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Ethics Corner

This is an online resource for ethical questions and answers as they relate to fundraising and planned giving. The NCGPC posts real questions from real people and Doug White answers them. All identities, both of people and places, are kept confidential.

Who's Morally Responsible?

Submitted January 1, 2020


In your last column you described the parents caught up in the Varsity Blues scandal in which some of our most recognized universities were accused of a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions. You put all the wrongdoing on the parents. Even though the universities knew that these "gifts" were bribes to accept a particular applicant or to recruit an athlete who happened to have never played the sport, they were never held accountable or called out for such unethical systems. While they might not have broken any laws, why didn't the press or the public focus more on their willing participation or complicity in such unethical and inappropriate dealings?


To review: The Varsity Blues scandal involves 34 parents who were charged in March 2019 with paying money to get their children into college and to receive help to improve scores on college admissions exams. About half of the parents, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli — who parted with $500,000 — are still planning to fight it out in court. For the record, Loughlin, and presumably others, claim the money exchanges were not bribes. I, as you, strongly suspect otherwise.

You are right: The universities have not been held accountable, and they should be. Universities are charitable enterprises and, as such, should be held to high ethical standards. This isn't to say that all behavior should not be driven by high standards; it's just that charities are not motivated by political or shareholder concerns. That, of course, is a naïve way of putting it, and anyone inside most charities know that, but structurally the nonprofit sector is a different animal from the government or business world.

Ten coaches — four at USC and one each at Georgetown, UCLA, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, Yale and Stanford — and seven college admissions officer and other school administrators — including Rick Singer, the "criminal mastermind" (as prosecutors put it) who pretty much headed up the scandal and who pleaded guilty soon after he was indicted — are accused with breaking the law. As you point out, though, no organizations are being held accountable even though highly positioned people in those organizations were close to what was happening.

Some might say they looked the other way. How could it not be? When coaches and admissions officers ignore obviously photo-shopped pictures and know that what is claimed does not match what is true, someone is purposefully not paying attention. The prosecutors have not focused on the institutions' liability, and that may be because the illegal acts they allege were on the personal level. To bring a whole organization to court — although it's happened before — is far more complex.

Still, from an ethical perspective, shouldn't highly placed administrators at the universities be held accountable? I don't know if this has happened because I'm not on the inside of any of the universities in question, but I would hope board members of each one has had a sober and difficult discussion with their president. Questions might include: How could this happen? What policies do we not have in place to prevent this kind of thing? What policies do we have in place that encourages this behavior? We need a good sports program, but is our quest for that more important than our integrity? This kind of board inquiry goes past the usual mode of addressing only fiduciary or, even, strategic concerns. It would go to another level yet; the board would ask what the university is really all about and what its role is in addressing existential threats. The add-on should be the sports director, not the provost.

It would be dramatic, but a strong statement of values might be made if a university president were asked to resign as a result of the scandal. Of course, it might also be a strong statement of values — as the word is a neutral term — if a president is not asked to resign.

If you have a question, please feel free to contact Doug White at While all issues discussed are real, identities are kept confidential.

Doug WhiteDoug's Bio

Doug White, a long-time leader and scholar in the nation's philanthropic community, is an author and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He serves as the Co-Chair of the Walter Cronkite Committee at FoolProof, and as a board member of the Secular Coalition of America. He is the former Director of Columbia University's Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, where he also taught board governance, ethics and fundraising. Prior to that, he was a lecturer at and the academic director of New York University's Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

Doug has published five books. His most recent, "Wounded Charity" (Paragon House, 2019), analyzes the allegations of mismanagement made in January 2016 against Wounded Warrior Project. Kate Bahen, the managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, wrote, "An epic whodunnit. A sweeping sector perspective. A gripping read for everyone interested in the charity sector. The facts behind the news headlines leaves one reeling. How could this happen? Using the dramatic case of Wounded Warrior Project, Doug White addresses the key forces shaping today's charity sector. From his unique perch, he generously shares his insights and those of the sector's thought leaders. Doug White's books should be required reading for charity directors, journalists, staff and donors alike."

"Abusing Donor Intent" (Paragon House, 2014) chronicles the historic lawsuit brought against Princeton University by the children of Charles and Marie Robertson, the couple who donated $35 million in 1961 to endow the graduate program at the Woodrow Wilson School. The family contended that Princeton abused its mandate to spend the money as the donors wished — and as the university agreed. The Foundation Center had this to say about the book: "Well-plotted with the slow burn of a decades-old frustration, and immensely readable with the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars at stake — to say nothing of the reputation of one of America's most august universities — Abusing Donor Intent is equal parts thriller and cautionary tale."

His three other books are: "The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation's Charities" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), "Charity on Trial: What You Need to Know Before You Give" (Barricade Books, 2007), and "The Art of Planned Giving: Understanding Donors and the Culture of Giving" (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), which was awarded the 1996 Staley/Robeson/Ryan/St. Lawrence Prize for Research by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

He has written several articles for a variety of magazines and periodicals, including Trusts and Estates, the Journal of Gift Planning, Charitable Gift Planning News, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Since 1979 Doug has advised hundreds of charities of all types and sizes — including social service, educational, health and environmental organizations. Today, he works closely with select organizations on ethical decision-making, board governance, and fundraising, as well as with individual philanthropists who want to see their gifts used most effectively.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Doug worked as the development director at Holderness School (NH). For almost two decades (1982 – 2000) he served on the Capital Giving Committee at Phillips Exeter Academy and as its national chair for several years during that time. He has served in leading roles with two national planned gift and endowment investment firms. As a long-term consultant to Blackbaud, Inc. in the 1980s and 1990s, he developed one of the first planned giving software programs.

In 1995 Doug testified before a Congressional committee in support of the Philanthropy Protection Act, and served as an expert witness for the charitable defendants in a national lawsuit - the "Texas Lawsuit" - that threatened the ability of charities to raise money. He has also since served as an expert witness in other lawsuits relating to donor intent.

Doug is a past member of the Board of Directors of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning (formerly the National Committee on Planned Giving). In 1996, while on the NCPG board, he founded the national initiative of Leave A Legacy. He is also a past chair of the NCPG Ethics Committee and the 1995 NCPG National Conference. He is a past president of the Planned Giving Group of New England and a past president of the New Hampshire/Vermont chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. He writes the ethics column for the National Capital Gift Planning Council; in 2002 the council presented Doug with its Distinguished Service Award.

Since 1981 he has spoken at over 750 conferences on philanthropy, including the Association for Fundraising Professionals, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, United Jewish Communities, and hundreds of local professional organizations and planned giving councils, as well as many audiences sponsored by local charities and other groups.

Ethics Corner Archive

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How Does it Work?

Emails are sent to e-list members with a teaser about the ethical question of the month with a link to the site. Readers are encouraged to submit a question to Doug and/or to disagree with his opinion on the question.

Why Should You Read Ethics Corner posts?

The primary objective is to establish and grow an ethics-based dialogue about important issues facing gift planners and other fundraisers at charities today.

Doug, a teacher of ethics and philanthropy at Columbia University, states that, "Based on the queries I receive, it is clear that those who have worked in this field, even those who have served charities for many years, have too few places to go to discuss issues that are not covered by legislation or the IRS. This site is meant to address that need."

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