Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tainted Donations - How should social workers respond?

In recent months, newspapers have been filled with stories of business people who have made millions, if not billions, of dollars off fraudulent business schemes (esp. Ponzi schemes and sub-prime mortgages). These fraudulent endeavors do not simply affect the business community - they often affect social agencies and social workers. In particular, what are the ethical issues that social workers should consider when they find out that large donations to their social agencies have been given by people who have built their wealth through unethical and illicit activities? This posting focuses on relevant ethical principles and how they might apply to this situation.

One could argue that social workers should advocate that their agencies keep the tainted donations. After all, the agency and the workers are using the funds for good purposes (fostering the ethical principle of "beneficence"). The agency and workers are not involved in illicit activities and are not condoning them, so they are not promoting harm ("nonmaleficence") and they are not directly involved in dishonest activity ("integrity"). Giving back the money does not help those in need, and may actually prevent people in need from receiving needed services ("access to services"). In some cases, the money has been spent or committed before the agency even finds out that the donor obtained the money through fraud. The agency may not have the money to repay or refund. Finally, as utilitarians might argue, the agency may be able to promote more good by using the money than by returning it.

Alternatively, one could argue that the money is tainted and that to accept donations that have been earned through unethical means is tantamount to condoning the unethical and illegal activity of the donor. Suppose a donor is convicted of fraud - would you want your agency to have a building named in honor of that person simply because the person donated money? Yes, the money could be used for good purposes, but is it honest and just to receive ill-gotten resources? Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. From the perspective of intigrity, stealing considered unethical even in such circumstances... but fraud within the business community is not necessarily restricted to taking from the rich. The victims of business fraud may also include people from middle and lower economic means. Shouldn't the money be returned to the victims of the crime rather than redistributed through the agency to people who did not necessarily suffer by the crime? How can social agencies argue for social justice when they themselves are operating on money stolen from innocent victimes? The means simply do not justify the ends.

So, are these two forms of arguments equally strong? What do you think? How should agencies deal with tainted donations - and most importantly, what is your rationale? What are some creative solutions for agencies faced with such a dilemma?

Dr. Allan Barsky is Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and a member of the NASW National Ethics Committee.