Sunday, April 03, 2016

Should donors have a say in what donations are made in their names?

Should people have a say over what institutions their names are affiliated with, or at least be informed when their names are attached to the organization?

A reader writes that he recently came across a bulletin from a nonprofit institution with which he had an association in the past. He hasn't contributed to it for more than a decade, but he continues to receive literature from the organization.

On the annual list of donors, he saw that someone had made a donation in his name to the organization. There's no indication of who made the donation just that a donation had been made in his name.

It's not terribly unusual for some people in lieu of a gift to send a card or a note to someone letting them know that they've made a donation in someone's name to a charity. The recipient knows that a donation has been made, but they still haven't had a say in whether they want their name affiliated with a specific cause.

The intent of the donors is most likely good -- to give money to a worthy cause and to give credit or acknowledgement to a friend or an associate. But what if, like my reader, the recipient has a reason for no longer wanting to support the nonprofit someone else chose for him?

If the nonprofit is engaged in activities that recipients find morally abhorrent and it's unclear who made the donation in their names, the right thing is to contact the organization and ask that their names be removed from any materials. They should also ask that they be contacted if any future donations are made in their name. If it's clear who made the donation to an organization whose principles goes (should this be "go") against their beliefs, then the right thing is to let that person know as graciously as possible.

If, however, the organization is one about which the recipient has no moral qualms, my inclination would be to let it pass as a well-intentioned effort to do something good while simultaneously honoring a friend. Giving to others in need or worthy causes is a good thing. So is wanting to honor a friend.

The best right thing, however, would be to let donors choose which causes they want to support.

There are various ways to do this. Around the winter holidays, for example, one Facebook user routinely posts that he will donate $50 to his first 10 Facebook friends who post the name of their favorite charity. The only caveat is that the charities must have three- or four-star ratings from Charity Navigator. He makes a generous offer, honors his friends with the donations, but lets them choose who gets the money. His restriction on only giving to charities that are screened by Charity Navigator still lets the friends decide which charities they want to give to.

My reader will never have the opportunity to thank whoever honored him with the donation since it was made anonymously. Fortunately, he has no moral aversion to that organization's mission. He simply has other places he believes are more in need of whatever he (or someone in his name) has to give. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

Donors certainly can make suggestions as to what use can or should be made of their contributions, but it sounds like this piece seems to suggest that the donor should have an "inherent right" to control the use of their contribution, or at least should have an important or favored control over the use of their contribution.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

I made an appropriate suggestion of use (fully discussed) with a big donation (5K) recently and it was ignored. So much for the charity doing what is asked. So much for future donations.

However, if money is donated by someone else, so be it and keep in mind that someone else donated it. Not you!!!!!!!

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.