Taking money from the Mosleys

by Adrian Beney - 08 November 2021


Adrian Beney considers complex questions around gift acceptance in light of the latest headlines.

It has been widely reported that before his death in May Max Mosley, former head of Motorsport’s governing body the FIA and whose father was Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, approved a number of significant gifts to higher education institutions, including St Peter’s College and Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. Imperial College and University College London have also received gifts from Max Mosley’s foundation, named in memory of his son Alexander who died from a heroin overdose in 2009. The Times article is here.

Professor Lawrence Goldman, emeritus fellow in history at St Peter’s has campaigned long and hard against the acceptance of these gifts, and now Robert Halfon MP, Chairman of the Commons Eeducation Select Committee, is quoted in the Times saying: “I find it distressing that Oxford University is so keen to go on about diversity and inclusion but is prepared to take the shilling from such sources.” The Times also quotes Lord Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, said: “If Oxford is trying to rehabilitate the Mosley family name in any way, they can expect a very hostile response.” Goldman is reported as suggesting that the Charity Commission should be able to scrutinise donations to universities and colleges in order to ensure their sources are “appropriate”. (The Commission already has an extensive section on “know your donor” in its guidance library.)

Professor Goldman, Mr Halfon and Lord Mann are, of course entitled to their views, and fascism and what Oswald Mosley stood for are abhorrent. Those things are a given. But I don’t think this situation is that simple. The question is not just whether the money is tainted, but whether money, in and of itself, is sufficiently animate to be capable of taint. Is it the money itself, or it is that which is within us and the power exchange which happens when gifts are made, which give philanthropic gifts the potential to taint?

What goes with the money? Where is the value-exchange and the power-exchange with a gift?
Let us conduct a thought experiment, outside the halls of Oxford and in a simpler scenario. Suppose that we have a charity implacably opposed to the destruction of the environment. The founder of one of the world’s most rapacious mining companies offers the charity a large gift in exchange for naming one of its leading programmes after himself. The charity would have to consider whether, in naming the programme, it was validating the behaviour of the donor towards the environment. That’s the fundamental “what are we here for?” question, and the trustees would probably decide that lending credence to the practices of the donor, against which it had persistently campaigned, would be actively harmful to their cause and purpose. It’s not the money that’s tainted, it’s the donor, and in particular the quid-pro-quo required with the donation.

But suppose that the gift were to be made on the strict understanding that it were to be kept anonymous. No-one beyond the CEO, Trustees and the finance people would know. There would be no publicity. The donor expects absolutely nothing in return, no reporting, no influence, no contact with the programme staff or charity trustees and management. Would it still be wrong to accept the money which could do so much the advance the charity’s cause? Of course there would be a business risk, that if the identity of the donor became known, the charity’s other donors, supporters and staff might be so outraged that more harm would come to the charity by accepting the gift than could be done with the money. But in our thought experiment, the anonymity is complete and entirely secure. Would it be wrong to accept the money? Is it tainted? Does that even matter given its intended purpose?

And then in the third part of our thought experiment, the donor commissions a third party to deliver cash to the charity’s bank account. (Of course, this would now be very hard because of anti-money-laundering rules, but please allow us to do this for the purpose of the thought experiment.) Here, the charity does not even know who the donor is and it never will. Reputational risk is entirely mitigated and the charity’s collective conscience is untroubled. The charity simply has a very large gift to do more of its excellent work. Is the money tainted now?

Our first scenario feels clear cut. There is an exchange between the charity and donor – rehabilitation of reputation (and maybe of conscience) in exchange for money. This seems wrong, although of course our penal system issues fines as a way of correcting poor behaviour. Even here were can develop our thought experiment a little further and ask if the donor had been fined for polluting activity and the regulatory authority had directed that the fine be paid to the charity, should the charity refuse the money now that it is a means for punishment for the very activity against which the charity campaigns?

In our second scenario, the exchange is much less clear. Maybe the donor regrets the damage he’s caused to the environment and somehow this is a search for redemption. Is it wrong for the charity to collude with this? But what if that’s not the case? Would that change the charity’s view? Turning down the money would mean the charity could do less of the very work it was established to do. And indeed, even if there is no repentance, unless the impact of the gift is to salve the donor’s conscience so that his company carried out worse atrocities, does it matter what the impact on our anonymous donor is, so long as the charity is able to do more of its work?

And in our third scenario, the charity has no idea who gave the money. There can be no sense of collusion on their part, but we, the observers of our experiment, still know that perhaps the donor was seeking some sense of reparation and redemption. Does that make the gift immoral, wrong and tainted? Does it matter if the charity unwittingly provides some existential benefit to the donor? Or does the separation of the money from the knowledge of who gave the money cleanse it in some way?

Hold that thought for a moment while we consider another issue pertinent to the Mosley gift.

Does money carry the sins of the fathers?
There are many accounts of soldiers brutalised in the second world war in Burma who would never buy a Japanese product, a Toyota car, a Sony stereo, or a Yamaha guitar or bike. Those men were consistent and persistent in their desire to separate themselves forever from the terrible things that had been done to them by the Japanese army.

I detect, I think, a similar desire for separation in Professor Goldman’s argument that his college and university should not have accepted the Mosley gifts. It is, intellectually and emotionally, an entirely supportable and understandable position. But I think it is also problematic, not in principle but in practice. Our interlinked, multinational world now uses products made by companies all over the world. Cars made in Britain have Bosch fuel injection, we use painkillers made by Bayer, our farmers (and some of us) use fertilisers and pesticides made by the same company, we buy VW and Mercedes and Audi cars.

All of these companies, despite some notable contemporary dissidents and apologies and openness about their past in more recent years, are implicated in both support of the Nazi regime and in the use of forced labour from concentration camps and in some cases, much worse.

If we say we will not take money from the son of the British fascist leader, then surely we should also not buy products from any of these companies, nor allow our pension funds to invest in them. Being “untainted” is more complex than it looks.

Issues of power
Returning to the thought experiments, we need to acknowledge that money does odd things to people’s heads. I’ve written about that before. One’s identity can become tied up in it, and one can assume that the identity of others is tied up in it too, and is somehow transferred when a gift is made. But power plays a more important and obvious role.

In the first scenario of our thought experiment, power was handed by the recipient to the donor – power to validate his rapacious and damaging behaviour, along with power for the charity to do more of its work, but the power the charity received was conditional and constrained. In the third of our scenarios, power is handed by the donor to the recipient – the freedom to use the money for good while expecting nothing in return. Perhaps this is the truest form of philanthropy, except that any wisdom the donor has (assuming their good intent) is now unsharable with the charity.

So what should Oxford have done?
Reports suggest that the donor’s gifts will be remembered publicly with the “Alexander Mosley Professor of Biophysics Fund” and maybe other uses of the money will carry the name of Max Mosley’s late son.

Does this remember a young man who died in tragic circumstances, or does it honour and rehabilitate his father Max who, it is reported, never condemned his own father’s views and for a while endorsed them, or worse, does it commemorate Oswald Mosley’s fascism? Do we believe the sins of the fathers should be visited upon and should curse their children and their children’s children? And would we ask the same question if their surname had been Smith? Even here, we have short memories. There were over 650 Carnegie libraries in the UK, and the giving of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations is widely praised. Yet those men made their wealth in ways we would now find profoundly uncomfortable, or worse.

I argue that this question is not simple. I think that we should:

  • separate thinking about the money from the power and the legitimacy that comes with the money;

  • give as much attention to those issues of power and legitimacy as to those of the money itself;

  • weigh the good that can be done with the money in balance with the proper questions about its source and the power-exchange that goes with its acceptance;

  • look carefully at our own moral contradictions before too roundly condemning the acceptance of money which will be spent on things which we all acknowledge are righteous and good.

This is why we have gift acceptance processes, and why membership of committees who decide these things is not regarded as the most desirable ticket in town. One thing is almost certain – not everyone will be happy with the decisions that are reached.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn – join in the conversation here.

Find out more
We have helped many clients grapple with issues surrounding gift acceptance, for example, running ethics workshops for fundraising professionals, organisational leadership, academics, clinicians and more. Get in touch to find out how we might help you.