With the allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment — now with audio tape — swirling around Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, politicians and actors may be wondering what they should do with money donated to their causes by Weinstein.
Do they give it back? Keep it? Or find something more meaningful to do with the funds? Some have already taken action: On Tuesday, the University of Southern California gave back $5 million Weinstein donated to the school to grant scholarships for female directors after a student launched a Change.Org petition to stop Weinstein’s “blood money.” But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel donated $11,000 that Weinstein contributed to him to a nonprofit that counsels girls.
How do those who have benefited from Weinstein’s largesse navigate this moral maze of donations and charitable work? And when do you return money to dubious sources?
How do those who have benefited from Weinstein’s largesse navigate this moral maze of donations and charitable work? And when do you decide to return money to dubious sources? It all depends on who is receiving the money and why, experts say. “In the charitable sector, there’s a growing body of good practice for tainted donations,” says Shena Ashley, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Weinstein’s fall from grace accelerated on Tuesday when The New Yorker published interviews with 13 women, three of whom said they were sexually assaulted by Weinstein, plus audio with one woman who was fending off his aggressive advances. Actress Mira Sorvino also alleges she was sexually harassed by Weinstein.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie told The New York Times Tuesday they too were harassed by Weinstein. Sallie Hofmeister, a spokesperson for Weinstein, told the New Yorker. “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein.”
George Clooney told The Daily Beast: “If politicians knew these stories, I doubt they’d have been taking donations from him.” Clooney was one of the first Hollywood men to publicly denounce Weinstein in the wake of the sexual assault allegations first reported in The New York Times on Friday.
“I hope that they will all give the money back or donate it to good causes,” he added. Hillary Clinton received a donation from Weinstein for her 2008 presidential campaign. In a statement, Clinton said she was “shocked and appalled” by the revelations, but did not mention the donations.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said she was considering returning donations she received from Weinstein. She said she did not know Weinstein personally. Feinstein said it wasn’t the first time she was asked if she was giving back the money from a donor. “You sort of look like a startled bird and say, ‘Well, let me look and see.’ And that’s the best I can do for you today,” she said.
What should you decide to do with ‘tainted money’?
When should you keep money from an individual or corporation mired in scandal? And when should you give it away? “If I were a mayor or running for president, I really am a servant of the people, I don’t think I would have any choice, but to give it back,” said Denise Dudley, author of “Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted.” “You don’t want to be associated with that. It doesn’t work to keep it. You can’t swing that in a way that makes it sound good.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had that exact problem in 2016 after she received millions in payments from Wall Street firms for giving speeches.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had that exact problem in 2016 after she received millions in payments from Wall Street firms for giving speeches, some of which were leaked. Clinton gave 92 speeches between 2013 and 2015 for around $225,000 a pop, and collected $21.6 million dollars in less than two years, according to an analysis by CNN. CNN also reported that Clinton made eight speeches to big banks for $1.8 million.
When asked about it in a town hall interview, Clinton said, “They’re not giving me that much money now.” (She said she wasn’t committed to running for president when she gave those speeches.) Clinton ultimately kept the money.
So what if a charitable organization receives money from Weinstein — and, frankly, needs the money more than he does? “Harvey’s not a good guy, but if you are trying to stamp out anti-Semitism all over the world, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do good things with it,” Dudley said, referring to Weinstein’s donations to Jewish groups. But, she adds, have a conversation with your board and the public, and be 100% transparent about it.
Should you give back money if it means a budget shortfall?
Mark Hamrick, Washington, D.C. bureau chief at personal-finance site Bankrate, agrees. “Different organizations, charities in particular, are going to have their own unique circumstances and views of how to proceed upon hearing that a donor’s behavior or actions were unethical or even potentially illegal.”
‘There are different ways of morally cleansing money. Donations to worthy causes are certainly one mechanism. Then the question becomes which is an appropriate worthy cause.’
If an organization or charity has relatively small scale and budget, should it create a budget shortfall by returning the money? “That’s a tough one,” he said. “The conundrum is only magnified when the charity has a mission serving the public good, which by definition is how an entity becomes a charity.”
Sometimes, the issue is more clear-cut. In 2015, Spellman College, a historically black college in Atlanta, Ga., decided to end a professorship funded by Bill Cosby and his wife Camille after allegations of sexual assault against the comedian.
There has been a surge in donations to causes in the current polarized political climate. RageDonate encourages people to donate to sources as a protest against some political or cultural issues. In Silicon Valley, Girls Who Code aims to close the gender gap in technology.
Money commercializes friendships as well as business relationships, Viviana A. Zelizer writes her in book, “The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies.” “Social scientists treat money paradoxically,” she writes. “Although money is considered a basic element of modern society, as a sociological category it remains unanalyzed.” And cryptocurrency, perhaps the murkiest kind of money beloved by money launderers and other criminals, has not tangible presence at all.
“The moral cleansing of money applies directly to the dilemma posed by what is now ‘dirty Harvey money,’ a dramatic turn from the ‘successful Harvey money,’” she told MarketWatch. “There are different ways of morally cleansing money. Donations to worthy causes are certainly one mechanism. Then the question becomes which is an appropriate worthy cause.” In this case, a group or individual may wish to donate it to an organization that supports victims of sexual violence.
Is there any such thing as ‘clean money’ from big donors?
Others argue that the problem of giving and receiving donations is systemic. “The problem isn’t that specific bad people give money to specific politicians,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of communications at the American University, “it’s that our political system as a whole can’t function without lots of money from bad people.”
‘The problem isn’t that specific bad people give money to specific politicians, it’s that our political system as a whole can’t function without lots of money from bad people.’
Such donations often get politicized, he says. “If we don’t acknowledge this systemic flaw, we only acknowledge particular instances and it becomes a referendum on this team or that team, rather than becoming a meaningful and transformative critique of our political infrastructure,” Sinnreich says.
“Congress are more beholden to big donors than they are to tax payers. It’s a recipe for our elected representatives no longer being very representative,” he adds. “On the other side, we have a system of tacit patriarchy where powerful men are able to trade their privilege for sexual favors from men and women.”
High-profile charitable donations by corporations rarely come without strings or, indeed, favors that are much harder to give back. “The claim that money can be tainted suggests that there is money that isn’t tainted, which is patently ridiculous,” Sinnreich adds.
Case in point: The financial sector spent $5 billion on lobbying and political donations between 1998 and 2008, the years leading up to the Great Recession, which was in part caused by deregulation of the financial services industry and subprime lending.
And gun control remains a political impossibility as the National Rifle Association, and other gun groups target 98% of their campaign contributions to Republicans, MarketWatch reported last week. Republican Senator Ted Cruz received $360,727, according to OpenSecrets.org. Just two years earlier, Cruz had collected $18,300 when he was the junior senator from Texas.
Steve Siebold, author of “How Rich People Think,” says money is rarely donated without quid pro quo. “If everyone in Hollywood and Washington had to return money they received that was found to be the tainted by some form of corruption,” he says, “the entire population of both cities would have to relocate.”