Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Take a look, please, at this poster from the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey, a nonprofit supported by tax dollars. Setting aside the absurd notion of a drug-free New Jersey — presumably, there are no plans to ban alcohol, caffeine and aspirin from the Garden State — the clear implication is that e-cigarettes will kill everyone who tries them. This is so patently false that it is unlikely to deter anyone from vaping. It is, however, an extreme example of how unscientific, distorted and one-sided the debate about vaping has become in the US.

You can read the rest of this story here on Medium.

It is not often that well-respected nonprofit organizations take the side of the powerful against the weak. Yet that, in my view, is where the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Campaign find themselves these days in the debate over e-cigarettes.

That’s why I’ve been spending time lately reporting and writing about e-cigarettes, and why I hope to continue to do so. The topic has been neglected, and it’s important because the lives of tens of millions of smokers are at stake.

Yesterday in Medium, I wrote a story about bans on flavored e-cigarettes that have been enacted by three states — New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island — and a number of cities, including San Francisco and Chicago. Similar bans are being debated around the country.

Public health experts, some of whom have worked on tobacco issues for decades, tell me that these bans are misguided. E-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking. Their use by teens is declining. They are also a tool that can help smokers quit.

So why the bans? Because parents, most of them white and middle-class, have been whipped into a frenzy about vaping by groups like Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative, as well as by the U.S. Surgeon General and the CDC. My reporting has led me to believe that they have exaggerated the dangers of vaping and downplayed the benefits. This isn’t to suggest that anyone who is not a smoker should vape. They most definitely should not. The nicotine in e-cigs is addictive and it may have negative affects on developing brains.

But fears of a so-called epidemic of vaping among teenagers have led to these bans, which keep flavored vapes out of the hands of smokers for whom they could be life-saving. (In England, the government recommends vapes as an aid to quitting.) The 34 million smokers in the US tend to be less-educated, poor, more likely to suffer from mental illness, LGBTQ or Native American, when compared to the total population. They don’t have political clout. They’re mostly unheard in this debate.

You can read my story here.

My story about Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and their campaign against electronic cigarettes generated more reaction that anything I’ve written in years, with the possible exception of my reporting on the workplace abuses at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The story appears in the current issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which gave me the time and space to do the story right and at length, and then run it outside of the usual paywall.

On Twitter and by email, I heard from dozens of vapers who told me that they were able to quit smoking by turning to e-cigarettes, where they got their nicotine fix while avoiding most, if not all, of the harms caused by smoking. Bloomberg and Tobacco-Free Kids are trying to ban all flavored vapes.

Not surprisingly, Bloomberg, Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative responded to the story with a critical letter which, among other things, claimed that “there is limited and inadequate evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation.” That’s just not the case, as Clive Bates, an anti-smoking activist and a defender of vaping, points out in this long blogpost that dissects and rebuts the letter, line by line.

All of this–the reaction to my story, the defensive response from Bloomberg & Tobacco-Free Kids, the way anti-vapers are willing to distort or misread the science around vaping, and the use of kids as a justification for all manner of regulation and prohibition–has persuaded me to keep reporting on tobacco control, at least for a while. Government policies on tobacco control affect public heath and social justice, and the debate needs to be informed by intellectually honest science.

My latest story, for Medium, looks at a proposed nationwide ban on menthol cigarettes, which could pave the way for a ban on all flavored tobacco products. I’m honestly not sure what to think about the menthol ban, but I thought it needed a closer look. While a menthol ban will almost surely save Black lives — Black smokers overwhelming choose menthol brands — a prohibition on menthol cigarettes will give law enforcement a reason to crack down on Black people and jail the makers and sellers of black-market cigarettes. You may recall that Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York City police officer in 2014, was being stopped for selling “loosies,” i.e., untaxed cigarettes, one at a time.

You can read the story here.

The philanthropy of the very rich is an exercise of power, says Stanford professor Rob Reich. As such, billionaire philanthropy deserves scrutiny and not automatic gratitude.

With that in mind, I began a deep dive three months ago into a campaign against electronic cigarettes funded largely by a $160-million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Much of that went to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the US’s most powerful anti-tobacco nonprofit. Meantime, Michael Bloomberg, the patron of Bloomberg Philanthropies, billionaire founder of the Bloomberg media empire and former New York City mayor, spent millions of dollars of his own money fund political anti-vaping efforts, notably two ballot measures in San Francisco that led to ban on e-cigarettes in the city. A city where, not incidentally, you can still buy combustible cigarettes — which are much more dangerous than e-cigs — and marijuana. That makes no sense if what you care about is public health.

My research and reporting, which included 30 interviews, led to a story published today by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The tobacco control movement is “neck-deep in intractable, internecine warfare” over vaping, Cliff Douglas, formerly of the American Cancer Society told me. Bloomberg, Tobacco-Free Kids and the major lung, cancer, and heart charities are on one side, opposing vaping, and pointing to its impact on kids and teens. Public health experts, by contrast, argue that e-cigarettes are a disruptive and potentially valuable technology that can and do help people quit smoking. In the UK, where the government encourages smokers to switch to vaping, you can buy e-cigarettes in some hospital gift shops!

Bloomberg’s money means that one-side of the debate has dominated the public conservation. You’ve probably heard horrible things about vaping, some of which are demonstrably false.

My story is about social justice as well as public health. Much of the outcry about vaping has been driven by well-educated and well-to-do parents who understandably want to protect their kids. The smokers who might benefit from switching to e-cigarettes tend to be poor and less educated; they lack political clout.

The great irony of this story is that evidence is emerging — it’s preliminary evidence, to be sure — that the moral panic over vaping might be leading more people to chose combustible tobacco over e-cigs. That would be a public-health tragedy.

You can read my story here. It’s timely because the federal government and many states are considering legislation to ban or tax e-cigarettes. Please share it if you find it worthwhile. I hope to continue to follow this debate, so please let me know what you think.

Little-known outside the world of psychedelics and drug policy, Rick Doblin is one of the most effective nonprofit leaders in America. Doblin is the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, better known as MAPS, which for 35 years has been trying to develop psychedelic medicines and advocating for the responsible use of psychedelic drugs.

Doblin, in my view, is a brilliant strategist who has done more to change the narrative around psychedelics than anyone, with the possible exception of the writer Michael Pollan. He has built political alliances on the right and left, worked closely with medical researchers and, as best as I can tell, made few enemies along the way. MAPS is on the verge of a major breakthrough by securing FDA approval for the use of MDMA, along with talk therapy, as a prescription medicine to treat PTSD.

I tell the remarkable story of Doblin and MAPS at some length in the new issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The story is ordinarily paywalled but it is available for free until April 1. Here’s a link.

In new books, Carl Hart and Charley Wininger describe their responsible use of drugs

The act of coming out of the closet has been so important to the movement for gay rights that it is celebrated every year on National Coming Out Day. When people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender share their stories, they change hearts and minds, create new allies and help to dispel prejudices and misconceptions.

Can a similar dynamic help end the war on drugs?

Dr. Carl L. Hart, a professor of psychology at Columbia, and Charles Wininger, a Brooklyn-based psychoanalyst, are getting things rolling with new books. They chronicle their drug histories, describe the pleasures that drugs deliver and argue, persuasively, that the press and popular culture have left most Americans misinformed about the risks and benefits of illegal drugs.


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Igor Kurganov

Poker has been called a very dark game. Especially at the highest levels, the best professionals can prey upon weaker foes, taking millions of dollars from amateurs.

Igor Kurganov, who earned $18.7m as one of the game’s top players before before retiring last year, says: “It definitely bothered me a little bit.”

He need not feel bad. Most of his winnings came at high-stakes tournaments, played against other professionals or well-to-do business people who could afford to lose.

More importantly, Kurganov and three poker-playing friends, including his partner, Liv Boeree, started an organization called Raising for Effective Giving — “raising,” get it? — that has persuaded poker players to give nearly $15m to charities since in 2014.

Not just any charities, though — REG, as it’s known, is shaped by the principles of effective altruism. It supports only those charities that have been vetted by others aligned with effective altruism, including GiveWellAnimal Charity Evaluators, the Open Philanthropy Project and the Foundational Research Institute.


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

There’s lots of conversation about “best practices” in philanthropy and some about “worst practices,” but almost no one who writes about worst practices is courageous enough to name names. (The invaluable Vu Le of Nonprofit AF is an exception.) This is a problem for the sector. In my latest story for Medium, I write that “some foundation leaders could benefit from a good old-fashioned public spanking.” You can read the story here.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund can say, with little fear of contradiction, that all its clients are innocent. It has sued a California dairy farm, alleging that Dick Van Dam Dairy treated cows and calves cruelly. It has sued the owner of an eight-year-old horse named Justice, accusing her of neglecting the animal. It has served notice that it intends to sue a Pennsylvania roadside zoo that is confining wild animals, including a ring-tailed lemur, black leopard and gray wolves,. For four decades the nonprofit ALDF has pioneered the field of animal law, using the courts to go after people who abuse animals.

Now the tables have turned. A majority of the 70 or so staff members at the ALDF have signed up to form a union, putting the organization’s leaders on the defensive. The union, called ALDF United, has affiliated with a small but fast-growing union called the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), which, as its name suggests, represents professionals at nonprofits. In December, ALDF United filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board after Stephen Wells, the nonprofit’s executive director and CEO, told the staff that management would not recognize the union.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.