Many organizations ago, my team was approached by a company who’s “corporate social responsibility” / foundation side wanted to fund some high-visibility work with our team. This was more or less how we operated, but this one hit a bit differently. The company was an extractive industry (which was categorically teetering on the edge of industries we had rejected outright), but also one of our deeply respected colleagues had made it their life’s work to advocate against this company and the horrible environmental externalities of their work.
We were conflicted. The project was important, deeply aligned with our mission, and unrelated to their industry. They’d get some good PR out of it, to be sure – but should we accept?
We called up our colleague to discuss the ups and downs of it, ready to accept turning this down and deciding that the money was too dirty. She interrupted us in the middle of our “pitch” and told us something to the effect of this:
“Take their money. Take as much as you can – take every goddamned cent you can get and then go and do good with it, because they cannot and will not.”
This has since guided my take on funding for many years. I’m solidly on record for against getting caught up too much in restricting oneself to only “pure” money when seeking grant funding sources for your work. This is partially because I simply don’t think that there is such a thing as “pure” funding sources. However, I do strongly believe that there are important moral lines in doing grant-funded work that we should be careful to either never cross, or cross with extreme caution.
Let’s start with “purity” in funding. Depending on your specific sector, you may be looking at some collection of local/regional/topical/huge foundations, companies, governments, or people. Let me run through these, with two caveats up front - there are exceptions on both sides for each of these, and there is a deeper structural issue we perhaps should focus more on.
The vast majority of foundations are spun up from the wealth of large companies or people, and while the foundation itself may (or may not) be an independent entity, it’s not like the money just “appeared” and is not tainted by where it came from. The benefit here, especially for established, older foundations, is that the wealth is simply self-sustaining at this point, as opposed to being continuously replenished from ongoing corporate practices. Foundations (and/or corporate social responsibility offices) which are connected to companies are no better than the company they are providing tax benefits and good PR for. This may be well aligned with your work and a mutually beneficial relationship, and that’s great when it happens.
Governments are a popular target for “pure” projects to reject funding from, and in my opinion this is equally morally ambiguous as taking money from corporations. Almost every government (and most corporations) is certain to be doing something abhorrent.
Finally - people. Arguably the “purest” form of funding would be that of your peers, pitching in on a project. My distaste here is that success stands upon a project’s ability to become visible and to continue to receive enough attention it can leverage for funding. The first step is strongly propped up by privilege of being able to volunteer time to a project until it is stable enough and exciting enough to go viral, and the second step often ends with organizations using clickbait tactics to drive outrage and engagement.
Similarly, (until we begin wresting with more structural issues) - why double charge individuals, who have already paid to corporations and governments with their privacy, health, or earned income? This also risks relying on the attention and philanthropy of privileged individuals, which can be just as much of a pressure of scope creep as the above. Finally, on the extreme end of the spectrum, we have hyper-rich individuals, who for the most part fall in the moral scope of foundations and corporations, looking to do good (or simply white-wash) their reputation.
A final option is to not go for funding. Volunteering is a wonderful thing; but it is also a choice of privilege that you have the spare income and time to commit to doing more than you’re already doing. It can also kill projects when this “Extra time” comes to an end due to life changes. It’s great, but it’s not a base to build a long-term project out of. Again, caveats as always.
So if all funding has downsides, how do you do good work?
Vision, Transparency, and Reflection.
1) Have a vision. Write it down. Share it maybe! Build a public and a private, detailed version of it. Stick to it. What work do you do? Why? How do you do it well? What do these reasons mean to you? Spell these things out.
2) Transparency – There is often value in anonymous donations, but opt for transparency where possible and have clear rules about what reasons allow for anonymity. I’d think that this doesn’t need saying, but obviously it does: don’t use anonymity to skirt laws or your other rules/morals you’ve laid out. Transparency should also apply to being clear when you are changing your vision or adjusting any of the rules you set out for yourself.
3) Reflection – Create and sustain processes around decision-making for funding. Does the money come with explicit or implicit requirements that pull you away from your vision? Is there an agenda (hidden or well-defined) in the funding source? Is the source in direct opposition to your work in any way? Can your accepting this funding be used in opposition to your work - by white-washing other misdeeds or tainting your work? The answers here are often impossibly fuzzy, but in concert with your vision and transparency decisions, a balance can be worked out.
If you run into snags here, are they ones you can mitigate or do you walk away? What are the implications of not taking the money - for your organization and its work, as well as what else will it get spent on?
These are not easy questions, and they never will be. If you don’t believe in the value of the work you are doing, they will be impossible to answer. On the flipside, if you don’t reflect and seek less biased input on your work, they may be too easy to answer. If you’re struggling but finding a path forward, though, welcome, and it’s OK, none of us are perfect here.