Not-So-Sweet Charity

What should the NAACP have done when Donald Sterling sent them a donation?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on April 21, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been banned from the league for life and will be fined $2.5 million. That money, Silver said, will be donated to organizations promoting anti-discrimination causes. The irony here is that Sterling has made those sorts of donations himself for many years. According to tax records dug up by the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP accepted at least $45,000 in grants from the Los Angeles Clippers Foundation and the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation between 2008 and 2010.

Leon Jenkins, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announced on Monday afternoon that the organization would return the donations it had received from Sterling. This came after the chapter had previously withdrawn a planned lifetime achievement award to Sterling because of the racist and disparaging comments he was caught on tape making to his girlfriend.

The Los Angeles NAACP’s moves this week represent a sharp reversal of its previous actions. Sterling had nurtured a 15- to 20-year relationship with the chapter, earning a lifetime achievement award from the group in 2009. (This year’s planned award would’ve been his second.) In addition, Sterling has contributed to youth programs and community groups, supported organizations that serve the Latino and black communities, and garnered a “Humanitarian of the Year” honor from the Black Business Association, all while dodging accusations of bigotry and settling multimillion-dollar lawsuits alleging, in various instances, that he discriminated against tenants at his rental properties based on race. In one case, the NAACP donor and award winner was accused of saying that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”

While Sterling has rightly been the target of most of the outrage, the episode has also raised questions about the Los Angeles NAACP. Why would an organization purportedly at the forefront of civil rights advocacy have nurtured such a long and lucrative relationship with a known bigot like Sterling?

This issue is much bigger than the NAACP and Sterling—it’s one of the central problems with philanthropy in the United States. Maxim Thorne, a professor of philanthropy, law, and management at Yale and a former vice president for the national office of the NAACP, explains that America is unique in approaching social betterment as an “individual capitalist venture.” Because the tax code has an exemption for philanthropies, singularly wealthy individuals can divert vast sums of money from governmental coffers and direct it to the social good of their choice.

“The individual donors’ views are substituted for that of a collective will of ‘We the People,’ ” Thorne says. “And the individual donor gets the additional benefit known as the warm and fuzzy feeling and goodwill that comes along with giving. In a way, our legal system is designed to burnish, or cleanse, if you will, the image of über-wealthy folks simply by letting them give away de facto public money.” Most big donors, in other words, aren’t thinking about philanthropy the way we’ve been conditioned to think about it—as an act of kindness.

When a charitable donation isn’t just that—a simple act of kindness—it’s made as an investment, of sorts. Sometimes the investment is in lowering taxes or gaining access to a network of people who contribute to the same cause. In other instances, it’s designed to bolster the reputation of a company or individual. Sterling’s contributions to the Los Angeles NAACP and other charities presumably fall into this second category. But all of those donations, regardless of the motivations behind them, tend to be sorely needed by nonprofits. And so when the interests of the donor and recipient misalign, groups find themselves in murky ethical territory.

Some charities have “technical” hard lines over things like accepting restricted stock, Thorne says. Others deal with dubious donations on a case-by-case basis. In 2012, the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Tip of the Spear Foundation refused to accept proceeds from the sale of No Easy Day, a best-seller by former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette (writing under the pseudonym “Mark Owen”), who was accused of leaking classified information about the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. The NAACP and ACLU both reject funding from governments to avoid conflicts of interest, and religious institutions will often turn away donations from atheist groups.

But many organizations make deals like the Los Angeles NAACP did, taking money from people or organizations with murky motivations, with the justification that they can use it to do more good work. The question is whether the good work outweighs whatever harm is done by buffing the donor’s image. Because over time, that buffing works. Margaret Mitchell, the acclaimed author of Gone With the Wind and romantic racist, donated money to Morehouse College, the future alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. Alfred P. Sloan, the longtime General Motors executive and major donor behind the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was once scrutinized for alleged Nazi collaboration, a detail that has largely been forgotten. “History eventually cleanses the reputation of these donors,” Thorne says.

Organizations must also consider their own reputations. Such donations—call them atonement gifts—happen all the time, across causes and industries, from polluters “greenwashing” with contributions to environmental groups to the Sterlings of the world giving to civil rights. And if it weren’t for our assumption that charitable donations should be spurred by kindness, Thorne argues, we probably wouldn’t object. “If you think about tort law, where someone gets injured and someone sues to be compensated, the person who injured you will in fact compensate you, and we think that’s appropriate,” he explains. “In that framework, wouldn’t it be entirely appropriate for someone who is racist to have his or her philanthropy channeled to anti-racism organizations?”

But we do care about the idea of kindness, and we want to believe that the people contributing to a cause will actually support it. Sometimes the easiest thing for organizations to do is look the other way, knowing that everyone else will as well. Perhaps that’s what happened for years with Sterling. But now the media is paying attention, and with it, the rest of the world. And what they see is a man who donated funds to an organization whose central mission is to promote racial justice. As he actively subverted that mission himself, he collected accolades for his good name. On the level of basic human decency, that just seems wrong. No amount of money Sterling gave to the Los Angeles NAACP chapter is worth that philosophical baggage—and it would be nice if it didn’t take a healthy dose of public outrage to reach that conclusion.

Read more about Clippers owner Donald Sterling.