Does it matter why someone contributes to a charity? If the result is support for cancer research or more Toys for Tots at Christmas, do we second-guess the donor’s or fundraiser’s motives? For the most part we don’t. We take the money because it supports a social benefit that more than compensates for whatever unattractive thing might be at the root of the gift. We also want to avoid offending donors with any suggestion that they don’t share our charitable goals. It’s easier that way.
Recent stories out of Washington suggest that doing the easy thing may not serve the
overall interests of the charitable sector, even as individual charities benefit from the cash infusion.
A sidebar to the unfolding lobbying scandal in Washington is that many national politicians–including the president and the speaker of the House–are ridding themselves of campaign contributions associated with Jack Abramoff by giving those funds to a variety of charities, often located in their home districts.
In a seemingly unrelated story, the Washington Post recently reported that the annual on-air charity drives (for toys, school supplies, winter coats and the like) of two TV stations in Washington, D.C., were not quite what they appeared to be. As they generated donations for deserving charities, the stations also raised money for their own purposes by selling “sponsorship” spots to companies. Often the stations didn’t disclose to viewers how this commercial transaction benefited them.
While the charities didn’t break any fundraising laws and supported many good causes, there remain troubling aspects to these stories. In both cases third parties used the charities in the service of distinctly noncharitable purposes, and each story drew more unwelcome attention to the already beleaguered charitable sector.
Within days of the report that the TV charity drives weren’t entirely charitable, an FCC commissioner called such practices “a serious breach of the public’s trust” and possibly a violation of the well-known payola rules banning broadcasters from taking undisclosed payments in exchange for air time. He suggested including TV charity drives in the commission’s broader investigation into payola scams.
As the stories circulated about charities receiving the Abramoff-inspired donations from politicians, there were a few “Wait a minute!” moments–as in, “Wait a minute! How does my congressman’s donation to the local heart fund make up for Jack Abramoff’s shenanigans in spreading Indian casino money around Capitol Hill?”
Those in the public sphere who answered the question said, in effect, “It doesn’t.” OK, we agree with that. So, if the charities aren’t going to give the money back, what else is there to say about this awkward situation?
One observation is that the charitable sector doesn’t need this kind of negative attention when the IRS, FBI and Senate Finance Committee already are investigating high-profile charities for their errant ways. It’s not a good thing when yet another federal government agency, the FCC in this case, proposes yet another investigation of commercial dealings
That’s true, but does that mean charities should start turning down freely given donations? As the IRS is fond of saying, that depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. But charities should certainly start looking at their own dealings with outsiders to ensure that the donations they accept are supporting good works rather than serving selfish interests.
As the public’s opinion of the charitable sector teeters between respect and disgust, we ought to do things that earn the former and minimize the latter.
Bruce Collins is corporate vice president and general counsel of
C-SPAN, based in Washington, D.C.
E-mail him at email@example.com.