Acceptance of gifts from dubious, or sometimes simply unpopular, sources is a perennial challenge facing charities.

Endowment of charitable projects by individuals who whose morality or source of wealth is open to criticism is nothing new. For example, how many schools are there in the UK endowed by, and named after, King Henry VIII – hardly a paragon of moral behaviour ? Perhaps we consider that executing your wife (or 2 of them) is less reprehensible than being involved in the slave trade ?

A recent report cited individuals from the UK, India and the USA who accumulated vast wealth through often immoral or illicit activities, yet funded projects with part of that wealth which benefitted enormous numbers of people in their own, and in some cases other, countries.

The slave trade, once a legitimate business enterprise, is now rightly abhorred. There is a widely-held view that those who donated part of the wealth they accumulated through the slave trade should defined as personae non gratissimae and their statues, if they have one, removed or destroyed. But what about all those who made fortunes through the slave trade – and then simply held onto their ill-gotten gains, using their fortunes to benefit only themselves and their families ? They of course are forgotten about and have no statues, since they gave nothing to fund schools, orphanages, hospitals or civic buildings.

There are other controversial sources of funds besides the slave trade. Some years ago I was involved in a university fundraising campaign which included setting up a Chair in cancer research. I became aware that there was a possibility that we might be offered a very substantial donation – some 80% of the total cost – by a well-known tobacco company. I suggested to the Faculty involved that this should be discussed at an early stage, before the company made any offer. The immediate reaction to the question was: “Definitely – no.” However, on reflection the fundraising committee reconsidered: apart from the size of the possible donation, some members felt that having a tobacco company supporting cancer research was a positive sign that the company was admitting the health problems created by their products. In the event, the offer of a donation failed to materialise – but by then, despite intense debate, the committee had not resolved this difficult question.

If an individual donates part of his/her wealth to the public good, how do we rate the benefit gained from their gift by some sections of the population against  the harm that amassing that wealth may have caused to others ?

A definite answer to this may prove elusive ………