Ethics of philanthropy

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Philanthropy poses a number of ethical issues:

  • How donors should choose beneficiaries and ensure that their donations are effective.
  • Acceptable marketing practices for grant seekers.
  • A recipient may violate the donor's intent in spirit or in law.
  • A donor's activities may be considered incompatible with those of the institution's mission.
  • Specifically, a recipient may be perceived as complicit with or oblivious to a donor's unethical practices, thus tainting its own good name, especially when an institution grants naming rights.
  • A donor may receive a quid pro quo for all or part of a donation.

Giving effectively[edit]

Choosing suitable recipients of philanthropy, and ensuring that the aid is effective, is a difficult ethical problem, first addressed by Aristotle.[1][2]

Marketing practices[edit]

Ethical questions include:[2]:6–7

  • how to compensate fund-raising agents;
  • how to compete with other causes;
  • how much deception, if any, is acceptable;
  • whether some images ("pornography of poverty") should not be used, even if they are effective.

Donor intent[edit]

Many gifts are accompanied by a statement of intent, which may be a formal, legal agreement, or a less formal understanding. To what extent the recipient must respect that intent is an ethical and legal issue, especially as circumstances and social norms change.

Incompatible missions[edit]

When a person's activities are incompatible with an institution's mission, associating with them or accepting donations from them may be considered inappropriate or dishonest marketing (cf. greenwashing), a form of conflict of interest.

For example, children's museums generally refuse sponsorship from manufacturers of junk food.[3]

Protests against David Koch's support for climate change denial led to his resignation from the board of the American Museum of Natural History.[3]

Tainted donors[edit]

Funds derived from, and donors engaged in, unethical, immoral, or criminal activities pose a problem for the recipient, as accepting a donation or continuing to benefit from it may be interpreted as benefiting from or ignoring the disreputable activity.[4] Such donations has been characterized as "toxic philanthropy".[3]

This is an issue not only for the donor's behavior before the donation, but even after. Institutions may respond to scandals by returning the money, removing the acknowledgement, or by doing nothing.[5]

For example, the Sackler family is a major donor to many cultural and educational institutions which has had many buildings and programs named for it. Because of its association with the opioid epidemic, many activists have urged the recipients to remove the name.[6] Some institutions have announced that they will remove the name or accept no further donations from the family.[7][8] Harvard has said that it will not remove the name from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum because "Dr. Arthur Sackler died before [Oxycontin] was developed. His family sold their interest in the company before the drug was developed.... he had absolutely no relationship to it".[9] For further information, see Sackler family § Philanthropy.

Similarly, the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was a major donor to many university programs, even after his conviction for sex crimes. After it emerged that the director of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, was not only aware of Epstein's misdeeds, but took steps to solicit donations while hiding their source, Ito resigned.[10][11] For further information, see Jeffrey Epstein § Philanthropy and Joi Ito § Ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

MIT and Harvard have both initiated reviews of donations by Epstein.[12][13] The MIT review concluded that:[14]

Since MIT had no policy or processes for handling controversial donors in place at the time, the decision to accept Epstein's post-conviction donations cannot be judged to be a policy violation. But it is clear that the decision was the result of collective and significant errors in judgment that resulted in serious damage to the MIT community.

Quid pro quo[edit]

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee

Donors are generally acknowledged publicly for their donations, which benefits their reputation. It has been argued that this should be treated as a business transaction.[15] Many philosophers have argued that donations should be anonymous for this reason.[16]

Beyond that, receiving something of value in return for a donation is considered both legally and ethically a quid pro quo.[17]

Additional reading[edit]

  • Peter Singer, "Dirty money and tainted philanthropy", New Europe, February 7, 2019
  • Ernie Smith, "Amid Epstein Scandal, Fundraising Group puts focus on Ethics in Philanthropy", Associations Now September 19, 2019
  • Jim Rendon, "How to Protect Your Nonprofit From Controversial Donors", The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 19, 2019

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Georgina White, "The Ethics of Philanthropy", The European Legacy 23:1-2:111-126 doi:10.1080/10848770.2017.1400258
  2. ^ a b Patricia Illingworth, Thomas Pogge, eds., Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, ISBN 0199958580
  3. ^ a b c Elizabeth Merritt, "Toxic Philanthropy", Center for the Future of Museums, December 11, 2019, American Alliance of Museums
  4. ^ Michelle Celarier, "The 10 Most Toxic Philanthropists", Worth, September 24, 2019
  5. ^ Paul Dunn, "Strategic Responses by a Nonprofit when a Donor Becomes Tainted", Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 39:1:102-123 (February 2010) doi:10.1177/0899764008326770
  6. ^ Walters, Joanna (2018-01-22). "'I don't know how they live with themselves' – artist Nan Goldin takes on the billionaire family behind OxyContin". The Guardian. Retrieved 2018-01-22.
  7. ^ Walters, Joanna (22 March 2019). "Tate art galleries will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-03-24 – via
  8. ^ Marshall, Alex (July 17, 2019). "Louvre Removes Sackler Family Name From Its Walls". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  9. ^ Aidan F. Ryan, Cindy H. Zhang, "The Ethics of Harvard Fundraising", Harvard Crimson May 28, 2019
  10. ^ Ronan Farrow, "How an élite university research center concealed its relationship with Jeffrey Epstein", New Yorker, September 6, 2019
  11. ^ Millward, David (August 22, 2019). "Scientists apologise for accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein as academia engulfed by scandal". The Telegraph. Retrieved August 23, 2019.
  12. ^ "MIT and Jeffrey Epstein", [1]
  13. ^ Lawrence S. Bacow, "A Message to the Community Regarding Jeffrey Epstein", Harvard Office of the President September 12, 2019
  14. ^ Report Concerning Jeffrey Epstein's Interactions with the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (PDF), p. 6
  15. ^ Monika Greco, "In The Wake Of Sackler, All Should Admit That Naming Rights Are A Business Deal", WGBH News Commentary, December 18, 2019
  16. ^ "Maimonides' Eight Levels of Charity" Chabad, [2]
  17. ^ "Substantiating Charitable Contributions", United States Internal Revenue Service, [3]