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.

Take It Down!

Submitted July 1, 2020


Last week Princeton University's board of trustees voted to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International affairs. I can see why, as it's come out that Wilson, despite his accomplishments, was a racist. Unfortunately, we have a similar issue at our college to address: a racist in our past who was, at the time, honored for his civic mindedness. He's not as well-known as Wilson and not as much in the news as the statues of Confederate generals, but I still think we need to remove his name from one of our dormitories. Some say no, that we need to preserve history while others say we should just not make a big deal about it. Some agree with me, but not as many as I'd like. What can I do?


Engage in honest, robust discussion.

Many organizations are struggling with this issue anew. Georgetown and Brown are two examples of universities that have been public in the past about exploring their historical role in — and contribution to — racism and slavery, but only in these last several weeks are we seeing questions like yours emerging so frequently.

Many institutions, divisions and buildings are named after those who today seem not so deserving. Princeton wanted to honor Woodrow Wilson at its school that teaches what he promoted so vigorously as president — international relations. In 1948, when the school was named, everyone thought it was a good idea. Today, not so much.

Last week's decision was actually the culmination of years of protest. In 2015 the Black Justice League, an African American civil rights group at Princeton, led a walkout by approximately 200 students, and there was a crescendo of rumblings for years before that. The difference in 2020 is that more than Black students are behind the effort. All across America large and diverse groups of people are protesting racial injustice, ignited by George Floyd's gruesome death.

One of the components of decision-making is timing. Certainly, a response is warranted and a discussion of racism in the United States is far overdue.

In applying an ethics mindset to this issue, however, we must ask if we are going too far, unfairly discounting the contributions of past leaders just because they had views about race that don't comport to those of our times. Historians will say, when evaluating decisions of the past, it is essential to understand the norms of the past and to take care not to impose today's morality on yesterday's.

The decisions the nation has been confronting lately are not easy, even those relating to removing the names of those once associated, by today's standards, with unenlightened views on race. Our Founders, as well as many leaders we've admired since, were flawed. Thomas Jefferson is today being harshly critiqued in light of his hypocrisy: his ownership of slaves tells us he actually did not believe that all men are created equal. In an absolute world, even our most venerated president, Abraham Lincoln cannot escape scrutiny for the following sentiment, put forth in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the Black races." Six years later, he wrote, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." In a world where anger — as righteous as it may be — leads the charge, it might be a degree of nuance too far to accept that Lincoln could house both sentiments — consider African Americans inferior and oppose slavery — at the same time. He grew in his understanding of race relations, but some say not enough.

So, are we left to cut a wide swath? Fine, but if we do we might have no one left to look up to. While uniquely pernicious, racism is hardly humankind's only flaw. Martin Luther King, Jr. — whose name is regularly invoked in today's searing examination of race relations — might also be excised from history's spotlight because, according to Boston University, he plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. Plagiarism and racism are hardly the same, but should we be honoring someone so intellectually dishonest? Or did King's life-long good works offset that deceit? The judges of today favor King's good work and discount Wilson's. What will the judges of today say about Jefferson and Lincoln … and so many others?

What must be crystal clear to everyone is that, when we make such judgments, we are weighing values — which is what ethical decision-making is really all about — and values are weighed differently by different people, especially different people in different periods of history.

Princeton might have made this linear calculation of values: Wilson's racism is a more bad thing than being a promoter of international relations is a good thing. The board clearly determined that the baggage of racism was a load too heavy to carry any further into the 21st century. Perhaps in one hundred years society may feel differently, but Princeton's decision is a healthy one for our times.

Why that is so is instructive for your situation. Much deliberation went into Princeton's decision, and, in my view, it is essential that a robust discussion precede any decision to remove a statue or a name from a building. Even in the Declaration of Independence — when, at least by our understanding today, it was obvious that the colonies had to separate from England — Jefferson laid out a point-by-point apologia. You don't want to unthinkingly remove a name that means a lot to your college, but you also don't want to shirk the 21st century logic that asks how a person can simultaneously be civic-minded and a racist: a collision of thoughts that requires serious examination.

While you can't expect everyone to agree with the final decision, you should expect, and promote, an honest evaluation of values and a respect among everyone involved.

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

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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."

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"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.

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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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