Nonprofit Newswire | Mel Gibson Rants, Raves, and Gives

July 14, 2010; Source: Boston Herald | Would your nonprofit accept a charitable contribution from Mel Gibson? You remember, Mel Gibson of the slight tendency toward anti-Semitic tirades when stopped by the police? Or in this case, the Mel Gibson who is under investigation for domestic abuse and appears to have been taped by his Russian girlfriend and mother to his child, Oksana Grigorieva, spewing a litany of profanity-laden physical threats (allegedly calling her a “whore” and suggesting that she needs “a bat to the side of the head”)?

A battered women’s shelter, Casa Myrna Vazquez, in Boston received a check for $25,000 from the actor after a film shoot he did in Boston—before the Grigorieva tape, but after his acknowledged rant to a policeman that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” The shelter director admitted mixed feelings about the gift: “I am grateful that he or his production company did something for a nonprofit, but I like to think the condition for accepting the money is that the person contributing is not themselves an abuser.”

The shelter director says that she is sure that the organization’s board wouldn’t accept any future contributions from Gibson, though it’s not known whether he has offered more money. The issue isn’t easy. For the shelter, with indications of Gibson’s behavior that he is abusive, at least verbally at a minimum toward women, future gifts could be rejected. But what about charges that Gibson made strongly homophobic comments in an interview with Spain’s El Pais and refused to apologize for or retract them? What about his calling Latinos “wetbacks” and using the n-word to describe African-Americans?

The wetback comment (along with threatening to have one of his employees turned over to immigration authorities) was enough to convince his agent, the William Morris Endeavor Company, to drop him a day later. For nonprofits, the issues might be more complex. Does using money from a bad guy for good purposes make it possible to accept money from someone charged with racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and domestic abuse? If we dig into the sources of charitable money from many individuals (and foundations), wouldn’t we also find long lists of behaviors and beliefs that most nonprofits would find reprehensible?

If your nonprofit doesn’t take the money, wouldn’t some other nonprofit get in line, accept the gift, and put the dollars to good use? Donor-acceptance guidelines are tough to write and tougher to put into practice. None of this is meant as a criticism of the people at Casa Myrna Vazquez, but as a case study of how complex it is to be a nonprofit raising money from rich people and wealthy corporations that might have sordid pasts, presents, and futures.—Rick Cohen

  • Alan Arthur

    Accepting gifts from a source that doesn’t adhere to your organization’s principles is a given, unless you don’t accept hardly any gifts at all. It would include not accepting money from government, for example (which IS an angle taken by some). You just mostly don’t KNOW about their ill-behavior, or choose to minimize it.

    The decision really revolves about the visibility of the source’s iffy principles or behavior and how it might affect your culture, your supporters, and (bottom-line) your ability to achieve your vision/mission. It requires a cost/benefit analysis.

    Families homeless or hungry don’t care whether the food or housing was assisted by Mel Gibson or Mother Teresa. And helping with THAT problem is OUR job.

  • James Charles

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the comment, Alan. True, if you dug into any donor’s background, you might find “iffy” behavior. Think of the foundations that made their money from corporations that routinely denied workers’ rights (or in some cases did a bit more to workers than deny their rights). What is the statute of limitations when a donor’s iffy behavior of the past becomes no longer relevant. When I’ve written gift acceptance guidelines in the past, I addressed the issue you raised, Alan, regarding not only the visibility of the donor’s questionable behavior, but what the donor might ask of the nonprofit recipient. For example, some corporations that have been hoisted on their petards for racially discriminatory behavior have tried to make amends by making grants to racial justice groups. The cost/benefit analysis you call for first has to examine whether the grant is really meant to make amends or simply to buy PR (or buy off critics). Then, the question is what the donor might ask of the recipient, how much visibility for the donor’s well-intentioned donation, etc. The point of the newswire was to do exactly what you’ve done in your comment, debate the issue and think about the cost/benefit. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Nathalie Favre-Gilly

    Some members of Casa Myrna’s Board of Directors did raise questions about accepting money from Mel Gibson when we received his donation back in 2008. Their concern was twofold: his reputation for being anti-Semitic and/or racist, and the potential for alienating other donors (Gibson was listed in our Annual Report) who might object to our having accepted a gift from a public figure with that reputation. That never happened (i.e. no donor ever told us they were ceasing to support us because we had accepted this gift).

    With regard to “doing good with bad money”, I think we have an example of that in the tobacco companies. It was their enormous settlements with the attorneys general of various states that funded much of the anti-smoking campaigns we credit with reducing smoking among teens and young adults.

    There is potentially a case to be made for having non-profits encourage and welcome donations from those who make their work necessary. Those donations should not be seen as some form of exculpatory payment on behalf of the donors, or indeed a license to continue their behavior, but rather as a public acknowledgement that they have perpetuated or exacerbated an issue we have been working to address and end.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Nathalie: thank you so much for your comments. It’s so good for NPQ that the nonprofits we end up mentioning in our Newswires turn out to be readers–and commenters–of our pieces. I hope more readers weigh in on this topic.

  • Charlie Bernstein

    Those who own the most should pay the most. Those who take the most should give the most. Those who do the most damage should pay the most to fix the damage.

    Though Gibson might not see it this way, a Holocaust organization (like any nonprofit with a mission to meet) can reasonably consider his grant a receivable. Gibson isn’t buying indulgences. He’s paying a debt.

    BP and Goldman Sachs could learn something from him.