As I spoke to colleagues in preparation for this article, similar versions of the same question came up a couple of times. “Why are you writing about cannabis, you don’t know anything about it?” It is true – I do not use cannabis and so my knowledge about the specific product is limited to what I have read, seen on TV, or experienced second-hand at various concert venues such as Red Rocks. I do, however, have professional experience with cannabis companies and philanthropy; many of these firms are looking for ways to give back to the community. This has created an ongoing debate as recreational marijuana use laws have been approved in states such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and others.
As a small nonprofit organization, it is important that you consider the entire picture before making a decision on how to handle such opportunities. My goal today is to bring up some considerations that may be helpful. And yes, I have accepted financial contributions from cannabis businesses in a previous position – but I have also refused gifts at other organizations.
There are four basic questions that should be considered when determining whether or not it will be beneficial for your organization to accept donations from cannabis businesses.
First, what do they want?
As professional development officers, this is a question that we should be constantly asking, whether we are accepting money from a person, business, foundation or governmental entity. Why are you making this gift? Understanding the answer to that question can limit future problems, as well as position you to receive additional funding down the road. In the case of a cannabis business, are they looking for something in return that might be problematic? For example, if they would like to use your logo to spur sales of their product, or put their name on your building, that is different than if they simply want to help you be successful because the owner believes in your mission.
Next, is there a mission conflict?
It is important that we avoid situations that could reduce the impact of our organizations. If you were to accept a gift from a cannabis company, would the public perceive that you are being disingenuous? Remember the uproar when the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center accepted money from the Coca-Cola Corporation? There was a perceived conflict, whether an actual conflict existed or not. The fact is that the Coca-Cola Corporation sells products that many people would call “healthy” and consistent with the pursuit of wellness. Examples include Simply Orange, Dasani, and Odwalla. However, sometimes perception is more important than reality.
Also, what will your donors say?
As small nonprofit organizations, we have many stakeholders. One group of important stakeholders is our donors – we would literally be out of business without them. As such, we must consider what they would think about our organization accepting donations from a cannabis business. If you lose a loyal $5,000 donor to take a $500 gift from a cannabis business, that would obviously be a poor business decision. The more conservative your base, the more likely that they might take issue, especially if the cannabis business’ name is next to theirs in the annual report.
On the other hand, the Colorado Symphony held a cannabis concert series in 2014. They clearly embraced this new business segment and did so in a very public way. The bottom line is that you must know your donors and consider their viewpoints.
Lastly, how slippery is this slope?
Chances are that there are many donors who may have made their money in a way that we might not like. Where does this line get drawn relative to which money we will take, versus which money we will not take? Do we also reject money from Larry Flynt, Halliburton, Walmart, Apple (they indirectly benefit from low-wage Chinese workers), Caesar’s Palace, and the NRA? At a certain point, it might be easier to make a list of companies and people from whom we will actually accept money.
“The only thing wrong with tainted money is that t’aint enough of it,” said William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army.
The bottom line is that each organization has to address this topic on its own. These questions and others should be discussed and considered as part of the organization’s stance on this issue. What is right for one group may be entirely wrong for a charity next door. As a part of the process, I highly recommend that your governing board be aligned and part of the decision-making process.