The Ethical Dilemma: Giving

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are confidential.


Non-Profit Dishonesty: I work for a non-profit agency that is very well known and well respected in the community. I know of things this organization has done that are not completely honest. It’s been demoralizing to think that the leaders of this type of organization would not be following the highest path, and I feel that they should be held accountable. But a public airing of these things would undoubtedly diminish financial support for the organization and impact hundreds of thousands of needy people throughout the state. On the other hand, I think about all the lying and cheating that goes on in Wall Street and other places, and say what the heck, everybody’s doing it, at least we’re doing it to raise money to feed hungry people. Should I turn these unethical leaders in, or keep quiet?

–Reluctant to Blow the Whistle

Dear Reluctant,

You’re right to keep your eye on the beneficiaries of your organization. You don’t want to do anything that will deprive them of critical, perhaps life-saving services. As you say, cheating and dishonesty are everywhere, from the fattest cats to, unfortunately, those entrusted with delivering aid to the neediest. But we can’t just shrug and allow it to go unchallenged (and probably to escalate—first one cookie, then the whole cookie jar). One way dishonesty is kept in check is by protesting it. Don’t we wish someone had sounded the alarm sooner in all the scandals rocking the news these days, from a coach preying on young boys to Madoff magically making millions?

The only conceivable way you could ethically choose to do nothing would be if you were quite certain you’d lose your job and you’d fail to stop the cheating. But that’s unlikely. And what is likely is that you are already in for trouble yourself, even if you are only a witness, and certainly if you are participating in workplace theft or fraud, regardless of whether it is under duress. That could lead to consequences such as never working in your field again, or jail.

So the first thing I suggest is legal advice. You need to know how to wield whistleblower laws to protect yourself. Then you need to sound the alarm—but as discreetly and constructively as possible. This is not the time to go to the local newspaper or TV hotline. Is there anyone you trust to share this with at a high level in your organization? If the malpractice reaches the very top, is there someone on the board of directors you could approach, or even a person outside the organization who could advocate for you? You’ll need to provide evidence that donations are being diverted, or why an outside auditor should check the books. Perhaps you could band together with a number of coworkers who are also aware of the issue to increase the odds of being heard rather than silenced.

Ideally, this mess could be cleaned up without outsiders ever knowing there was ever a problem. It’s also possible that, despite your best efforts, any action you take could damage your career there and tarnish the institution. But since this organization provides critical services to so many, even a huge scandal shouldn’t shut down its indispensable mission. Charitable organizations feed on trust—trust that donations will be devoted to those who need help, not those helping themselves. So I hope you won’t step aside and focus on the good that you still accomplish despite the pilfering. I hope you’ll step up to the challenge. You could be a hero!

Unwelcome Gifts: My aunt (widow of my mom’s brother) and cousins are religious, but they must realize I’m not. Even though there was always bad blood I never fully understood between this branch of the family and my late mother, I feel we owe them all the usual announcements and invitations associated with major life events (weddings, births, etc.). Whenever we reach out to them, my aunt and one cousin who live far away decline, while the nearby cousin is always the last to RSVP—I have to call him many times before I get a “yes” after the RSVP deadline and one time—my wedding—he and his wife forgot to show up. But my complaint is that both cousins always send religious objects as gifts. I don’t want these trinkets in our house and I’d be embarrassed to re-gift them to anyone else.  Even worse, my aunt makes donations in our names to her own house of worship in her hometown. We’ll probably never set foot in there, and we hate having our names on their donor lists. I always send perfunctory thank-you notes but in fact I’m really annoyed and offended.

–Thanks but No Thanks

Dear Thanks,

 I have an inkling why there might have been ill will between your mom and these kin. But gift-giving is an art that many of us never master. Don’t your relatives get any points for acknowledging your announcements and invitations at all, let alone with gifts?

Maybe you’re not in close enough contact for them to know what you like, so this is what they come up with. Are you sure your relatives are aware you don’t practice their religion? Perhaps you could remind them. Then, if they don’t take the hint, maybe they are intentionally or subconsciously perpetuating the feud with your mother. You could either drop them off your list completely, snipping the family tie, or take the high road and continue to keep them on the list and politely acknowledge their offerings. I’d also advise you not to follow up with the cousin who eventually says he’s coming and then is a no-show. Let him take the initiative to respond—or not.

As for the items you’ve collected: Are you sure you will never see their intrinsic beauty or want to keep them as quaint curiosities? If not, get rid of them so they don’t continue to irritate you. While you’d be ashamed to pass them along because you feel they endorse religion or because you just don’t like them (or perhaps you suspect they are already pass-alongs your cousins were unloading), maybe you could bestow them upon someone who would really like them. Your recipient needn’t care about their religious significance. It could be a collector of superstitious artifacts or someone who adores any kind of silver object. Be honest yet diplomatic about why you are giving them away: “I’m sure these are lovely and valuable, but they’re just not for me. If you’d enjoy them, you’d do me a favor to take them.” If you’d like to pick up a little cash, you could peddle them online or to a shop that carries similar items. One more option is to donate them to a charity and claim their retail value as a tax deduction.

As for your aunt’s self-centered donations in your honor to her favorite charity, here’s an idea: When it’s your turn to come up with something for her or her children or grandchildren, make a donation in their names to your favorite charity—such as the maintenance fund for your local park, or membership in a national freethought organization.

The Money Game: I have been amusing myself by crossing out “God” in “In God We Trust” and writing in “Good.” A lawyer friend said this is a federal offense and I could get in trouble for it. Is that true?

–Nothing Better to Do

Dear Nothing,

I looked it up (I just love the Internet!) and with all due respect I believe your legal eagle is mistaken. You can doodle to your heart’s content on paper currency as long as you don’t alter or obscure the serial number or the value (such as transforming a dollar bill into ten-spot). Just don’t start engraving corrections on coins—that is indeed illegal.

You are not alone in this particular pastime. Some people add just an extra “o” to God, others simply blot out the whole phrase. Some perform the editing in front of witnesses so they can make a statement about what they’re up to. Others silently send their low-key message out into the world hoping for a healthy impact, particularly if wads of similarly doctored bills are circulating. Either way, it’s a cost-effective campaign to protest this example of religious intrusion in state business, and if enough people take pen to paper, the game and its meaning will eventually get attention.  Who knows, it could lead to an official edit—probably not resulting in greenbacks that read, “In Good We Trust,” but perhaps making the entire extraneous phrase vanish from all U.S. currency. So have fun printing your own money. And as we charge into Gift Season, (an awkward time for many humanists), remember: personalized cash makes great presents.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.