I’m on the art-museum board, so that is my preferred artistic donee. An acquaintance repeatedly called me for a donation to the opera. I don’t like opera. I said he should donate to the art museum. He said he’d give to the museum whatever I gave to the opera. We agreed on $10,000 apiece. He called the next four years and offered to make the same deal. I accepted each year. As I was looking through our donor list for unrelated reasons, I discovered he has been giving only $1,000 a year. I sent him an e-mail telling him of my discovery, and he responded, “Nailed me.” As if it were funny. What is my ethical response? Demand my excess back from the opera? Threaten to sue him if he doesn’t pony up to the museum? Gossip? T.S., LOCATION WITHHELD
Before I suggest anything, let me note the reality of your dilemma: This is not really about money. Until the moment you realized what was happening, you’d effortlessly given $40,000 to a charity you don’t even care about. Your problems are other people’s fantasies. But that does not mean you were not wronged. This is a classic example of false reciprocity, and it includes a strange personal twist: If the only thing that mattered was the raw amount of money funneled to the respective charities, the whole concept of exchanging donations would have been ridiculous from the get-go — you could have simply given your annual $10,000 directly to the museum (because that was the true motive behind your donation to the opera). This, however, is not what you wanted. You wanted this specific guy to donate to your preferred charity. So what you’re really asking is how to ethically respond to a personal betrayal that one party finds offensive and the other finds comedic.
Do not contact the opera and demand a check for $36,000. For one thing, I don’t think they’d do it (and you will seem crazy). But even if they did, you’d be retroactively penalizing a civic organization simply because you got duped by a con artist who happens to like opera. An opera house is not the single-best place for you to award charitable money, but it’s still a charity; it’s still good for the community, even if it doesn’t directly appeal to you.
As for pursuing legal action: I don’t even know how that would work. There was no contract signed. It’s not illegal to persuade someone to donate money to an opera house (it would be different if your acquaintance were operating on behalf of the opera’s board, or if the opera facility didn’t actually exist — but that’s not how you described the transaction).
Your acquaintance is a full-on weasel, and this exchange defines a bad-faith agreement. But if you’re looking for an ethical way to respond, there isn’t much you can do that will result in your own personal satisfaction. Certainly don’t spread gossip about the guy. That’s not a valid equivalence. Yes, he’s a liar. But what is his real offense? Giving only $4,000 to an art museum? Making you feel foolish for having responded more generously than necessary? I understand why you’re upset over this deception, but the ultimate damage was private. You’ve still done something good for society (and so has the weasel, despite his interpersonal malfeasance).
My advice is this: Call your friend and say: “Look, I know you think this is funny, but I don’t. You took advantage of me, and of an organization that could have benefited from money I gave to something else you preferred. You have to fix this. Make a donation to the art museum that satisfies my emotional investment in this exchange. This is no longer about charity. This is about my relationship with you.” If he concedes, forgive him. If he does not, cut him out of your life and take awkward solace in the fact that you helped sustain an opera house you’ll never actually visit.