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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Purity is an unreasonable requirement

My column last week raised a question: Should nonprofit organizations accept donations of “dirty money”? I led up to the question by recounting how prestigious museums are reconsidering their close ties to the Sackler family because some of its money derived from unscrupulous marketing of Oxycontin. It’s also been raised by recent stories in major news outlets about large gifts to Harvard and MIT from convicted sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. The universities have struggled to find appropriate responses.

I sympathize with them. The issue is complex. For example, the problem with the Sackler donations is the money; the problem with the Epstein donations is Epstein. And the issue is fraught with gray areas. For example, how tainted does money have to be to be “dirty,” and how does one decide?

That question was one of several with which I concluded the last column to help us work toward a good understanding of the problem. In this column I’m going to offer my answers to those questions. They might not be yours. And that may be because I have no expectation of purity when it comes to money. Integrity, yes; purity, no.

As Hamlet tells Ophelia when he realizes her father and Claudius are using her, if she’s too naive to understand the game she’s caught up in, then “Get thee to a nunnery.” We all get “a little soiled in the working,” to quote again from the same play. Certainly our money does. The very homes we own sit on lands stolen from Native Americans.

How dirty does “dirty money” have to be? Money generated by a criminal enterprise, such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals appears to have been, is indisputably dirty. The state, if it prosecutes, has a prior claim on it. Other than that, “dirty” is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s no moral obligation to reject it.

We might regard Koch money as distasteful, but the Kochs are entitled to their political opinions, and you and I use fossil fuels. Among many nonprofits that accepted David Koch’s gifts was Lincoln Center, who named a performance hall for him. I would have done the same.

How hard should a nonprofit look into the sources of a donor’s money? Not very. There’s no end to its history. But the donor himself, like Epstein, might be publicly unsavory, and a nonprofit shouldn’t help him buff his image. Publicly apologizing to Epstein’s victims, MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote, “With hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts.”

On a condition of anonymity, though, I would have taken Epstein’s money. From that stance it follows that I see a meaningful distinction between accepting donations and putting the donors on the board or their names on buildings.

Finally, the main reason I approve nonprofits accepting morally problematic money from morally problematic donors is that it brings good out of bad, or at least better out of worse.

Where else would we want such money to go? Aren’t we glad that the slave trade money that built Harvard and Yale in the early days, or the Rockefeller money that the Rockefeller Foundation now uses to promote social justice, went to those purposes rather than stayed in private hands?

“God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” — Augustine of Hippo

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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