Of Dubious Donors and Moral Hazes of Giving and Receiving Donations

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This is the Age of Philanthropy. Right from Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in the United States to Infosys and Azim Premji in India as well as the countless GoFundMe crowdfunding campaigns, we are living in times when Giving is Good. Indeed, the amounts of money involved are truly mindbogglingly huge as Hundreds of Billions of Dollars are being raised by both Non Profits and Individuals from Millions of Donors. With so much “joy” at giving and the gratitude of the recipients, one might very well ask, Where is the Problem if both eager donors and grateful recipients are happy with the largess being doled about.

Let me come to the point. When Billionaire Philanthropists setup foundations and trusts, it is natural for anyone in need of funding to approach them. However, the question as to whether these donors are “above the fray” in their routine businesses and personal lives needs to be considered as well. Should we (meaning anyone in need of money) turn a “blind eye” about the way the money that the donors earned and are now giving? Or, any philanthropy is good as it involves a very humanitarian impulse driven action? Can we afford to be “choosy” about whom we take money from or, should we not concern ourselves with “grandstanding” and “moral high grounds”?

For instance, in recent years, there have been some High Profile cases of Heads of Institutions who resigned or were asked to leave mainly because they had not “vetted” the donors. Joi Ito, the famous head of the MIT Media Lab comes to mind as there were allegations that the funding from the now deceased, and disgraced financier, Jeffrey Epstein, was not taken after what is euphemistically called “due diligence”. Indeed, Ito’s resignation blew the lid on several such cases wherein a public debate ensued about the “correctness” of philanthropy by dubious donors.

Here in India, we usually do not bother about such “niceties” and there are Millions of Businesspersons, small and large, for whom philanthropy is a way of “cleansing themselves of their sins”. Considering that many corporates also indulge in “greenwashing” or Corporate Social Responsibility as a “cover” for much underhand activity, perhaps, we can consider the former passe. However, there are moral and ethical questions here and in some cases, legal issues as well, since the “origin” of funds is something that the authorities are looking into.

For instance, many governments worldwide have started “cracking down” on NGOs or Non Governmental Organizations, for what are known as “foreign funding” violations, wherein the accusation is that these organizations are “accepting” money from abroad with little scrutiny as to their sources. This is where the ‘grey areas’ start as there are no hard and fast rules as to who qualifies as a donor and under what circumstances. While a Good Rule of Thumb can be that any money earned legally can be accepted as donations, what about donors who “fall from grace” such as the Very Celebrated Bill Gates, who is seen as the “poster boy” of Philanthropy”?

Gone are the days when the likes of the Late Mother Theresa could claim that they had no “qualms” about taking money from even those suspected or for that matter, convicted of wrongdoing. In this Age of Hyper Vigilance where a Sensationalist Media and an equally Belligerent Governments are breathing down on our necks, perhaps there needs to be a clear law as to who and what are allowed as donors and donations. Of course, these very entities “conveniently” look the other way when one of “their own” throws money around and hence, there is a need for a more matured and nuanced debate about this issue.

Last, while we talk about registered Non Profits and other entities, what about the Millions of Individuals who crowdfund their needs? Should the websites that host such fundraisers screen the donors, which is nigh impossible, given the logistical nightmares of such “policing”? Moreover, one can very well ask as to who is the “paragon of virtue” here as there are no absolutes anymore and these Relativist times call for some “minimum safeguards” beyond which anything goes. Many questions and no simple answers.

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