘best’ decision may leave one still feeling a bit uneasy. Yet, the goal is to indeed arrive at the best possible decision rather than a possibly elusive ethically perfect decision. By weighing the ultimate concerns of all stakeholders and considering the full facts of the particular situation, one can arrive at a reasonably sound conclusion. Despite a complex methodology, decision-making always remains a matter of judgment. Frequently, there may be no one right answer. However, plenty of wrong alternatives will be identified and, after careful reflection on the situation in terms of the three ultimate concerns, the wrongness of the wrong answers will be clearer. The decision maker will then be free to choose from among the other alternatives with sensitivity and sound judgment.”

Other ethical decision-making models exist, and the article I referenced explores some of them. For example, Princeton University once accepted a grant from a foundation established by a reputed Japanese war criminal. To arrive at its decision, Princeton simply asked if accepting the gift would do more good than harm.

The key when faced with a tough situation is not to make a knee-jerk decision. Instead, take the time to carefully consider the issue. If you do, you’ll end up making the best possible decision and one that will be defensible rather than based on whim.

Sometimes, turning down a donation is the right thing to do. However, that should be a decision arrived at after thoughtful consideration. Just recognize that the right decision for your organization might not be the correct decision for another.

So, would you have accepted Epstein’s money? If you had, would you have returned it?

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

9 Responses to “Would You Have Accepted Money from Jeffrey Epstein?”

  1. When William Booth (Founder of The Salvation Army) was criticized about receiving “tainted money” from wealthy donors, he replied, “We will wash it in the tears of the widows and the orphans and lay it on the altar of humanity.” In his words we find identification with the poor and redemption for the lost. Instead of piously turning aside proceeds from gambling, we can accept the gift, pray for the giver and use the money for the good of the poor.
    This quote related to receiving gambling money nothing near as bad as what Epstein did, but it does shed some light on his thinking From the late 1800’s.

  2. I’m not sure why a consideration is that you will lose the donor. Of course you will lose the unethical donor! That’s exactly what this is all about–your willingness to lose the unethical donor to maintain your organization’s and your integrity. Epstein provides a stark and not very complex example, IMHO. It was clear that he was using his philanthropy to cover up his bad deeds. I would not want to taint my organization by making them part of that. One example of this is that he gave $500K to his lawyer’s kids’ school after his lawyer brokered the infamous plea bargain. I think it would have done his school well to walk away from this donor and his money–and even from the lawyer, if necessary.

    • Miriam, thank you for your thoughts. The real questions are: 1) Where do we draw the line? 2) How much due diligence is acceptable v. too much? In extreme cases, the decision to accept or reject a gift is an easy one. But, what happens when the correct path is less clear?

      For example, when I teach ethics, I often ask my students if they were a hospital director of development, would they accept a substantial donation from a reputed Mafia boss to build a new, essential wing for the hospital? Many students think the answer is obvious: They would reject the gift. Then, I ask: Would you be able to sleep at night knowing that patients will die without the new facility or during the delay caused by the need to find other donors? Suddenly, the answer about whether or not to accept the gift becomes more complex. That’s why it is so important to use an ethical decision-making model that takes into account all possible alternatives and all perspectives.

  3. Once again, Michael — a very nuanced analysis. I’d say I probably would have accepted money and been drawn in, before the legal issues, then felt very bad about it afterward. You yourself have taken a strong stand on the welfare of children, which I admire, and this is just bad, bad stuff.
    In the 21st century, donors get to know everything. This is good, because it keeps charities on their best behavior. But I can’t ignore that because of this, any time you accept a gift from a tainted source, your organization will be impacted, potentially for a long time. And because just about all charities have a direct competitor (or hundreds of them), the impact of lost future gifts from other donors is likely to be greater than the gift amount you’re looking at today. It’s complicated, and you’ve illustrated that. But I think I’m tipping to the the side of “don’t take the money.” Because who gives to us is actually part of who we are, and it cannot be separated.

    • Brian, thank you for sharing your thoughts. In extreme cases, it’s easy to give the thumbs up or down regarding a particular donor. Unfortunately, the gray area is massive. Should charities accept money from the Ford Foundation? At least one of its founders was pro-Nazi and an anti-Semite. What about accepting money from the Sasakawa Foundation? Ryōichi Sasakawa was accused of war crimes following WWII. What about accepting DuPont money? The family made its fortune manufacturing munitions that killed and chemicals that have poisoned. You get my point. Many of this nation’s largest philanthropic institutions and individuals have less than pristine backgrounds. So, where do we draw the line? And what do we do about accepting gifts from donors who have maintained a low-profile but not necessarily clean hands? How much due diligence is appropriate v. excessive?

      Gift acceptance policies can help. Having an ethical decision-making model in addition to gift acceptance policies will produce even better outcomes that are also more defensible.

  4. Great questions and thoughts Michael. “What do I say?” My head hurts.

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