More Than Money
Issue #31

The Everyday Ethics of Wealth

Table of Contents

“Giving With Strings Attached”

A Conversation with Mark McDonough

For me, the ethical questions involved in giving money have to do with power, control, and integrity. Is it ethical to have power over someone else’s life through money? Is it ethical to use purse strings to make people (or organizations or communities) do something that they might not otherwise do, even if I perceive it to be “for their own good”? What gives me the right to control another person’s (or organization’s or community’s) destiny just because I have money? Money is power, and power is difficult to handle.

When my parents gave me a large sum of money with no strings attached, I was given no guidance about how to use it. “Could I go to Tahiti?” I asked my father. He replied, “Yep, whatever you want to do.” I interpreted that as a lack of caring. Yet, on a different occasion, when he gave me money with strings attached—he would pay for the East coast business school I got into, not the West coast one I wanted to try—it made me angry. And when I gave money to my friend, with strings attached, he interpreted that as a lack of caring.

Having had many experiences of giving and receiving, both with and without strings, I now operate somewhere in the middle. Whether I’m giving to an individual or to an organization, I don’t keep my hands completely out of what the recipients are doing with the money, nor do I totally run the show and tell them what to do with it. The key, for me, is full disclosure: I try to lay out the terms of the gift up front so they can take it or leave it, or they can negotiate for different terms. I once gave money to a friend so she could attend a four-year program to train for a career in the healing arts. Halfway through the program, she decided to use the scholarship money to attend massage school instead. She needed more money, so I gave her a loan, which she agreed to repay. As time went on, she felt she couldn’t keep her agreement, so we renegotiated the terms. When we rewrote the deal, I told her, “The fate of other people after you is on your shoulders. If I have a bad experience with you, I won’t want to do this for others later.”

She agreed to provide free healing treatments to others until she had given away services equal in value to the amount of money I had loaned her. She also agreed to give me regular updates. Well, she wasn’t very good about giving me regular updates, but she did tell me recently that her debt has been fully “repaid” through a great deal of service to others post September 11th. I was able to come away from the experience feeling good because we maintained the integrity of our agreement through renegotiation, and because I was willing to be flexible enough not to worry about every condition being met.

I believe that we all bring expectations to giving. I think it’s an unnatural ideal to ask people to give without strings. The ethical thing is to make the conditions explicit. I feel better when I spell out terms that will make me feel comfortable as a funder. People are free to say yes or no. By being clear about the strings I attach to my giving and lending, and being willing to renegotiate when things don’t go as planned, I’m able to give money in a way that feels ethical to me while producing a positive outcome for the recipient.

—Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

Mark McDonough is founder and president of and is a member of More Than Money.

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