What does ethical mean?


By Leon A Smith
June 21, 2012
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It’s a wonderful thing working for a charity – one knows, or at least one hopes that one is doing something positive and meaningful that is going to add value to the quality of life of our clients/beneficiaries.

Once upon a time many of the very old established charities such as Nightingale House (now Nightingale Hammerson) existed to care for “poor” people. Today whilst there aren’t quite so many “poor” people around there are still very many people who need our help, ie they are older people; they are Jewish; and they have care needs. That’s what we are here for. That’s our purpose in life and that’s our raison d’etre (same thing – but in French!).

Historically our charity discriminated against people who could afford to pay for themselves! With the continuance of the ethos of “helping the poor” the charity for many many years did just that. The vast majority of people coming into the Home were state or local authority supported – virtually none being privately funded. Things of course have changed today. So many people although they may not be described as rich or affluent, certainly own a property which they are now by law required to sell and use the proceeds before they become eligible for local authority support. How times change.

Money of course remains central to what we do. In days gone by local authorities in relative terms were far more generous than they are today. Indeed as I have already indicated local authority funding was much much easier to obtain than it is today. Fundraising has never been more important to us. We strive each year not only to raise the money to fill the gap between what we receive from local authorities and our true running costs but also to raise capital for investment in our properties in order that we can maintain our standards of accommodation and facilities.

Fundraising is never easy. It’s particularly not easy in the current financial climate. Fundraising on the occasion of our recent appeal at Passover is down both in terms of the number of respondents and in terms of the average donation. This is understandable and not unique to our charity. But it is a problem. Each year we have concerns about whether legacy income will be something which we can rely upon in the medium to long term furure.

People give money for many reasons. Some people give because they are truly altruistic and want to help others and some people give because they feel it is the right thing to do. Some people give because of the moral and religious obligation of Tzedekah. Some people give out of guilt.

I am certainly wondering what my ethical stance would be if I thought somebody was giving me a donation which had come from some ill gotten gains. If somebody had made money doing something illegal. If one received a gift which had come from the gains of a crime, then I myself would be very wary about knowingly accepting that gift. What about if somebody gave me a gift which was completely unexpected in cash and I just found myself wondering/summising where it may have come from? Are there any circumstances similar to those where ethically and morally I should say “no” to this gift? That is, would I have a clear conscious about not wanting to risk taking a gift which may have been somebody’s ill-gotten gains? Therein lies a moral dilemma.

My main interest in life is the wellbeing of the charity which I run. I want it to flourish. I want it to survive. I want it to be viable and strong. So is it really my job to be turning down charitable donations if I am not sure where they came from? This is a dilemma to which I am not quite sure I know the answer! (Incidentally for my more pedantic readers, I am aware of the value of cash gifts we are legally able to accept).

We can of course extend this thinking on the “moral dilemma”. Charity good practice states that we should have an ethical investment policy. But what does “ethical” mean? What defines whether a company is “ethical” or not? Would it be wrong for a charity to invest it’s funds in a company providing an extremely high return on investments if that company was involved in the exploitation of labour in the Third World? We know this is indeed the case with some manufacturing companies. But do we have an obligation/moral obligation to those that are being exploited and/or is it to those that we are caring for – in which case we would want to see the highest possible return on investment.

In the eyes of some charities (including some very well known ones that have received publicity in the past) ethical investment would involve not doing business with any companies that do business with Israel. One could argue that Jewish charities have a moral responsibility to invest in Israel in order to show support and would that be right to do even if it involved a reduction in investment income.

These are all tricky issues. I don’t really have answers to any of them. I simply wanted to put this debate in the public forum to see if anyone out there has any views on some of these issues. Obviously I would not want to complete my weekly blog without any reference at all to football. I was thrilled to see that England won their Group in the Euros and are moving to the Quarter Finals. I eagerly await tomorrow’s Jewish Chronicle to see whether any of the players, the manager or coaches and/or their families have any Jewish relatives!

See you next week.

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