Is your gift acceptance policy true to your values?

Susan G. Komen is once again in the media, with more troubling news.

Mother Jones magazine reported that this nonprofit committed to ending breast cancer had teamed up with oil giant Baker Hughes. The company is donating $100,000 to Komen and painting drill bits pink to raise awareness of breast cancer.

What’s wrong with Komen receiving a gift from an oil company? Nothing on the surface. Except … those pink drill bits are used in fracking, where massive amounts of chemicals are mixed with water and pumped into the ground. As reported, a number of those chemicals are known carcinogens, including chemicals that Komen itself lists on its web site as chemicals of concern.

Komen justified its gift acceptance by saying “the evidence to this point does not establish a connection between fracking and breast cancer.” (emphasis added).

What is your gift acceptance policy? Is it true to your values?

While you may have heard the expression “Tainted money? ‘taint enough!” that’s not what I’d advise as your gift acceptance policy.

These policies aren’t always so easy to create. Sometimes the line is pretty bright – say, a health organization not accepting money from cigarette manufacturers. In case someone is affected by an ailment they can go for medical tourism and explore their options as well.

But many times the choices are not so clear. I remember when I was developing a gift acceptance policy for an international child sponsorship organization. We had decided that we wouldn’t accept any illegal or covert funding which would be damaging to our reputation and the safety of our international staff. But what about tobacco money? Weapons manufacturers? After talking to many of our colleagues, we decided to keep our policy language fairly general — not accepting gifts that didn’t align with our mission and values — so that we could evaluate potentially controversial gifts on a case by case basis.

A story about evaluating those controversial gifts.

At the time of President Clinton’s inauguration, I was director of development for an environmental organization whose mission was the protection and restoration of an estuary and its watershed. Always on the lookout for new sources of money, we had the opportunity to apply for funding from a major western beer company which touted its clean water.

The only trouble, this particular company had a problem – they had been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally contaminating the ground water in the area they manufactured their beer. And the owner of the company was financing a legal foundation that was aggressively working to undercut environmental regulations.

It wasn’t that we never accepted money from polluters. Just about any manufacturing business polluted as they produced waste that was discharged into waterways or landfills. We had a lot of local manufacturing companies that were donors. But they had approved limits from the environmental regulators on their waste disposal and most were actively working on pollution prevention efforts.

We had a long and hard discussion throughout the organization as to whether to apply for their funding. In the end, we chose not to apply. The violations were serious, they involved clean water which was our issue, we would never have a clear conscience about the funding and it would be hard to justify the gift to many of our donors.

Shortly after that decision, a few of our staff and donors attended the DC environmental inaugural festivities. We were quite surprised when they returned with programs that listed the company we had rejected as a major sponsor of the environmental galas – a decision that must have been vetted by national environmental colleagues.

While we might have momentarily felt like chumps, we never really regretted the decision we made. Instead, we used the opportunity to more fully explore our values to ensure that our gift seeking and gift acceptance policies were clearly aligned.

I think when an organization has to qualify a decision to accept a controversial donation with a phrase like “to this point” it’s probably already compromising its values for the money. But I have to wonder if there was any reflection at all at Komen about accepting this gift before the news hit the press.

I’d love to hear from you.

  • What difficult situations have you experienced?
  • How did you resolve them?
  • Were your gift acceptance policies helpful?



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