Does It Matter Where the Money Comes From? Ask George Bernard Shaw

  RAGMA IMAGES/shutterstock

 RAGMA IMAGES/shutterstock

Years ago when I was new to nonprofit fundraising, I did some work for a left-wing San Francisco dance company that was applying for a grant from Philip Morris. I asked if they had a problem taking help from a company that was so obviously using the arts to burnish its image.

“Why not?” was the reply. “They own the world.”

I’m not the only one who has wondered if that was a good answer. So did George Bernard Shaw. Now that we’re faced with climate deniers funding the arts and other cases of toxic money, his amazing play Major Barbara should be performed at fundraising conferences.

For those who haven’t read it lately, here is a summary. Barbara Undershaft, daughter of a wealthy family, has become a major in the Salvation Army. Her father is the leading munitions manufacturer in the world. (Company motto: "Unashamed"). Barbara’s lifework is saving souls. She has recruited her boyfriend, a professor of Greek, to join her at the mission, where they strive to help victims of poverty—and alcohol. Her moral crisis begins when she learns that the mission has been saved by funds from a distillery and from her father’s company.

But why not? They own the world!

And there starts the debate, argument after witty argument, each one convincing until the other side returns the ball. The main contenders are Barbara and her father, as well-matched in spirit and confidence as they are opposed philosophically. The supporting players are the boyfriend, Adolphus—known, to his dismay, as Dolly—and the Mission’s director, Mrs. Baines, who represents the voice of compromise for the simple reason that she is thrilled with the money.

So what does this hundred-year-old play tell us about our jobs? The chief debate can be distilled to the following progression:

1. Just because they’re bad, why should we refuse them the right to do good? Bodger, the owner of the distillery, has a soul too. “Heaven has found a good way to make use of his money,” says Mrs. Baines. In fact, she likes the elegance of using brewery profits to fight alcoholism.

2. But Bodger and Undershaft don’t really want to do good, they want to buy the appearance of goodness so they can go on doing bad.

3. But won’t it be worse for the world if we stand on principle and not do the good their money could fund?

4. Then again, won’t the money backfire on us once its sources become known?

And last but not least:

5. Do we undermine the very good we do—do we, in fact, do bad—by helping the powerful look virtuous? Remember, in addition to an image, the Salvation Army also has a soul.

Starting in the preface and throughout the play, Shaw cavorts among the many implications of taking tainted money. Should we take comfort in cynicism, like Dolly, who claims we all sell out, every day? Or should we be bothered by the contempt of the mission lodger who says, “Do you suppose the Army’d be allowed if it went and did right? It combs our hair and makes us good little blokes to be robbed and put upon.” Bill Walker, the soul Barbara works hardest to save, loses faith in the Salvation Army when he realizes its false position. But Shaw blithely tells his readers that “the Bill Walkers are foolish to lose respect for a man having his price. We all have one, and we should applaud the man for having a high one.”

One minute Shaw treats the Army with contempt. “Bodger will go on to the end of his life poisoning people with bad whiskey, because he can always rely on the Salvation Army or the Church of England to negotiate a redemption for him at a trifling percentage of the profits.” Then he lets the Army off the hook, because complicity comes with life and the joke is on the purists. (He calls Barbara “the romantic hero mocked by reality.”) Then we go back to condemning the Army for letting itself be used. In fact, the Army’s involvement in the bad system is what makes it work. Bodger and Undershaft are delighted to support the organizations that assuage the justifiable anger of the poor. And Mrs. Baines, who’s also afraid of riots in the streets, agrees. “We take the anger and the bitterness against you out of their hearts,” this born fundraiser tells Undershaft proudly. Of course, idealistic Barbara is pained to realize that if “money and gunpowder” need religion as a safety valve, then the most helpful thing religion could do is go out of business.

Unless, of course, the Undershafts of the world help the needy more than the Salvation Army does, because the Army gives them soup and the manufacturers give them jobs.

Got it so far? Now here comes the zinger. At the end of the play, Dolly accepts the position of heir to the Undershaft empire, in the name of “reality and power.” His reason lies in the idea that arms can be used to attack the social order as well as defend it. (There is also much discussion of the real-world value of business versus the utter pointlessness of teaching Greek.) Dolly (aka Jerry Rubin) will enter the defense industry “to make war on war”! Final curtain! Meanwhile, Undershaft wins over his daughter by defending not armaments, but money – including the “38 shillings a week” that allows Barbara, the original leftie with a trust fund, to be a full-time volunteer. Rejecting her father’s business would be middle class; she’d be “artistic, secluded, useless.” Her last, phenomenal assertion is that “to turn her back on Bodger and Undershaft is to turn her back on life.”

As Barbara laments, “There must be some truth or other in all this irony.” I love this play for condensing years of political education into three dazzling acts. I love it for a great, independent heroine who speaks truth to power. I love that Shaw loves Barbara, and loves making her think. But do I also love it because the contradictions overwhelm you to the point where it’s impossible to decide? Because it ends happily, a comedy after all? Do acknowledging the contradictions let you off the hook?

Barbara concludes that she is her father’s accomplice; she “must either share in the world’s guilt or go to another planet.” Maturity? Or the same rationalization that sent a million hippies to law school?

Oh, pshaw.

Jane Ferry (a pseudonym) raises funds for a large nonprofit.