How to decide whether or not to accept a gift

publication date: Jul 18, 2021
author/source: Ann Rosenfield

Recently the news has been talking a lot about the ultra-wealthy and their giving. MacKenzie Scott has decided to give unrestricted gifts but most large donors are not as flexible. Even if the donor's giving is helpful, their reputation may make it wrong to accept a gift. The Sackler family, who have been accused of fueling the Opioid epidemic were also major donors. Should charities have refused a gift from the Sacklers? Scott's wealth is due to Amazon - a company many feel is unethical. What's a charity to do? From naming rights to restricted gifts, how should you handle a sticky decision about whether or not to accept a gift?

Have your house in order first.

A great first step for all of us is to use this moment to review your gift acceptance policies and procedures. The policies should have been passed by your Board and if you have not reviewed them recently, pull them out of your shared drive (or binder) and run through them. Do you have up-to-date gift acceptance policies? When is the last time you looked at your gift acceptance procedures? Do you have a clear decision tree for how to determine when the Board should be alerted?

An excellent resource for this kind of decision making is the Rogare Ethical decision making framework for fundraising. When drafting your policies and procedures, this is a great way to start the conversation about what types of gifts and what kinds of donors your charity will accept.


Similarly, it is useful to review the Imagine Canada Standards. Even better is to urge your charity to join the Standards Program [full disclosure, I am a volunteer with the Imagine Canada Standards Program].

Know before you go

Fundraising is not going to stop while you update your policies. In the meantime, when you identify a major donor or Board prospect, do some quick checking. I always Google the person's name + the word "scandal." Then I do the same with the word "controversy." And the same thing with the word "lawsuit." I repeat that process for all living family members names I know (parents, spouse, kids, grandkids, ex-spouse). I also do a search using the words "controversy" and "scandal" for their business.

This process takes a few moments but is a quick way to identify if there are any issues that could come up down the road. For example, in less than 5 minutes, I found the 2010 New York Times obituary of Mortimer Sackler, Sr, outlining concerns about OxyContin and Purdue. By 2016, there were more articles about the Sacklers. This would have been enough for me to raise it as a concern for the organization to consider before accepting a gift from them.

Check in with who's in charge

A good rule for life is "never surprise your boss or your Board." Before pursuing an initial contact on the major or planned gift, I would have raised this quick Google research with the charity's leadership - staff and board - about whether or not to pursue a conversation about a gift. What makes this tricky is that Mortimer Sackler, Jr. was on the Guggenheim board for almost 20 years and the family had donated $9M over the years to the museum. In this case, I would have raised this question with my boss and pushed to get the information escalated. While we are employed by the charity, as professionals, we also serve to make sure that we protect the charity. Part of this duty is to raise concerns about bad donors or concerning gifts.

People will often say "there is no such thing as 'clean' money." I can tell you in my career, I have rarely been so concerned about a possible donor that I have felt the need to alert people up the ladder and to recommend that the charity not pursue a gift. On the one hand, charities like the Guggenheim can look virtuous because they have announced they will not accept any gifts from their former trustee, Mortimer Sackler, Jr. On the other hand, they have accepted a gift as recently as 2015, five years after there was enough publicity to take a hard look. Either way, I hope that current or former employees and Board members raised questions earlier than four years ago.

Ann Rosenfield is the Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews. She once flatly turned down an unsolicited six figure gift from a company whose product caused the health problem the charity was working to eliminate. She still made her fundraising goal that year without the gift and sleeps better at night.  


Guggenheim Museum Says It Won't Accept Gifts From Sackler Family.

Cover photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash



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