How a 1905 Debate About ‘Tainted’ Rockefeller Money Is a Reminder of Ethical Dilemmas Today

David Mislin

Many nonprofits, including top universities and museums are confronting serious ethical dilemmas regarding accepting tainted money.

The MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab, has been widely criticized for taking money from late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted in 2008 for sexual exploitation of minor girls. Harvard University has now promised to give away Epstein’s unused money to support groups for sexual assault victims.

Similarly, prominent museums such as the Guggenheim, Tate and Britain’s National Portrait Gallery will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family following allegations about its role in marketing practices that pushed opioids on patients who did not need them.

Is taking such money acceptable?

This dilemma is a longstanding one. As a historian of American religion, I’ve examined an episode in the career of a prominent Ohio pastor named Washington Gladden, who led a campaign for the return of a US$100,000 gift from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller way back in 1905.

Then as now, the key issue was whether groups concerned with the public good could justifiably take money from people of questionable morals.

Defending Rockefeller’s Gift

Rockefeller’s $100,000 gift – approximately $2.7 million now – went to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an organization that oversaw the overseas missionary activities of the Congregational Church.

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