The Company They Keep: Charity Stakeholders Protest Unprincipled Corporate Relationships

February 5, 2017; Sun-Sentinel (Broward County, FL)

NPQ has discussed how relationships with donors and fundraisers can tarnish the image of nonprofits, and given these activist times, this is increasingly true. For instance, charity rentals of the Mar-a-Lago resort for high-end fundraising galas have become ever more controversial since the election and inauguration. On Saturday, a gala for the benefit of the International Red Cross was met by 3,000 demonstrators marching nearby to protesting President Trump’s now-blocked executive order banning immigrants. The event proceeded as planned, with Trump attending in full formal regalia. But the divisive nature of the Trump presidency to date may discourage others, or at the very least damage their relationships with a portion of their donors.

To date, reports the Sun-Sentinel, more than 2,325 people, including faculty and students from Harvard Medical School, have signed a petition demanding that the Dana-Farber Institute move or cancel its Discovery Celebration fundraising event on February 18th, which is predicted to make $1.25 million after expenses of $250,000. George Karandinos, a Harvard medical student from Houston who initiated the effort, said the fundraiser may be difficult to cancel, “but they can make a public moral stand that is in line with their stated values.” Taking such a stand, he says, might even attract others to the donor base.

Another letter, standing above the signatures of 1,600 people, including doctors and medical students, demands that Cleveland Clinic, which had three of its medical staff detained or returned in the ban, move its event scheduled for February 25th. The price of tickets for each of the events is $1,250.

Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher of Dana-Farber says she shares petitioners’ concerns about the immigration ban and what it will mean for doctors, scientists, students and patients, from the affected countries. However, as she described it, “the forthcoming fundraiser in Palm Beach is planned many months in advance, and raises critical funds to support this lifesaving work. Contracts have been signed, and a large number of people have committed to attend. Cancelling the event outright would only deny much-needed resources for research and care.”

Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil says, “The sole purpose of our event in Florida is to raise funds for important research to advance cardiovascular medicine that improves patient care…In no way is this connected to anything else but helping patients. The event has been held there for years, well before the election.”

Which may be as it may be, but then is not now. Further, Cleveland Clinic’s CEO has participated in at least two post-election “business leader” meetings with Trump.

The Sun-Sentinel quotes Mary Simboski, a teacher in Boston University’s fundraising management program, as saying that picking a site like Mar-a-Lago often comes down to location, size, cost, and availability and has nothing to do with politics. Projecting that the groups could perhaps garner more financial support by canceling the event is wishful thinking, she said.

But maybe Simboski is unused to the scrum of stakeholder passion in action; given the consumer response to Uber last weekend, it may be wishful thinking to believe that politics will have no bearing on the way stakeholders feel about institutional relationships.—Ruth McCambridge