Hmmm, something's fishy here.

Hmmm, something’s fishy here.

Donation or Payoff?

Raising money for a community clinic was tough; we served those in our community who had the least, so we had to go outside our clientele to find donors. And our competition was tough as well, we were not as well known as another community clinic just down the street that held a very high profile fundraising event each year.

Our new president gave us a mandate to really beef up our development efforts, as this aspect of the clinic had been neglected. While some public funds: federal, state and county, helped cover the bills for care, everything else needed to be found elsewhere.  We did all the usual stuff: gala and silent auction, major gifts program creation, annual holiday solicitation letter and were ticking along. Overall, simply the effort of asking was making a big difference, however our private goals were not being met.

Am I Being Punked?

I always opened the mail, ( this happened  a few years ago, when snail mail was a bigger part of the day) separating bills, notices, periodicals and hopefully, some checks.  It was a standard  # 10 envelope, but nice paper, with a return address of some initials and an P.O. box address. When I opened it, from inside a blank piece of expensive stationary, out dropped a check for $25,000!

After I picked myself off the floor, and looked around to see if there was a camera crew laughing at me, I took the check to accounting but asked them to hold it and not deposit it. The check was drawn on a corporate account with the same initials and no address.  Don?t get me wrong, I love mysteries as much as anyone but this was something that had not happened to me before.


It was harder to track this kind of stuff back then, addresses and bank account numbers, and I had no success in finding out who wrote this check. The bank wouldn’t tell, the address was a post office box place. The initials meant nothing that I could discover.  What to do?  Sure, we would be thrilled to get an early Christmas present but why this way and who gave it? How could we acknowledge and thank the donor? 

My boss (the DevDirector) and I weren’t sure what the right way to proceed would be. The new president was the type who would throw her back out picking up a penny, but we were a little more cautious. It was important to know the source of this money, and we couldn’t find out anything.

A Smirk Gave It All Away

A few days later one of our occasional volunteers had come in to do her hours in the office.  She came up to me with a little sideways smile and asked me how our fundraising was doing. You know when you know, right?  ?As a matter of fact? I said, ? we got a great surprise the other day.?

?I know?, she replied, ?I hope it makes you happy.?  As all of us development types know, it is not ME who has to be happy, it is getting support for an important cause (but I will admit that when we hit some big ones, it does make ME happy).

Long story short, it turned out her husband, an attorney, had represented a client who had settled a legal case and the deal included fines to be paid to local nonprofits.

The client was a tobacco company.

OK, now what?

We were a health clinic, and actually offered programs to encourage people to quit smoking. We sure did need that money,  but could we take funds from Big Tobacco? What was the right thing to do here?  Especially the way it was sent, it felt wrong in many ways.  But it was  TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND dollars.

The president, my boss and I sat with several board members and hashed it all out.  Although I thought I knew how the conversation would go, surprisingly everyone was in agreement; we could not accept this money.

Partly because of the sly way it was sent, with no associated information, partly because we did not feel that a health clinic could take this money with any integrity or pride. More than money mattered here, we had a reputation of a commitment to healthy living and a cigarette sponsor was not going to work.

We wrote a letter stating that while we were grateful to be considered, our policies prohibited us from accepting this donation and mailed it back to the address on the envelope.  I explained it to our volunteer, who never said another word about it, nor did we ever hear from that donor again.

What would you have done? 

Do you have a policy about what kinds of funds you might NOT accept? How about money from you suspect might come from illegal activities such a gambling or theft or worse?

If this has not come up for you, you are lucky, but if you might need to create some boundaries for your organization, let?s talk about where you draw the line. 




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