The question of “tainted money” has been around since at least the middle ages, when charitable donations were often made with the explicit purpose of shortening one’s time in purgatory.  The old question arose in a dramatic way right here at home last week when an influential donor to Stanford, Steven Bing, withdrew his own promised $2.5 million gift to the university after seeing a TV ad in which Exxon Mobil proclaimed its concern for the environment by announcing that it “has teamed up with Stanford University to find breakthrough technologies that deliver more energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”  The claim was based on a 2002 commitment by the company in which Stanford will receive up to $100 million in grant money over 10 years to support climate and energy research.

Bing’s action raises a host of interesting ethical issues about giving and receiving: 

Does the source matter in receiving donated funds?

As long as the money is legally earned, should we care about its origins?  (Many have pointed out that such venerable figures as Carnegie and Rockefeller had their own ethical problems.)

Do the further actions of the donor (outside legally prohibited direct quid pro quo benefits) in conjunction with a gift make a difference?  Specifically, does Exxon Mobil’s PR campaign cross a line? 

One critic, Jennifer Washburn, worries that “Stanford is allowing its academic brand name to be distorted by its outside relationship with corporate donors.” 

How close can universities and corporate funders get before the university is seen to be selling its name?  And how much influence should any donor have, including Bing in this case, in steering university policy? 

image Bruce Sievers is a lecturer and visiting scholar at Stanford University, and the former executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. His work in philanthropy has included serving on the board of directors of the Council on Foundations and participating in Council on Foundations delegations to the Soviet Union and the Baltics. He continues his professional involvement in philanthropy as senior fellow with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and as consulting director with the Skirball Foundation.