The Washington Post reports that a number of Muslim nonprofits are rejecting sizable gifts from the federal government due to President Trump’s positions and policies. The grants, which are part of an Obama-era Department of Homeland Security initiative named Countering Violent Extremism, “were intended to go to programs that curtailed recruitment and radicalization efforts.”
According to Mohamed Farah, executive director of a group that rejected a $500,000 grant, the rejection “came down to principle . . . $500,000 is a lot of money . . . But at the end of the day, we work with immigrants, we work with refugees, we work with Muslims. And we believe that this new administration is against everything that we stand for.” Rejecting the gift was a way for Farah and his organization to signal distance from Trump’s positions and policies.
The question of whether to accept or reject “dirty money” is not a new one in the history of philanthropy. A couple of years ago, Benjamin Soskis at The Atlantic wrote a piece on the Catholic University of America’s acceptance of a $1 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation to advance the study of “principled entrepreneurship” at its business school. The school’s acceptance of the pledge set off protests. Those in opposition asked whether a Catholic university could take money from the Koch brothers, with their “anti-government, Tea Party ideology” without giving the impression that such an ideology “has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops.” The CUA administration maintained its decision to accept the gift.
Similar examples abound in American history. As Soskis explains, in 1905 Congregational minister Washington Gladden led a protest against a $100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller to the missionary arm of the Congregational Church. If the Congregationalists were to be taken seriously as moral educators, they must “stand entirely clear of any implication in the evil” which it was their duty to condemn. In their view, accepting a gift from the chief of a rapacious corporate empire would have compromised their moral witness and made them hypocrites, because accepting the gift put the Board “in a relationship implying honor toward the donor.” A committee assigned to consider the question ruled in favor of accepting the gift.
A few months ago, Baptist-run Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Oklahoma rejected a $100 gift from Matt Wilbourn, who tried to make the gift on behalf of the Muskogee Atheist Community. In response, Wilbourn started a GoFundMe campaign which raised more than $18,000 for the Children’s Home, but they still would not accept the gift. According to a statement released from the Children’s Home, “To accept money for an advertisement which would indicate ‘in Honor of the Muskogee Atheist Community’ . . . would be contrary to those Biblical principles upon which we at Murrow stand.”
As Soskis notes, the debate about when it is right or wrong to accept philanthropic “dirty money” has a long history in the United States. At times, there is wiggle room, and people of good will can differ on the answer. At other times, the source of the funding is too deeply associated with principles contrary to an organization’s beliefs. We should respect the ability of an organization to say “no, thank you.”