Drugs.” Photo credit: TaxRebate.org.uk

September 26, 2019; Brown Daily Herald

Tainted donors have found themselves square in the public eye lately. The nonprofit sector has long been aware that conflicts of interest can arise from lax donor scrutiny. Of late, though, the public has given greater attention to the way in which bad actors attempt to scrub their reputations using the brush of public philanthropy.

Among the most famous names in the “tainted donor” bin are the Sacklers, founders and owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin. As the opioid crisis grows, so has pressure on nonprofits to cut ties with those considered responsible—and some, such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre, have bowed to that pressure.

The latest large nonprofits to move away from Sackler money are Brown and Yale. Brown accepted over $1 million in 2016 to fund arts events, but after “increased scrutiny,” decided to redirect the money to opioid treatment centers in its home state of Rhode Island. Yale has several endowed professorships and a research institution created with Sackler money, but recently decided to sever ties from the family.

Like other institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum, Yale will keep the Sackler name on the endowed institute. Former university vice president for communications Eileen O’Connor said Yale must receive permission from a donor to rename a center. (NPQ has previously covered the cy pres doctrine that applies to this situation.)

Other universities of similarly high caliber have yet to act. Tufts University is in the process of investigating its ties to Purdue Pharma; student articles have alleged that the school is being used to promote OxyContin through, among other things, having Purdue employees teach courses on opioids.

Harvard University has an Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean art, whose funds and collection were donated by its namesake. University president Lawrence Bacow says that since Arthur was deceased by the time OxyContin came to market, it would be “inappropriate” to remove his name. While the public is unlikely to make that distinction when making mental associations with the Sackers, Bacow’s argument does raise the question of how directly a donor must be involved in amoral behavior to be considered toxic.

Brown University revised its gifts policy over a decade ago, when its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice released a report following calls for self-examination and reparations. The report, published in 2006, described the school’s donor policy as follows:

The University recently introduced a new procedure for the ethical review of major gifts that is, at least on paper, one of the most rigorous in the nation. It has also expanded the purview (though not the resources) of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment, which makes recommendations to the Brown Corporation on proxy resolutions, as well as on ethical concerns raised by members of the Brown community.

But stakeholders are saying this is not enough. The Sacklers are being tossed out, but other instances of tainted donations remain. Warren Kanders, for example, still sits on the advisory council for the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Kanders and his wife were recently forced out of leadership positions at the Whitney Museum because Kanders’ company, Safariland, manufactures the tear gas that has been used on human rights protestors. Perplexingly, the university’s director of news and editorial development referred to these concerns and Kanders’ resignation from Whitney as “not specific to Brown.”

When it comes to issues of public morality and accountability, sometimes it’s a numbers game, on multiple levels. It’s easier to be the tenth institution to reject Sackler money than the first. And nonprofits still have a budget to balance. But as we all know, nonprofit balancing is more than just numbers, and often the cost of tainted donors is just too high.—Erin Rubin