Just Say No: When Should Arts Organizations Refuse a Gift?

Recent news out of Dallas underscores a vexing and timeless question surrounding human nature: Why can't we say no to things?

To hear Psychology Today tell it, one benefit of saying no is that "everybody gets to save face and, most of all, everyone is saved from the dreaded 'C word'—conflict." 

Now we'd like to moderate this question accordingly: Why can't we say no to money? The answer to that one is easy: It's money.

This latter question can become particularly problematic for arts organizations that come to realize that while they certainly could use a specific generous gift, they probably shouldn't take it.

Which brings us back to Dallas. This piece, titled When Will Dallas Learn to Say No to Bad Gifts? notes that the foundation money pouring in to pay for the city's Klyde Warren Park may not have downtown Dallas' best interests in mind.

We won't get too deep into the weeds, here, except to pass along the author's overriding theme, which we argue can be applied to all facets of philanthropic giving, including the arts:

The vision and the solutions it proposes were generated by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation and so they have the needs of the foundation first in mind. That’s the foundation's job, of course, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the foundation’s job is not to think holistically about how to develop the central part of Dallas; it is to meet the needs of its particular mission and the desires of its board.

Hear that? That's the sound of a Pandora's box being opened.

Let's start with the author's reference to an embedded conflict of interest. Again, we see this dilemma play out throughout philanthropy. We just wrote about it recently in regard to the think tank world, a sector increasingly saturated with corporate money—and long flooded with ideological cash. 

Or take the journalism space. As we've noted here, the field is awash with foundation dollars that come with subtle strings attached. 


Getting in bed with interested donors is problematic for journalism nonprofits for obvious reasons. But why would an organization refuse an arts gift? The most obvious reason is also the easiest one to justify: The gift—say, a collection of really bad art—doesn't fit a museum's standards for quality or its mission. 

Which brings us to a third, and more ambiguous reason for refusing a gift: The donor's history and/or ideology. Again, we've trod this terrain before. We've looked at controversies that have occurred around David Koch's giving, which has included many millions for the arts and museums. We've also explored the minor furor around an art prize backed by the DeVos family, which is well-known for its conservative giving, including around LGBT issues. 


Our view has generally been that the public profile of a donor shouldn't really matter all that much, given the importance of funding the arts and the question of who gets to judge whether donors are too controversial. But we don't have an arts organization to run. The fact is that with the omnipresence (omnipotence?) of social media, even a minor hiccup can cause a PR disaster, and that's a real factor to consider, whatever the merits of the criticisms of a donor. Is accepting money from a radioactive donor worth alienating 10 others?

Meanwhile, arts organizations are on much firmer ground in rejecting gifts because of conflicts of interest and a mismatch with an organization's mission. And don't even get us started on why arts organizations should think twice about taking big money for capital projects that will leave them on a fundraising treadmill for decades to come. 

But clearly, there are additional reasons. Anyone out there want to suggest other factors that should make organizations channel their inner Nancy Reagan and "Just say no?"