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Use whatever influence you and your wife have as donors to actively help them be more effective and to have fewer and less severe failings going forward

Editor's note: Last month, one of our editors reached out to Steven Brence, a University of Oregon philosophy professor who teaches ethics. The editor and his spouse had just finished reading The Oregonian's disturbing account of how Mercy Corps failed the daughter of the group's founder who came to them as a young adult with credible accounts of sexual abuse.

The couple makes annual contributions to Mercy Corps and wondered: Do they end their contributions in response to the nonprofit's mishandling of the matter? Or, in that case, would they be punishing the thousands of people who the organization has helped?

Our editor put the question to Brence, who offered this reply, which he has agreed to share with our readers.

I think these are very hard questions to answer effectively in a general way and really need to be examined via attention to particulars.

Morality, for me at least, is not often a matter of obvious and unqualified right and wrong, but of better and worse, which is often a matter of degree and very hard to determine.

Though the actions of Ellsworth Culver and that of others in the organization who enabled him are unquestionably reprehensible, the better choice for you and your wife is perhaps not so cut and dried.

Simply by virtue of being human institutions, presumably all charities have failings of some kind. How much do the particular failings of a particular charity undermine its effectiveness in performing its chosen mission?

Is that particular failing endemic in that charity's operation, or is it anomalous? Can that particular failing be corrected? Despite it, is the charity still doing good work on the whole? What other organizations share the same charitable mission and are their failings less severe and less obstructive of their efforts?

I think whether you and your wife should continue as sustaining donors of Mercy Corps depends upon answers to these questions.

Could your charitable donations be directed such that they better serve people in need by withdrawing them from Mercy Corps and sending them elsewhere? If so, I would suggest you do that.

If, however, Mercy Corps still does good work on the whole, and there are no clearly superior alternatives, then I would suggest that you use whatever influence you and your wife have as donors to actively help them be more effective and to have fewer and

less severe failings going forward.

Help them, that is, to be better.

I can appreciate your reluctance to associate with and support an institution that has failed, or in this case severely violated, any of those it is charged with helping, even while helping many others.

It is a necessary part of moral courage, however, to accept that better is often the best that we can do, and that, absent the possibility of moral perfection, work toward the better will be forever necessary.

Last, since the victim of the abuse and subsequent betrayal in this case is publicly known, sustaining donors might consider reaching out to her — through The Oregonian reporter perhaps — to ask for her opinion on this matter.

Has Mercy Corps taken adequate steps toward the better from her point of view? Does she think it is now capable of operating in a morally responsible enough fashion that donors should continue to support it?

You and other donors like you could at least partially counter the previous indifference to her humanity and well-being on the part of the organization by making her voice and perspective a central factor in your decisions concerning its future.

Steven Brence is a senior instructor and director of undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon Department of Philosophy. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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