Kiplinger Today

Money & Ethics

When Your Favorite Charity Sells Out

Knight Kiplinger

Charities typically insist that they'd never let a donor relationship affect their positions on issues, but that seems naïve or disingenuous.

Q: An environmental group I’ve supported for years seems to be accepting many donations from corporations whose commercial interests aren’t aligned with the charity’s mission. It is even endorsing “green” products in exchange for large licensing fees for the use of its logo. I’m feeling disillusioned. Your thoughts, please.

SEE ALSO: The Money and Ethics Quiz

I share your misgivings. Many charities faced with falling donations from individuals and foundations—or who would like to expand their budgets more rapidly—are accepting donations from corporations that operate in the same fields as the charities’ advocacy, such as public health, energy and the environment. In years past, these nonprofits would have courteously declined such donations as possible threats to their independence or simply to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The risk is even greater when, in addition to accepting a “no-strings” contribution, the charity enters into a formal marketing deal that includes product endorsement. In my field, publishing, the most reputable firms wouldn’t think of selling their journalistic ratings of products and services, which should be free of commercial influence. Charities should hold themselves to the same or a higher standard.

Advertisement, which rates nonprofits, puts it like this: “Businesses like getting the extra sales and improved image from the use of a charity’s name.” But, it warns, “charities that stray from their mission in pursuit of short-term licensing fees may eventually lose their credibility with the public.”

Charities typically insist that they would never let a donor relationship affect their positions on issues, but that seems to me naïve or disingenuous. Funders of all sorts, such as political-campaign contributors, large media advertisers and charitable donors, usually expect something in return, whether overtly favorable treatment or just access—a place at the table where decisions are made.

Tell the charity that you disapprove of its cozying up to inappropriate corporate donors. If charities hear this from many small supporters, it will make a difference.

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