The Jabba the Hutt Problem
Let's pretend you run a thriving non-profit on the planet Tatooine. The moisture farmers need help. You can provide them the blue milk they need to get them through the slow season.
Your organization has many donors at various levels and a generally healthy ecosystem. And you use your funds wisely.
But you get a message. Jabba the Hutt, mob boss and slimy slug, wants to give your organization a gift. Its largest-ever single gift. No strings attached.
He might be giving because you're throwing a party, and he wants to come. It might be because he gets some good imperial tax write-offs. It might be out of guilt -- he froze Han Solo in carbonite and wants to make amends.
Do you take the money?
Non-profits face these types of questions every single day, and the answers are never easy. Cash is pretty much always tainted. Why? A few examples: Made your money in real estate? You're either responsible for white flight, gentrification, or fighting union wages. I guarantee it. Oil? Harmful consequences for the environment. Tech? Here's this article from the Times
That's why non-profits create this document called a "gift acceptance policy." Somewhere (usually buried in between paragraphs about how to accept stock, art, and bitcoin as gifts) it talks about money that they won't take for ethical reasons.
The more progressive an organization is, the more difficult these discussions are. Conservative think tanks will accept funds from almost anyone. Occupy Wall Street has a different standard.
Progressive organizations should be careful about money. But that doesn't mean they get to be Peter at the gates, declaring "yes" or "no" to a donor's morality.
In almost every case, we should encourage Jabba the Hutt to give.
Here are my principles for the ethical portions of a gift acceptance policy:
1. Do not accept any money tied to the policy direction of the organization.
2. Don't take any donations that would embarrass you if they came out in the media.
3. Beyond those two factors, treat every gift on a case-by-case basis.
You'll find that you rarely need to turn away support. Almost all donors are giving from a place of generosity. And if they're not, their motives don't usually conflict with your purposes.
In nearly every circumstance, Jabba giving you the money is better than him spending it on another party barge. If your organization does good in the world, accepting his generosity is the right move. It is human flourishing that matters most of all.