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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Gift Acceptance for Nonprofit Organizations

Ethical Gift Acceptance for Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations rely on charitable gifts, but often lack guidance on how to navigate gifts from controversial donors. This guide offers practical and ethical considerations for nonprofit organizations that face increasing scrutiny for gift acceptance decisions. 

If a generous donor offered to support your nonprofit organization, why would you say no? As many organizations have recently learned, gift acceptance can quickly enter ethically murky waters - with grave damage to the organization's reputation. The materials below offer a guide for ethical decision making when dealing with (potentially) controversial donors, cases to work through with your team, and an aggregation of news coverage of controversial donors in the social sector. These materials are designed to help ensure that - even in lean times - your organization can develop and articulate ethical justifications for gift acceptance decisions. 

Guide to Ethical Gift Acceptance

Case Studies 

Download the Guide as a PDF

Controversial Donors in the News

About the Authors

Joan Harrington

Joan Harrington is the Director of Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

At Santa Clara University School of Law, Harrington was an associate clinical professor and director of academic and professional development until 2014.  She also taught the course “Law of Nonprofit Organizations,” and continues as a lecturer at the Law School.

She has worked extensively in the social sector, including serving as general counsel of the international relief and development agency, Save the Children.  She has consulted with nonprofits and philanthropists in such areas as strategic planning, program design, nonprofit formation, and fundraising.  She served as chair of the Board of Governors of Public Advocates and has counseled a number of boards on governance issues.

Harrington graduated from Stanford University and earned a J.D. from University of Pennsylvania Law School, graduating magna cum laude and as a member of the Order of the Coif.  She spent the early years of her career as a trial and appellate attorney in Connecticut.


Anita Varma

Anita Varma is the former assistant director for Social Sector Ethics and Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Bridging her two focus areas of journalism and nonprofit ethics, she developed the “Ethical Storytelling Guide for Nonprofits: Key Principles & Practices” in 2019. She focuses on the design and implementation of applied ethics projects, conducts research, and facilitates public engagement for both program areas. Her ongoing research examines the ethics of how marginalized communities are represented in public discourse.

Prior to joining the Markkula Center, Varma was a doctoral candidate at Stanford University in the Department of Communication, where she focused on journalism ethics and received her PhD in 2018. Her dissertation (Solidarity in Action: A Case Study of Journalistic Humanizing Techniques in the San Francisco Homeless Project) analyzed the role of solidarity in American journalism using a case study of how and why Bay Area journalists humanize homeless people.

Before Stanford, Varma was an online advertising strategist at Google for three years. Varma received her BA in Media Studies with honors from Vassar College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the only student-run campus newspaper, and interned at The New Yorker magazine as well as the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press.



For more information, please contact:

Joan Harrington
Director, Social Sector Ethics

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