OPINION: ‘Dirty Money’ Is Not as Black and White as It Seems
Close your eyes and imagine just for a moment (go ahead—no one is looking, I promise) that you’re sitting in the office of your largest donor after just finding out that they were somehow involved in a scandal. Lo and behold, the familiar checkbook opens, and they slide you a cool $250,000 check, dangling it before your eyes like a worm on a hook.
Be honest with yourself—would you take it? Could you willfully ignore the dark and gloomy possibilities that lie behind that troubling signature? Conflicted thoughts race through your head: How much does it really matter if the money may or may not have blood on it? Imagine how many lives you can save with that much money! Who would fault you? Just a little something to ponder.
Go ahead and open your eyes.
In a move that has raised eyebrows and critical comments alike, the Texas-based nonprofit The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), turned down a $250,000 donation from Salesforce due to the company’s contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.
“We will not be a beneficiary of your effort to buy your way out of ethical responsibility,” wrote Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES, proclaiming that the only way they would accept their money would be if they “[committed] to ending [their] contract.” Salesforce has also received pushback internally, with over 650 employees signing a petition with the same demand.
Jonathan was clearly standing up for his beliefs and sending a strong message of “mission before money.” But before you drape your cape and follow his heroic lead, some context is sorely needed.
The Issue of ‘Dirty Money’
Organizations faced with the option of accepting “dirty money” is an issue that has not begun, and certainly will not end with this case. There are myriad instances where nonprofits have faced an ethical dilemma regarding what to do with the money offered to them from seemingly unsavory sources. Cases include Harvey Weinstein, the infamous sexual assault scandal-ridden Hollywood producer, and donations from companies that have slavery embedded in their supply chains, like H&M and GAP. In these cases, the money that is being given is inextricably linked to the high profit-margins that result from illegal working conditions and pay. The millions given by these examples were directly meant as a “cloak for depravity”—hiding questionable practices behind large gifts.
Would Salesforce go into this “dirty money” category? After all, it’s undeniable that knowing when to accept or refuse a monetary gift is essential for a nonprofit; judging a donation wrongly could make the difference between solvency and bankruptcy for a particularly cash-strapped nonprofit. Thus, every organization—regardless of their funds—should carefully analyze the intentions and character of their donors, in order to preserve their image while maintaining their mission. In this case, Jonathan, however, appears to have made a questionable decision—Salesforce is anything but unethical, and to equate it with the numerous examples that actually are can do a great disservice to the nonprofit community.
Take, for instance, the fact that even prior to developing its specialized “Government Cloud” in 2012, the company’s services were already used by “two-thirds of U.S. federal Cabinet-level agencies and governments in more than 80 percent of U.S. states.” This trend has not slowed.
In May, Salesforce landed its “biggest public-sector deal ever with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” These statistics—as well as the topic at hand—demonstrate that the company’s services have been in use not only for at least two presidential administrations, but on numerous state and local-levels as well; it cannot be claimed that Salesforce is by any means a “partisan” service that supports any specific policy, especially those that involve family separation.
The nature of the work being done must be understood as well. Salesforce’s contract with the Customs and Border Protection Agency began on Mar. 6, a month prior to the beginning of Attorney General Sessions’ “zero-tolerance.” Additionally, the company has denied that their software is being used in any way to aid in family detention. “We will always be vigilant & true to our core values,” reads a tweet from Salesforce.
In demonstrating that their services had been entirely ethical, they effectively complied word-for-word with the aforementioned petition’s demands, which stated “that Salesforce should re-examine [its] contractual relationship with the Customs and Border Protection Agency and speak out against its practices.” They almost immediately published a public tweet, which read: “We stand against forcibly separating children from their parents & implore the government to enact humane immigration legislation that keeps families together.” That, coupled with Salesforce offering RAICES a quarter of what is actually a $1,000,000 donation to “organizations helping families separated at the U.S. Border,” shows that they are in essence, agreeing with their embittered employees.
Salesforce isn’t the true victim here, however. They will continue to thrive as the CRM technological backbone for the larger part of U.S. businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, while the families that could have been helped with the $250,000 will need to find other ways to help them reunite with their loved ones. RAICES is also the same organization that raised $30 million from 500,000 people on Facebook just days before—clearly, they were comfortable enough to forego this money.
Governance, transparency, and a rock-solid moral and ethical foundation are paramount to any organization’s efforts and reputation. But refusing money from a well-intending business—providing services for a government organization—that could have greatly helped is troublesome. I agree with Jonathan that in such tragic times, “there is no room for hair splitting,” but there is no room for unsubstantiated claims and virtue signaling either.
Moshe Hecht, winner of the 2017 NonProfit PRO Technology Professional of the Year, is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 3,000 organizations raise over $700 million.
Moshe's passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children.