Is it OK to claim ownership of something even though it’s unclear the thing was ever really owned by you? And would it make any difference if you planned to give that thing away to a good cause? These questions arrived from a reader we’re calling Florence.
Here’s the story as Flo tells it. For many years, Flo has volunteered at an organization that accepts donations of lightly worn or new clothing that can then be used to clothe military veterans who are in need. Flo’s role has typically involved sorting the donations by condition, type and size after they have arrived.
Flo’s partner is a veteran, and her youngest child is currently on active duty. “I like doing something to help the veterans,” Flo wrote.
Typically, she puts in a few hours each weekend. The most excitement she said she experienced was after the organization received a particularly large amount of useful clothing through which to sort.
“But last week I was going through the pockets of a winter coat we received,” wrote Flo, noting that occasionally they will find assorted notes, chewing gum wrappers or other items. The procedure is to toss such things into the trash and move the clothing item along. But last week, one of the pieces of paper Flo pulled from the pocket of an overcoat was a $50 bill.
After a moment of excitement, Flo did the right thing and turned the cash over to the manager of the veterans organization. He too was excited and told her he would add it to the cash donations the organization receives.
A friend mentioned to Flo that because she found the money and was the one to turn it in, she should consider claiming it as a charitable gift. Flo never considered this possibility, but was curious if it would be wrong to take credit for the donation of the $50 she found in the pocket of a donated winter coat. “It doesn’t feel right,” wrote Flo.
The $50 wasn’t Flo’s money but was part of the item donated to the veterans’ organization. She could have pocketed the $50 and then donated it herself, but that would have been dishonest. The coat never belonged to her. Given that $50 bills represent less than 5% of U.S. currency in circulation, it could be that whoever donated the coat meant the money as an anonymous contribution. But only the person who donated the coat might know why the $50 was in that pocket.
If a veteran receives a winter coat from the organization and happens to find cash in the pockets after they take ownership, it’s OK for them to keep it. Unlike Flo, that veteran will be the new owner of the coat. If the veteran wants to make a donation to the veterans’ organization, that’s up to them. But they have no obligation to do so.
That Flo is a dedicated volunteer to an organization whose mission she believes in is a good thing. That she was honest when she came across the cash in an item of clothing donated is also a good thing. That Flo trusted her instinct about trying to take tax deduction for turning the cash over seems both a good thing and the right thing to have done.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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