Critical, But Overlooked: Ethics Is a Tough Sell to Funders. Is That About to Change?

Donald Trump's election, helped along by an avalanche of misinformation and fake news, has turned out to be a fundraising boon for nonprofit journalism outlets. Given that his new administration now features an unprecedented tangle of conflicts of interest—involving Trump, his family, and key members of his cabinet—might the field of ethics also receive a philanthropic boost?

That would certainly be good news for nonprofits and academic centers in this space, which have traditionally struggled to find funding. Bioethics has been the best-funded corner of the ethics world, but still not one that attracts a lot of major grants funding. For example, the Foundation Center database—which often misses big grants, for sure—lists fewer than five grants over $100,000 made for bioethics in 2014 and 2015. Professional ethics, which covers conflicts of interest for public officials, among many other sectors, isn't even a topic that the Foundation Center tracks.

Strong ethics may be all important to the healthy functioning of American society, but this is an area that's historically fallen through the cracks of foundation grantmaking programs. Fundraisers for ethics work routinely have to shoehorn their proposals to fit into the issue areas that foundations do care about, like public health or campaign finance reform. Individual donors play a critical role in supporting ethics research, but contributors interested in this area are hardly plentiful. If you search "ethics" in the Lilly School donor base of gifts of a million dollars and up, you'll get a mere five results. 

Recently, some big money has been flowing to address the ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence, as we've reported. For example, Carnegie Mellon landed a $10 million gift last fall from the law firm K&L Gates to study ethics and computational technologies. Funders are also backing other ethics researchers grappling with AI. 

AI is much in the news right now, and ethics giving often follows headlines. A few years back, after the financial crisis, business schools received a string of gifts aimed at teaching ethics to tomorrow's executives and financiers. But as memory of the financial crisis faded, so did this stream of money. 

Lately, most campus ethics gifts we see are one-off affairs. They tend to come from alumni donors with a personal interest in ethics, like the $5 million that Washington College landed in 2014 to create a new ethics program, or the $75 million gift that the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston received in 2015, some of which went to support its Center for Humanities and Ethics.  

Which brings us to news out of Dallas, where the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University (SMU) recently received a $2 million dollar donation from trustee emeritus and founder Cary M. Maguire. The gift will endow the center's directorship in honor of founding director William F. May.

SMU has been a magnet of some pretty impressive gifts over the past two years. In March 2015, it received the largest gift in its history—$45 million from the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation, earmarked for the on-campus Meadows Museum and the school’s Meadows School of the Arts.

The school's Dedman School of Law, meanwhile, received $2 million from law alumna and emeritus faculty member Ellen K. Solender to endow a faculty chair in women and the law, while last year, it netted $3.5 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to launch the new Deason Family Criminal Justice Reform Center.

As for Cary M. Maguire's $2 million ethics gift, a closer look at the donor himself is certainly in order.

Maguire is president and CEO of Maguire Oil Co. and chairman of Components of America and Staco Systems Inc. More to the matter at hand, Maguire has been a consistent supporter of ethics-related causes. In 2012, he endowed the American College Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics in Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania for $2.5 million. He currently serves on its advisory board.

His cumulative giving to SMU, meanwhile, stood at nearly $9 million prior to this most recent gift.

It's worth noting that Maguire's interest in ethics is rooted in his work in the financial services industry. Given the fact that many Trump appointees have close ties to the sectors they're supposed to monitor—Goldman Sachs, anyone?—it isn't much of a stretch to assume that he'll be paying close attention the next four years.

Indeed, if reporting persists out of Trump's Washington regarding conflicts of interest, it seems likely that the ethics field writ large will get a Trump bump when it comes to fundraising.