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August 27, 2015

Sometimes You Just Have to Say “No” to a Gift

thA client of ours recently had to grapple with whether or not to accept a potentially controversial gift. It was a gift that made them feel uneasy, but also one that could potentially transform their very future.  It made me think of this blog we ran several years ago about when to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I offer it up again as an important reminder to act like a good scout and be prepared!

As fundraisers, we spend our days asking for gifts, we encourage philanthropy in all its forms, our hearts and minds are lifted with the joy of giving and receiving (can you hear the angels singing in the background?).

And, sometimes, just sometimes, we have to say: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

If you’ve yet to experience the agony of deciding whether to accept a potentially controversial gift or not, get ready.  It will happen to you someday!


– A corporate donor agrees to sponsor one of your programs as long as the kids in the program wear t-shirts with the corporate logo on it…and the corporation is a liquor manufacturer. Or a fast food company.  Or Playboy.  You get my drift.

– A donor offers to make a six-figure donation, but they want to place restrictions on it that may be difficult or even undesirable for your agency to fulfill.  Maybe they want to name something for themselves, or have the funds used for a program that really isn’t part of your mission, or designate the money to support only a particular client population.

– A board member wants to give you their ranch.  It’s a lovely ranch.  Is there fracking going on?  Copper mining?  Water disputes?  I don’t know, but it’s an awfully nice ranch.

– A donor in the midst of a public scandal offers to make a large gift to your organization so long as you promise to publicize the gift quickly and broadly.

As you sit here reading this blog, it may seem easy to make quick judgments about which gifts you’d take and which gifts you wouldn’t.

The situation is difficult in real life because: a) it isn’t just you making the decision, and b) funny things happen when there’s real money on the table.

The tools for dealing with gift acceptance decisions are grounded in ethics, foresight and discipline.  They come together in a gift acceptance policy that should be in place and approved by the board before you find yourself in a tight spot.

A gift acceptance policy should include the types of gifts your organization will or won’t accept (cash, securities, real estate, etc.), the types of gift restrictions your organization will or won’t consider, and how your organization administers gifts.  It should also include when and how you’ll engage legal counsel in relation to gifts, and guidelines for how decisions will be made.

Not only does a gift acceptance policy protect your organization, it protects your relationship with your donors. 

It’s much easier to say “no” to a gift if a policy for rejecting it is in place before the gift is even offered.

Because you don’t have a crystal ball, it’s true that a gift policy won’t always tell you exactly which gifts to accept and which to reject.  But it can present the standards and process by which gifts should be evaluated and provide some flexibility for unforeseen circumstances.

I suggest you spend some time perusing the National Council of Nonprofits‘ page on gift acceptance policies.

Engaging board members in the process of creating or revising your organization’s gift acceptance policy is an excellent opportunity to engage them in the topic of philanthropy and organizational ethics.

And don’t forget your strategic plan.  It’s much easier to know what you need and want money for if you know where you’re headed!

1 Comment

  1. Mike Stabler says:

    I know of a school that has a donor-built pool…which is too small for competition (limited donation amount!) and another school that accepted a crew boat as a gift; “It’s the gift that keeps giving” my friend there says, meaning that having a crew program is expensive.

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