Means, when ends justify

I was taken aback by the pithiest reaction to my complaints about Bristol-Meyers’ "Light the Night" campaign–the verbal shrug, "Money is money."  Is there really no basis for objecting to donations based on their source or purpose?  Is the sole question whether a worthy enterprise has the resources necessary to do its job?

But then tonight I heard Daniel Golden discussing his book The Price of Admission, an expose of so-called legacy admissions to prestigious colleges.  "Legacy admissions" is a euphemism for bribery; the author estimates it can cost $25 million in donations to secure admission for a student whose academic credentials otherwise wouldn’t get him in the door. 

Golden (a wild-eyed radical who writes for that Marxist rag The Wall Street Journal) thereby demonstrates that money is never just money.  Sometimes money is a gift, and sometimes it’s a payment for services rendered; and leaders of nonprofits damn well need to be able to tell the difference.

This is obvious at the extremes: everyone would be shocked if the American Lung Association suddenly endorsed cigarettes after receiving millions of dollars from the tobacco companies.  But the same that’s-no-gift-that’s-a-quid-pro-quo dynamic is at work when a nonprofit opposes an increase in the wage paid to a donor’s cashiers and clerks (see the Target big box/Chicago performing arts controversy), or when an admissions officer waves in the bonehead son of a big donor.  And, I would argue, when a donation indebts groups dedicated to speeding access to lifesaving drugs to drug companies prepared to slow that access for a profit (a practice thoroughly documented by Mr. Golden’s paper), that’s not a gift, either.  More like hush money.

At first blush, it might seem a matter of indifference to one donor whether another is corrupt.  But if an agency’s Board of Directors isn’t patrolling the border between gifts and bribes, that’s certainly something I’d consider in deciding whether to send my own gift.  If I can’t count on the Board to balance what the agency needs to keep its lights on with what it needs to keep its mission intact, there are plenty of other places to put my money.


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