Pity the Trojans. In August, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism scrubbed the names of Leslie Moonves and Julie Chen from its media center after six women accused the then-CBS CEO of sexual harassment and intimidation. The move came eight months after the university’s School of Cinematic Arts removed Bryan Singer’s name from its Division of Cinema and Media Studies amid continued allegations of rape and molestation against the director.
With its high concentration of conspicuous industry benefactors, USC has experienced the downside of association when some of those donors have been unmasked as alleged #MeToo perpetrators, but the school is hardly alone in facing such uncomfortable scenarios. In 2015, NYU and Ohio’s Central State University removed Bill Cosby’s name from a workshop and communications center, respectively, after he admitted to obtaining quaaludes, the drug used during a sexual assault for which he was later convicted. In a climate where once-untouchable power players can now be toppled by their own bad behavior, more charities inevitably will face the ethical and PR dilemmas of what to do when a prominent donor falls from grace.
“The public generally knows that nonprofits are doing work for the greater good and are not guilty by association, but there’s a real risk in being associated with somebody who is being judged as guilty under the public eye,” says Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer of Charity Navigator, which evaluates the legitimacy and operating practices of charitable groups in the U.S.
Especially for nonprofits whose margins can’t afford the reputational hit, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and many seek to distance themselves from donors who may not yet have been convicted in court but are stained by accusations of impropriety. Although USC claimed that it removed Moonves’, Chen’s and Singer’s names at their request, the School of Cinematic Arts also suspended Moonves from its Board of Councilors. “The School takes the recent allegations very seriously and will discuss further action when the Board convenes in October,” read its statement in August. Moonves has not been restored to the board, and SCA did not make anyone available to THR for comment. Annenberg, which named its student newsroom the Julie Chen/Leslie Moonves and CBS Media Center in 2015 after receiving a joint gift from the couple, said it does not discuss details of its donations.
In October 2017, USC’s SCA also rejected Harvey Weinstein’s planned $5 million scholarship fund for women directors. The pledge had been made the year before — as Weinstein touted in a statement after The New York Times‘ bombshell exposé that is credited with throwing open the #MeToo floodgates. On the other hand, Rutgers kept Weinstein’s $100,000 donation — made before the sexual misconduct allegations against him became public — to the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies. “We decided devoting these funds to advance women’s equality was a better use of the dollars than returning the donation,” the university said in a statement to THR, noting that the endowment of $3 million comes from more than 425 donors.
“Philanthropy has a long history of turning bad money into good deeds,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of watchdog nonprofit CharityWatch. “You have this ethical trade-off: Do you want children not to get adequate health care because you want to take the moral high ground?”
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule to deciding whether or not to take money from a possibly tainted source. Borochoff says that it wouldn’t make sense for an organization to accept funding from a donor whose controversial behavior was in direct contradiction to the group’s mission, such as a women’s shelter receiving money from a convicted abuser. “People could start to question the credibility of the program,” he says. In 2015, the historically black women’s school Spelman College discontinued its Bill and Camille Cosby-endowed professorship amid the once-beloved comic’s sexual-assault trial.
Ted Lechterman, a Goethe University philosopher who specializes in the ethics of philanthropy, holds to the stance that where money comes from matters. “If the origins are bound up in the alleged crime or wrongdoing, we could say the money is in effect stolen,” he says. “Even if they can do good with it, it’s not theirs to do good with. The money properly belongs to somebody else.”
If the gift already has been accepted, though, options become trickier or even moot. The Clinton Foundation, which had received up to $250,000 from Weinstein over the years (most recently in 2014), explained in 2017 that it would not be refunding any of his contributions, adding that the money had long since been applied to various causes. “For most organizations, a six-figure gift is tremendous. They’re putting that into action in their programs right away. That also equates to jobs,” says Scally. “If a nonprofit says it has to refund a quarter-million-dollar donation it received, that has real ramifications on the organization.”
Instead of taking a financial hit by issuing a refund, Scally suggests transparency, acknowledging the gift’s source alongside a strong statement distancing the organization from the donor. “The philanthropic organization should neither glorify the name of the tainted donor nor brush it under the carpet,” adds celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev. “If a donation has already been made, the organization should have an open conversation about the controversy, embrace it as a milestone in their brand’s story, and consider taking concrete steps to become part of the solution.” The Smithsonian was criticized in 2015 for not being forthcoming about the Cosbys underwriting an African American art exhibition, drawn largely from their personal collection, with a $716,000 check. (The museum said the information was available upon request.)
Ultimately, the ethical question facing nonprofits is not so different from that faced by the public when weighing the artistic legacies of problematic creators, from the music of Michael Jackson to the movies of Woody Allen. “How do we appraise artists once it is clear that they engaged in objectionable activity in their personal lives?” asks Lechterman. “I’m wondering if one might have the same answer to questions of philanthropy that one would have about the appraisal of works of art.”
A version of this story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.