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Welcome to the Giving Thought Podcast, a bi-weekly exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society from the Charities Aid Foundation’s in-house think-tank, Giving Thought.

In each episode your host Rhodri Davies (formerly with co-host Adam Pickering) explores a big issue, theme or trend and analyses what it means for philanthropy and civil society around the world.

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Sep 17, 2019

In episode 56 we take a deep dive into the issue of "tainted donations". Is some money "bad", and if so can it ever be turned to good uses through philanthropy? Including:

  • Recent versions of the tainted donation issue: Epstein & MIT Media Lab, the Sacklers, The Presidents Club
  • The history of tainted donations: mediaeval prostitutes, Rockefeller & Carnegie in the firing line, George Cadbury, George Bernard Shaw, William Booth
  • What do we mean by tainted? In cases where there is no clear illegality, how do we navigate much more contested ethical grey areas?
  • Do we need to differentiate between criticisms of specific ways in which has been made (e.g. fossil fuels, arms manufacture, tobacco) and broader structural critiques of capitalism as a whole?
  • Do the ethical concerns associated with a particular source of money relate directly to the way in which the money was made, or are they indirect? Does this affect the moral status of a donation?
  • In a highly interconnected world, with global financial systems, does it make sense to talk of any money as ‘tainted’ or ‘pure’?
  • Is it better for charities to refuse ethically dubious donations in order to avoid damaging themselves by association, or do they have a responsibility to take the money and put it to good uses?
  • What level of control is a tainted donor seeking to exert over how their money is used? How does this affect the decision about whether to accept it or not?
  • Will the donor get personal benefit from their donation- either in the form of tangible thanks or recognition, or in the form of more intangible social status and connections? Does this make accepting a gift more problematic?
  • Does a organisation’s decision to take money always imply approval of the donor to some degree? Is it possible to counteract this implication through overt condemnation whilst still taking the money?
  • In order to justify taking a charity accepting a tainted donation, does its work have to address a harm related to the way in which the money was made i.e. does there have to be some element of reparation?
  • Is there a statute of limitations on tainted donations? What should we do in cases of historic wrongs that occurred so long ago that no one affected is still alive?
  • On what legal basis can charity trustees decide to refuse a donation?
  • How do trustees balance the potential reputational risk of accepting a tainted donation against the certainty of financial loss from not accepting it?
  • Does public opinion actually support charities turning down donations from tainted sources?
  • If a donation has already been made, is it even possible in charity law for it to be returned?


Related Links

 -Ronan Farrow's New Yorker piece on Jeffrey Epstein and MIT MEdia Lab

-CAF Giving Thought Blog, “When Should Charities Say No To Donations?”

-CAF Giving Thought Blog “The Wages of Sin: Doing good with bad money”

-The “Criticisms of Philanthropy” chapter from my book Public Good by Private Means

-Matthew Ross’s HistPhil article about the history of donations to Notre Dame

-Ben Soskis’s Atlantic article “Dirty Money: from Rockefeller to Koch

-G.K. Chesterton's attack on J.D. Rockefeller: "Gifts of the Millionaire"

-Beth Breeze’s Guardian article “Should charities accept contrition cash from dubious donors?

-John Picton’s Conversation article “Sackler donations: why museums and galleries can be stuck with gifts – even if they don’t want them