There’s no such thing as tainted money

I’ve been meaning to write this for weeks, ever since the Philanthropy Club discussion of tainted donations—that is, what money nonprofits should turn down because of its source. The panelists were unanimous in their view that money arising from behavior contrary to a group’s mission—say, in the most extreme case, donations from a pornographer to a group fighting sex trafficking—should be declined. But I still don’t understand why.

First, as I observed during the discussion, there’s no such thing as virgin money. It’s all passed through our capitalist system, which means it was accumulated instead of being shared with the workers who generated it, or it has been passed down to people whose only accomplishment is to have chosen the right parents, or…or….

(I’d love to take credit for this observation but honesty compels me to suggest that you take a look at Arms and the Man or Major Barbara, in each of which Shaw lays out the argument eloquently, or at least at extreme length.)


Second, and more important, I doubt there was anyone on that panel who would call upon African-Americans to reject reparations on the grounds that the money was tainted by slavery. Of course it was—that’s why it’s owed! Philanthropy is the reparations paid to the rest of society by people who’ve profited from it to an egregious degree (Jeff Bezos, anyone?). Charities should absolutely accept the money: how else can it ever be cleansed?

Moreover, can anyone think of a better use for the money? If our choice is space tourism or contributions to the greater good, please let Jeff Bezos’s grubby money come dirty the public weal.

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at DuelingCritics.net. Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at KellyNFP@yahoo.com.

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