PHILANTHROPY AS A WAY TO BEGIN HEALING AT PENN STATE

By James D’Ambrosio

Like millions of people across the U.S., I was deeply saddened about the findings of the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, confirming a cover-up at several levels. While there’s a wide range of opinions — and strong feelings — about what should be done as a result of these revelations, I believe many would agree the worst part of the scandal was the abuse of innocent children — allowed to continue for years. One can only imagine their pain and anguish. As a humanitarian, it’s this aspect of the tragedy I’ll focus on: how to begin the healing process.

A PROGRESSIVE IDEA TO BEGIN THE HEALING

Last Sunday, a letter to the sports editor in The New York Times suggested donating the next four years of football-related profits at Penn State to a fund benefiting the victims of child sexual abuse (read letter here). This  seemed like an excellent way to begin healing the entire school community —victims and their loved ones, students, alumni, faculty and staff, the football program, the local community, and all those with ties to the college. Perhaps prominent Penn State alumni — business leaders or pro football players — could influence the school to move in this direction.

TRAGEDIES SHOULDN’T BE FORGOTTEN

An important reason for championing this idea is human nature: too often, tragedies like this dominate public discourse for a short time only to be forgotten when the headlines disappear, opening the door to similar wrongdoing elsewhere. In short, the lesson isn’t learned. But a strong, sustained, philanthropic commitment over a period of time could have a more lasting impact. In addition to serving as a perpetual sobering reminder, large charitable contributions would significantly expand efforts to help other victims of child sexual abuse. This would restore integrity to Penn State and benefit humanity as a whole. 

To be sure, there’s no perfect remedy. Victims and their loved ones have suffered immensely. That can’t be undone. But a concerted effort helping others would be a good start. Since millions in football profits was arguably a contributing factor, why not invest those monies as described above? Such an initiative would show the country — and the world — that Penn State is committed to positive action on a scandal of epic proportions that could have been avoided. 

QUESTION TO READERS:

From a philanthropic perspective, what else do you think the college could do to address this crisis?     

WHAT NONPROFITS CAN LEARN FROM THE PENN STATE FIASCO

By James D’Ambrosio

In the wake of the egregious scandal at Penn State University involving the sexual abuse of young boys and those in positions of power not reporting criminal activity to the police, it should give everyone,  nonprofit or any other business, reason to pause. Not doing the right thing resulted in tragedy: abuse continued unchecked for years, damaging many more lives; Coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier were fired; the college has a long-term PR nightmare; and a nonprofit is closing its doors, among other problems. In short, everyone lost.

The problems at Penn State likely stemmed from money, power and an organizational culture permitting self-interest to supersede the college’s mission. In a painful twist, the accused, Jerry Sandusky, was also founder of the Second Mile Foundation, a statewide nonprofit in Pennsylvania providing children programs and activities to promote self-confidence and academic success. Reportedly the charity will close and seek another nonprofit to continue its programs (read article here: http://nyti.ms/vANZkn).

If it weren’t for the many millions generated by the football program — ticket sales, corporate sponsors, major contributors, booster clubs and prominent alumni — do you think the matter would have been handled differently? We may never know for sure, but one thing is certain: there would have been far less pressure to push criminal acts aside and hope nothing happened.

AN IMPORTANT HISTORY LESSON FOR NONPROFITS

What can nonprofits learn from this fiasco? Plenty. One of the most infamous cases of nonprofit mismanagement occurred nearly 20 years ago. In 1992, William Aramony, who built United Way of America into one of the nation’s most prestigious charities, was forced out as president and served six years in prison for misusing funds to support a lavish lifestyle and a teen mistress. He recently died of cancer at 84 (read obituary here: http://nyti.ms/sH7ZvV).

The New York Times reports that in 1994, “Mr. Aramony and two associates were indicted on 71 counts of fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering, accused of stealing $1 million from a United Way corporate spinoff.” Keith E. Bailey, chairman of United Way at the time said, “Obviously this is a personal tragedy for the individuals involved, but a self-inflicted one.” The key word is ‘self-inflicted’ — another case of too much money and power leading to tragedy. All totally preventable.

THE ALL-TOO-POWERFUL LURE OF MONEY

The lesson here is to always be above-board, especially since nonprofits are entrusted with administering other people’s money — donors, grantors, corporate sponsors, government contracts, etc. In fact, sometimes I’m taken to task by people expressing mistrust about how nonprofits use their funds, despite any specific data or incident. There is, to a  degree, a negative perception about nonprofits among certain groups of people. In response, I encourage skeptics to visit Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org), an excellent Web site that rates nonprofits, to research an agency before contributing.

There’s an old Italian saying, “Money makes the dead man’s eye’s open.” It helps explain, in part, why too often the pursuit of it [money] leads people down the wrong path. Whether Penn State, The United Way or any other business scandal, it’s important the nonprofit community be mindful of these traps to reduce the possibility of future fraud and abuse harmful to people and the industry as a whole.

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QUESTION TO READERS: What is your view on this issue? Any other insights to add?

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