Amid Epstein Scandal, Fundraising Group Puts Focus on Ethics in Philanthropy

With major universities facing criticism for taking donations from Jeffrey Epstein, the Association of Fundraising Professionals is urging organizations to ensure they have ethics policies in place to guide their fundraising activities.

The ongoing scandal involving convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in federal custody  last month while awaiting trial on a new slate of sex-trafficking charges, has created significant ethical issues for institutions that associated with, or accepted donations from, the disgraced multimillionaire.

In one high-profile case, a  report by New Yorker investigative journalist Ronan Farrow revealed that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Media Lab continued to accept donations from Epstein and maintained an ongoing relationship with him after his release from prison after he pleaded guilty to sex trafficking charges in 2008. And Harvard University recently admitted to accepting donations from Epstein before his 2008 conviction—after months of denials.

In a statement last week, the Association of Fundraising Professionals said the Epstein saga “underscored the need for all charities, regardless of size, to have fundamental ethics policies and procedures in place.”

“Situations like these are why AFP is holding Ethics Awareness Month in October to raise awareness of the key ethical issues in fundraising,” AFP President and CEO Mike Geiger said in the statement. “We are working with a variety of organizations to emphasize just how important ethics is for fundraising and the various issues involved in ethical fundraising.”

Organizations that engage in fundraising should have gift acceptance policies in place governing what donations it will take, AFP says. “Having a policy in place means that organizations don’t immediately accept all major gifts, but instead go through a deliberative process of understanding all the implications of a contribution and whether it’s good for the organization in the long run,” according to the statement.

Roberta Healey, chair of the AFP Ethics Committee, which enforces the association’s ethics code, said charities need to consider the consequences of a decision to accept a gift.

“A charity’s donors are an extension of its values and principles,” she said. “A charity will find it very difficult to separate itself from the gifts it receives, especially if they come from a controversial source or if a source becomes controversial after the gift is received.”

AFP Chair Martha Schumacher said proactive discussions on fundraising ethics are critical to avoiding pitfalls.

“The more leaders discuss these issues before a challenging situation arises, the less likely they will be to run into ethical problems that can have a long-lasting, negative impact on their organizations,” Schumacher said.

AFP offers resources on ethics issues for members, who are required to sign its Code of Ethical Standards every year.

The MIT Media Lab, whose leader recently resigned in the wake of a report on the lab’s relationship with Epstein. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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