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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.

Accepting Contributions


Heretical as this may sound, I'm looking for policy guidelines nonprofits have used when determining whether or not to accept a contribution. I'm less interested in traditional gift acceptance issues around illiquidity, appraisals, etc. and more concerned with matters of ideology. Are there ever instances when a prospective donor's reputation, grant requirements, political views or public stances on issues are so in conflict with an organization's mission that it makes sense to decline the grant or gift? Rather than having to opine on any individual offer of funding, I wonder whether establishing a philosophy and procedures for evaluating opportunities of concern might clarify at least how to proceed, if not necessarily eliminate controversy if a decision is made by adhering to an existing policy?


You ask not about the tactical but the strategic. Thank you. While we need robust policies that address the nuts and bolts of accepting gifts, we also need an ideological — and I would say ethical — framework within which to make acceptance determinations. It is not at all heretical to think about not accepting a gift. In a way, this question goes back a while. Hospitals, for example, have dealt with the issue of whether to accept gifts from the tobacco industry. Many health organizations have examined this question, but not all; based on my observations over the years, I'm surprised at how many are still silent on the question. (Then again, I'm surprised at how many organizations don't even have gift acceptance policies and procedures.)

Keep in mind, I say I'm surprised by charities that are "silent on the question" and not by those who pro-actively accept gifts from the tobacco industry. That may initially seem inconsistent with ethical expectations, but the thought speaks directly to your question. It is not a given that it is unethical to accept a gift from an industry that has been determined to be at odds with the organization's mission. I hope that's thought provoking, because at the core of ethical decision-making is the understanding that valid values clash; therein lies the idea of dilemma. It is valid to ask whether the money being given to an organization will further its cause. It's also valid to ask whether it sends the wrong message to accept money from people or companies whose experiences are not consistent with an organization's goals. Will the gift do us harm? Or, has the devil had it long enough? And if both perspectives have substance for a board and senior fundraising staff, which value wins out, at least for now?

The answer is not clear-cut, but the question, along with many others, must, in the end, be answered. (Part of ethical decision-making is to actually do something.)

The goal is to construct an ideological framework within which to make decisions. To do that, boards and senior fundraising staff need to ask difficult questions and then identify the values: Long-term vs. short-term; mercy vs. justice; the newspaper headline vs. knowing you did the right thing — these are all ways to think of dilemmas. That way, for example, when you don't want to act as trustee of a life-income gift that pays out too much, you think of the question not only in financial terms but also on the basis of ensuring that the donor is motivated primarily by a sense of philanthropy. After all, the first of the Model Standards for Charitable Gift Planners implores us to sniff out true charitable intent. That's of course, aspirational, because we can't read donors' minds. But each charity can establish its own vision and principles and then convey them to its donors. And that's just one example.

So, yes — and you put it well — establish a philosophy for evaluating opportunities that will help clarify how to proceed on particular questions that will inevitably arise. Otherwise, you're flying blind. Oh, and be prepared to learn that not everyone will be happy with your decisions.

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 in the nation's philanthropic community, is an author, professor, and an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists. He is the director of Columbia University's Master of Science in Fundraising Management program. He also teaches board governance, ethics and fundraising. He is the former academic director of New York University's Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

His most recent book, “Abusing Donor Intent,” 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 to. His three other books are: "The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation's Charities" (2010, Palgrave Macmillan), "Charity on Trial: What You Need to Know Before You Give" (2007, Barricade Books), and "The Art of Planned Giving: Understanding Donors and the Culture of Giving" (1996, John Wiley & Sons), 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. Today, he works closely with select organizations on ethics 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 has worked as the development director at Holderness School (NH), and has served as a trustee at several charities. 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.

Doug is a past member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (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 AFP. In 2002 the National Capital Gift Planning Council presented Doug with its Distinguished Service Award.

Since 1981 he has spoken at over 800 conferences on philanthropy, including the Association for Fundraising Professionals, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners, 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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As ethical decision-making is more of a journey than a destination, we encourage readers' comments and will post representative reactions and opposing responses to the columns. Please send your comments by email ( Be sure you include the topic.

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