Ethics | Sterlings dollars pose ethical dilemmas for Jewish charities

When Donald Sterling’s racist rant hit the news last week, you could practically hear the jostling at the microphone by those eager to denounce the Los Angeles Clippers owner.

For the beneficiaries of Sterling’s largesse, the denunciations took on a special imperative as a means of distancing themselves from his views.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with girlfriend V. Stiviano to his left at a 2013 basketball game. photo/jta-getty images-ronald martinez

Several Jewish organizations have taken Sterling’s money, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The L.A. Jewish Journal listed 11 Jewish groups that have received money in recent years from the Donald T. Sterling Foundation.

“Last year we took the $10,000 from him,” said Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center made a similar remark to the Jewish Journal.

The strongest statement came from the NBA, which banned Sterling for life, fined him $2.5 million and now is seeking to force him to sell the Clippers.

Sterling’s foundation has given relatively modest amounts to Jewish groups in recent years given his great wealth. According to the Jewish Journal, 10 of the Jewish groups received gifts of $10,000, some for several years running. Sterling, who is Jewish, also gave $50,000 to Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles in 2010.

Whatever the sums, the ethical dilemmas facing nonprofits when confronted with donations from benefactors of ill repute are hardly clear-cut.

Associating with troubled donors can harm an organization’s reputation, and accepting the money may raise questions about its values and priorities.

Conversely, nonprofits are strapped for cash, and if the money is going to a good cause, does turning down money from troubled sources do more harm than good?

“It’s a very complicated question that really does not have a straightforward answer,” said Michael Siegal, board chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America. “What’s the line of determination of what a bad person is? I think the question becomes like pornography — you know it when you see it. Political correctness and what is bad behavior or good behavior is always a moving target.”

Even when the donor is a public scoundrel, that should not automatically disqualify him, said several leaders of Jewish charity groups.

“We are obliged to help others with the resources we have,” said Mark Charendoff, head of the Maimonides Fund. “I don’t think accepting tzedakah from someone leads to an obligation.”

The key question, Charendoff said, is whether the donor asks for something in return. If the donor wants some kind of endorsement, then accepting the money is “problematic,” he said.

Even in such cases, however, there might be compelling ethical reasons to take the money. Let’s say the donor offers $3 million to an organization that buys cancer drugs for children in Africa who otherwise would not have access to medicine. If the money is rejected, taking a moral stand comes at the price of kids’ lives.

The rules are different if the source of the donor’s money is ill-gotten gains, many say. “There’s a difference between being a public jerk and being a criminal,” said Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.

What if a murderer wants to do some good and sends a check from behind bars to help feed elderly Holocaust survivors in Ukraine: is it better to turn down the money or accept it? That, too, depends.

“Tzedakah is a major way of doing teshuvah,” said Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, using the Hebrew word for repentance. “If the giver has done something wrong and  is giving tzedakah as part of the teshuvah process, you would be fine to accept it. If it’s an ongoing evildoer, you don’t want to be cleaning up his reputation or have his reputation associated with yours.”

There’s a large gray area, said Spokoiny, who noted that the responses to the Sterling case have made him uneasy.

“The ones that are under pressure now  are nonprofits that are desperate for every dollar they can get,” Spokoiny said. “We take this righteous approach: You shouldn’t take that money.

“I would caution against being unfair to [them]. You must understand the predicament they’re in. It’s a very delicate thing