Donor Trouble – Should I keep a controversial donor secret?

Q. A rather controversial individual has offered a donation to our organization. After checking his background carefully, I’m convinced he is a suitable donor. Should I keep the donation secret in order to stave off controversy?

A. You were wise to check out the background of this individual before accepting a donation. There are many problems involved in accepting donations from unscrupulous individuals.

In the worst case, the donation money itself is stolen or otherwise tainted. In this case, the organization directly benefits from the crime and attains a kind of complicity. (1)

Another common problem with these donations is chanufa, often translated as flattery. By honoring a person who is identified with sinful behavior, your organization would almost certainly be seen as condoning his actions. The Talmud severely criticizes some prominent rabbis who tried to reassure King Aggripas that his rule was kosher, despite the fact that he attained the kingship in an illegitimate way. (2)

However, once you researched this person’s background and found the suspicions unfounded, you showed praiseworthy courage in treating him like any other donor. We are allowed to take account of rumors and hearsay in order to examine their validity, but once we verify their falsity we shouldn’t add insult to injury and disqualify a person because others are slandering him!

Since there are still people who look askance at the donor’s background, it does seem like an attractive option to accept the money without making the donation public. However, this attractiveness is illusory. There are two reasons you should avoid this route:

1. By accepting the money in a surreptitious way, you seem to get the best of both worlds – obtaining the money in a legitimate way yet avoiding controversy. Actually, you get the worst of both worlds. Since you accept the money in a quiet way, people will assume the donor is unworthy. So you have been complicit in tainting his name. Yet you have still accepted the money. So people will assume that your organization is condoning wrongdoing.

2. Giving recognition to donors is a basic ethical obligation. The prominent medieval authority Rabbi Shlomo Adret writes that honoring donors is not just a gesture to their vanity; it is a mitzvah in and of itself to give honor to those who perform good deeds – including giving charity. By giving in to public pressure you will be falling short of this obligation and simultaneously denying a deserved honor from the donor. (3)

Given that you are convinced the donor is worthy, the best route is to accept his generosity and acknowledge it as you would any other contribution. If you feel that the controversy surrounding him is so great that your organization would be damaged by honoring him, you should honestly inform him that you are unable right now to accept the donation in the proper spirit of gratitude and that the gift will have to wait.

SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 356:1. (2) Sota 41b. (3) Responsa Rashba 582, cited in Rema’s glosses on Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:13.