Plus Side of Not Receiving Huge Donations: No Need to Return Huge Donations!

cash_handsIt seems there’s been an epidemic recently of nonprofits either having to, or deciding to, return money to disgraced donors.

On the “having to” list, just this week the Wall Street Journal reported that the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota had agreed to give up one-fifth of a $3 million gift that businessman Tom Petters made way back in 2003. Petters was later convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme that brought him billions of ill-gotten dollars. 

After more than a decade, the college had probably found plenty of uses for that money, and might have been happy to ignore Petters’s later troubles. Enter, however, the bankruptcy court that’s overseeing the collapse of the Petters empire. The court decided to collect any and all stolen funds in order to turn them over to creditors, and the College of St. Benedict was apparently a recipient of such money. (Figuring out which money is tainted and which isn’t sounds like an accounting nightmare, by the way.)

On the “deciding to” give up tainted money list, several groups are reportedly saying “Ptooey” to money that came from “disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling.” (It seems that Sterling will never be referred to any other way — sort of like, “Military Strongman Idi Amin” or “Pop Star Madonna.”) The list includes Goodwill Southern California (bye-bye $100,000) and A Place Called Home.

Hmm, maybe A Place Called Home didn’t actually return any money. Its public letter said, “I must decline further funding from your foundation and ask you to immediately remove A Place Called Home and my photo and name from your ads.”

If true, that’s a clever public relations move – denounce the donation loudly and publicly, but keep the cash. I’m not unsympathetic: The money was probably well-spent by now.

But if the Internet and public fascination with infotainment is going to keep producing high-profile scandals like this, more and more nonprofits are going to have to do ethical deep-think around funds that came from the latest “Disgraced So-And-So.”

Meanwhile, grassroots groups whose average donations are $25 checks from local families can hopefully sit back and feel grateful that they’ll rarely have to deal with such huge amounts coming in — and then going back out.