The ethics of charity

How should a nonprofit decide from whom to accept money? The answer is not always obvious. Dance Marathon, a yearly charity event at Wash. U. that benefits Children’s Miracle Network, is currently participating in Monsanto’s “Grow St. Louis Contest.” The organization with the largest number of online votes by the end of the voting wins $15,000, with $10,000 and $5,000 going to the first and second runners up. As Dance Marathon participants and students at a school that also receives significant funding from Monsanto, we are concerned about the possible ethical issues surrounding accepting funding, even charitable funding, from influential corporations.

The monetary relationship between Monsanto, a Missouri-based biotech company, and Washington University is hardly a secret. Wash. U. is the home of Monsanto Hall, and the company has a history of contributing money to Wash. U. The president of Monsanto even serves on the University’s board of trustees, but the knowledge that the company engages in ethically questionable practices is far from new information.

Concerns about “greenness” aside, the company’s troubling seed patenting practices, bullying of farmers and investigation by the SEC are well documented. Monsanto is only one among many large corporations that has ties to Washington University. Other board members include the CEOs of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, Inc. Very few entities, corporations or otherwise, fit neatly into the binary categories of “good” and “evil,” but Monsanto does have a somewhat tainted ethical track record. By accepting money from such institutions, Wash. U. and Dance Marathon are expressing tacit approval for those corporations and a willingness to be associated with them.

This is not to say that Dance Marathon itself is tainted in any way by its participation in the contest. DM is a worthy cause, and we have no wish to hurt its chances of raising as much money as possible. Many St. Louis-area nonprofits are also taking part. It’s not as though Monsanto is paying off these groups to do its will or skew scientific research in its favor, only attempting to ameliorate its image as a corporation by “giving back.”

The combined payout to contest winners is peanuts for a company as large as Monsanto. However, even the third place prize money would allow Dance Marathon to cover a substantial portion of its operating costs and donate even more money to Children’s Miracle Network. There is no question that the money, no matter how questionable the source, would benefit a good cause (credit marcus). The Dance Marathon Executive Board itself had qualms about taking part in the competition, but ultimately decided to do so. Research institutions like Wash. U. face similar conundrums. Scientific research can lead to innovation and progress, but money is always a necessary factor. Corporations can provide funding, but there might be a push to publish research favorably skewed toward the donor.

Dance Marathon is a worthy cause and a Wash. U. tradition. Whether you choose to vote for Dance Marathon in the competition or not, the key is to make a conscientious decision about where the money is coming from and whether Monsanto’s reputation outweighs the need of an institution like Dance Marathon.

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