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Take the money! (or maybe not)

In this Jam, a generous but dubious donation is given to a worthy cause -- but is it worth it?

Today’s Jam

A wealthy philanthropist has offered to donate $100,000 to my nonprofit organization, no strings attached. However, as I learned through conversation and research, the donor has been involved in some questionable business dealings involving the building of substandard housing. Though she was never convicted of a crime, she was under criminal investigation five years ago for alleged offenses. Should I accept her donation?

Rabbi Naamah Kelman says…


Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, my late father, liked to share a story of a young disciple of a great rabbinic master who was married off to the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The businessman wanted to fund the bright scholar, but set forth one condition: the young man must study Torah on his own and spend less time at the “feet of his master.” The young scholar accepted the condition, but over time could not abide by this demand and often slipped off to study with his teacher. When his father-in-law discovered this “infraction,” he was outraged. A deal is a deal! The son-in-law agreed to this stipulation with argument or hesitation. But was the master wrong for aiding his disciple? And what of the disciple? Was he not right for wanting to learn more wisdom from his teacher? My father weighed the competing stands in the story and offered the following answer: The father-in-law was indeed right, because he and his son-in-law made an agreement; the master was also right, because it was his task to raise up a new generation of scholars; but the young scholar was not right. And therefore, my father concluded, the Messiah comes for those who are not right.

I share this wonderful story because many organizations find themselves in compromising positions, yet they hope to bring us closer to a redeemed world through their work. Those who condemn others for taking money from questionable sources often do not understand the complexities of running an institution. In our case, the donor was suspected but not convicted, so legally there is no issue. But is it morally problematic? And what about the challenges the director of this organization faces in keeping things afloat, including paying her staff. A gift of $100,000 can go a long way to providing people with a livelihood. Yes, in this case I would take the donation knowing that it may be complicated, but also feeling that the financial support would definitely be used for good. If the donor were convicted in the future, I hope I would have the courage of my convictions to return the money.

About Naamah Kelman

Jeremy Benstein says…

Jeremy-Benstein-140I absolutely agree with Rabbi Kelman in that those who condemn others for taking monies from questionable sources often do not understand the complexities of running an institution. A purist could probably find good reasons to object to just about any contribution or source. In addition, while the law hardly defines the limits of morality, the tenet “innocent until proven guilty” is not an empty slogan; we, too, must take care to avoid accepting groundless rumors and slander.

In the environmental movement, we grapple with these types of questions all the time: is a company’s CSR (corporate social responsibility) program merely a “greenwash,” or is it a sincere attempt at making positive change in the world? There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but it helps to know the nature of their core business, and whether they are currently engaged in any sort of injurious endeavors or practices that might contradict the mission of your organization.

In this instance, I would condition my acceptance of the contribution on the answers to several important background questions: Why is this person giving in the first place? A gift of $100,000 with no strings attached sounds too good to be true, and is itself reason for inquiry. It may seem like a nuance, but there is a world of moral difference between someone looking to launder her money or whitewash her sins, and someone who truly wants to do good in the world — especially if her business practices have involved making some difficult moral choices over the years. Moreover, if one has a personal relationship with this donor, it would be completely appropriate to ask her to respond to the allegations, and then base one’s decision on this conversation.

Briefly, if the original claims seem groundless, then there is no problem. If the claims were at one time accurate, but the potential donor is no longer engaged in the questionable practices, then this contribution might be a form of “teshuvah” (repentance), or have the opportunity to be. However, if the dubious activities are still ongoing, and they are not worthy of what you would consider upright business practices, then making the contribution, and accepting it, are both probably misguided.

Rabbi Kelman’s final point is admirable, but unfortunately usually impractical. To return funds accepted from sources that turn out to be tainted, one needs not only the courage of one’s convictions, but also deep pockets, after that money has already been spent on worthy goals.

About Jeremy Benstein

Rabbi Levi Lauer says…

Levi lauerI want to begin by considering an aspect of this issue that has not been raised. A large North American Jewish organization is said to have a one-sentence employee code of behavior: Would you want that action reported on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times?

Were the Times to report that ATZUM, the NGO I direct, accepted the contribution in question, I’d defend doing so because the dilemma is ambiguous: “no strings,” “questionable dealings,” “substandard housing,” “never convicted,” “alleged offenses.” Do I carefully research the profit mechanism that facilitated any, or every contribution we receive? No. Given the manifold complexities of assessing the moral foundations of such mechanisms, is it feasible to do so? Again, no. However, confronted with a particularly egregious instance of ill-gotten earnings (i.e., stolen funds, money earned by trafficking in drugs), I’d definitely turn down the contribution. I would do so not only because my friends and countless others whose opinions I value read the Times, but also because accepting such gifts devalues human dignity and results in “hilul Hashem” (defamation of the Divine). In short, it affirms a mitzvah occasioned by a grievous “aveirah” (misdeed). Of course, we need “batei midrash” (study centers) where we might explore the parameters of “grievous” through careful study and reflection.

In response to Rabbi Kelman and Dr. Benstein: I think it is possible to make contributions with no strings attached, even while there may be clear directives as to the use of the funds. The distinction is not minor: strings are for puppets, directives for thinking, critical administrators. ATZUM’s Roberta Project for Survivors of Terror has turned down gifts when donors insisted that no help be given to people living over the Green Line or to Arabs. Further, if we are really hesitant about accepting a contribution that will negatively impact the livelihoods of our staff, let’s ask the staff what they think we should do. Why make the decision for them without their active input?

Finally, a dilemma very similar to the one we are considering was posed to one of Chicago’s most thoughtful, courageous and morally sensitive rabbis. Everyone present waited with bated breath as he pondered the scenario quietly for a several seconds. “‘Ribono Shel Olam” (Dear God),” he said, “please let me be tempted every day by this challenge — and in six figures!”
About Levi Lauer

Now, what do YOU say?

We have seen a number of different aspects of this case highlighted, including how this donation will affect the public image of your organization; the personal relationship you might have with the donor; the hard truth that $100,000 is enough money to support many people working for your organization; and finally, the difficulty in either returning the money if charges are subsequently laid or in ever being fully certain that donations are “clean.” How would you weigh the concerns in this case? Do you have other considerations that would influence your decision? Join the conversation in the comments section below.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via