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By timestaff
February 28, 2008


Question: My mother, a widow in her early sixties, works in the administrative offices of a big conservation organization. While her pay is okay, she makes very large contributions to the nonprofit she works for. In return, Mom is duly recognized. But in the meantime she has only a small nest egg, and it’s not getting any bigger. Aren’t the development people where she works, who understand that her means are limited, wrong to solicit and accept so much of her money?

Answer: Absolutely. Soliciting money from someone when you know they can’t afford it is wrong. Period. It makes no difference whether you’re a snake-oil salesman peddling an overpriced piece of Florida swampland or a fund raiser for an environmental organization trying to preserve the same swamp. When you know that the deal you’re pushing runs counter to the interests of the person you’re pushing it on, you’re behaving unethically.

But as dishonorably as the development staff is acting, the buck stops with your mother. She’s the one making the decision to give. And just because her money is going to a good cause doesn’t change the fact that she’s failing to adequately save for retirement. By allocating her income in this way, she’s not being fair to the relatives who may one day be called upon to bail her out.

So unless you or another relative is prepared to supplement her nest egg, you should talk candidly with her about the potential long-term effects of such generosity. Emphasize that while you understand her concern for the future of the planet, you also want to make sure she’s paying attention to the future of her finances.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at