Philanthropy and Politics: The David H. Koch Story

The David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing

Two months ago, David H. Koch resigned from the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, having served as a trustee for 23 years. We can speak at a later date about term limits for board members, but that is not the point of this article. His resignation came after a group of scientists wrote letters and signed a petition demanding that Koch step down from the Museum’s board, declaring that the institution should not be associated with “those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science.”

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The complaint of these scientists may make perfect sense ideologically, but here is the problem: politics really should have no place in arts philanthropy.

I am not stating that Koch is a pillar of humanity. What I am saying is that many arts nonprofits are financially supported by individuals whose moral and/or political ideologies do not align with those personal feelings of its administrators or even with its board leaders. This lack of alignment, however, does not mean and should not mean that monetary support from those people are not needed or are not appreciated. Fundraising is a business. Simple as that. Would you refuse to buy a car from someone just because they supported a different candidate for President than you? Can nonprofit arts organizations still benefit from the philanthropy of those whose politics differ from those running such organizations?

American Museum of Natural History
American Museum of Natural History

Say what you will about David H. Koch: as a board member of the Museum, he was very generous. During his time on its board, he donated some $23 million — including $20 million for the dinosaur wing now named after him. I will be very surprised if he still gives at that level in the years to come, So, yes, activists have “won.” They may have also hurt the very thing they were defending.

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This is a two-way street. In very much the same way that fundraisers should — and, in fact, must — leave their personal politics at the door when it comes to the courting and cultivating of donors, donors should — and, in fact, must — not attempt to impose their politics on the recipients of their philanthropy. If a donor supports the mission of an organization, then that should be their focus, period. I can personally speak to the fact that, at least in the Midwest, many nonprofit arts organizations are funded by conservative benefactors, companies and philanthropic organizations. Many staff members of arts organizations align themselves to a more liberal point of view. We simply do not discuss politics and it has not been a problem.

Koch’s representatives and those of the Museum have both said that Koch’s departure from the board had nothing to do with the letters and petition signed by the scientists. But after 23 years of service, I find that very hard to believe. Imagine how you would feel if you donated that much money to an arts organization and got a similar response. Engaging donors is all about making sure they feel good about giving their donation so they continue to do so. It is not about arguing politics. Or at least it should not be.