Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

To a casual observer, Alley Cat Allies would seem to be a model charity. A Bethesda, MD-based nonprofit that calls itself “the global engine of change for cats,” Alley Cat Allies has been given a coveted Platinum seal by GuideStar, which has the “the most complete, up-to-date nonprofit data available.” For its part, Charity Navigator has bestowed a four-star rating on Alley Cat Allies, signifying that it is an “exceptional” nonprofit that “exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.”

Alley Cat Allies is exceptional, all right — exceptionally dysfunctional, exceptionally poorly-governed, and an exceptionally dismal place to work. It is also unwilling to account for the unorthodox behavior of its founder and longtime president, Becky Robinson, its controversial chief operating officer, Charlene Pedrolie, and Donna Wilcox, its former board chair and vice president. Yes, Wilcox served for years both as board chair — a position that obligates her to lead the board’s oversight of the president — and as a paid staff member reporting to the president.

The latest news out of Alley Cat Allies? A couple of lawsuits that describe a catfight, literally, between Charlene Pedrolie, the COO, and Donna Wilcox, the longtime board chair, over the ownership of a pair of formerly feral cats named Charles and Oliver.

According to a civil complaint filed by Pedrolie, Wilcox, aided by her brother Duane, captured Charles and Oliver from the offices of Alley Cat Allies by force. Wilcox and her brother “threatened to hit and physically harm Pedrolie if she did not surrender Charles and Oliver” and then trapped the COO in her office, the lawsuit says. Pedrolie’s lawsuit accuses the Wilcox siblings of assault, battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It describes their conduct as “extreme and outrageous and beyond the bounds of decency in society.”

Wilcox, meantime, has sued Alley Cat Allies, claiming that the charity owes her more than $30,000 in back wages, plus vacation pay. She worked for the charity for nearly two decades before Robinson and Pedrolie forced her out, her lawsuit alleges.

None of this would matter much except for what it says about the charity ratings agencies. Millions of Americans turn to Charity Navigator and GuideStar for guidance when vetting nonprofits like Alley Cat Allies. While Charity Navigator and Guidestar, which is now part of Candid, are ably led by thoughtful people, the fact is that they simply aren’t up to the job of monitoring the conduct of thousands of American nonprofits. They rely mostly on self-reported data and IRS tax forms, and they don’t have the staff to do much digging on their own.

As it happens, the problems at Alley Cat Allies have been known to Charity Navigator and Guidestar for months. I covered them in a story headlined The Limits of Nonprofit Oversight, which was published by the Chronicle in November 2018. I followed up with a blogpost in December, pointing to other issues at Alley Cat Allies, which raised nearly $10m last year from unsuspecting donors.

Among the problems:

Questionable real estate dealings. In 2015, Alley Cat Allies bought the home next door to Becky Robinson in Arlington, VA, for $590,000. In 2018, the charity bought a second home in Arlington for $569,000. Neither purchase was approved by the full board, which included a real estate agent at the time. The charity says the Virginia homes are investments and rental-producing properties, but its most recent IRS tax return lists no rental income.

An unhappy workplaceOn Glassdoor, Alley Cat Allies has more than a dozen anonymous, harshly negative reviews, assailing Robinson’s leadership and the board’s inaction. Only 19 percent of the employees would recommend working there, and just 23 percent approve of the CEO. When workers can’t stand the boss, an organization cannot function at peak effectiveness.

A history of poor governance: In 2004 and 2012, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, another charity monitoring organization, pointed to problems with at Alley Cat Allies. See this 2004 story from the Chronicle of Philanthropy and this archived page from 2012. None of this set off alarms at Guidestar or Charity Navigator. BBB Wise Giving Alliance now says that Alley Cat Allies is no longer one of its accredited charities because Alley Cat Allies has not responded to its requests for information. The board of Alley Cat Allies did not meet at all for the first 10 months of 2018, its members told me.

The lawsuit over the catfight adds an element of farce to this sad saga. Interestingly, Pedrolie’s suit was filed on her behalf by an attorney named Donald English, who also represents Alley Cat Allies; it’s unclear whether the nonprofit is funding Pedrolie’s suit with donor dollars.

In its IRS filings, Alley Cat Allies reported spending $200,000 in legal fees during FY 2016–2017 and more than $274,000 in FY 2016–2016. That strikes me as a lot for a cat charity. More than 90 percent of those legal fees were classified as “program service expenses,” meaning that they don’t count towards overhead. It’s in the interest of a charity to classify as much of its spending as possible as program-related because Charity Navigator ratings are partly based on how much a charity spends for overhead and how much for programs.

Michael Thatcher, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, says its rating for Alley Cat Allies is based on the most recent IRS filing, which covers year ending in July 2017. “We update ratings once a year,” he told me. To its credit, Charity Navigator added a “mild” advisory to its page about Alley Cat Allies after my story ran in The Chronicle. But the advisory doesn’t prevent Alley Cat Allies from touting its four-star rating on its website and in its fundraising appeals and emails.

Alas, Charity Navigator has limited resources. It employs about 23 people who are charged with evaluating more than 9,000 nonprofits. It is reluctant to change a rating because of a blogpost or newspaper story, and probably should be prudent about doing so. “Even charities are innocent until proven guilty,” Thatcher told me, quoting a colleague. It’s up to donors, and especially major donors, he says, to do their own due diligence before giving even to high-rated charities.

And what does Alley Cat Allies say about all this? Repeated efforts to contact Robinson and Pedrolie in the last week proved fruitless. Last year, Alley Cat Allies told me by email that the Virginia real estate purchases were approved by the investment committee of the board. It said that asking a paid employee to serve as board chairman is not unusual. It said that it has tried to settle the lawsuits. More recently, it said in court papers that Donna Wilcox lost her claim to back pay because she refused to cooperate with Alley Cat Allies.

As for the persistent criticisms of Alley Cat Allies’ transparency and governance…..wait for it…the charity cites its top ratings from Charity Navigator and Guidestar. Which would be funny, except it isn’t.

There’s a lot to like about the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a Seattle-based private foundation with about $800m in assets that, since its inception nearly 20 years ago, has been led by a advocate for social change named Luz Vega-Marquis. Leaders of social-justice organizations lavish praise on Vega-Marquis for providing multi-year and unrestricted support to grass-roots organizations that advocate on behalf of the poor. She has hired people of color to staff the foundation and assembled a diverse board. It’s no wonder that idealistic people who care about poverty, inequality and race have been attracted to jobs at Marguerite Casey.

Once hired, though, many grew deeply disappointed. Vega-Marquis “stifled dissent, sowed discord, refused to admit mistakes, and demanded obeisance from staff,” former employees say. It was, by most accounts, an awful place to work.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published my story about Vega-Marquis and Marguerite Casey. Here’s how it begins:

Some years ago, a disgruntled staff member at the Marguerite Casey Foundation printed out reviews of the foundation from the website Glassdoor and sent them to the grant maker’s board. The reviews, which were posted anonymously by employees, painted a devastating portrait of Luz Vega-Marquis, the foundation’s longtime chief executive and a trailblazer in social-justice philanthropy.

One review described Vega-Marquis as “a tyrant, pitting her employees against each other, lacking in personal emotional control … and patronizing to her grantees.” Another said: “The board should conduct its due diligence by hiring an independent consultant to investigate the reputation of the foundation.” Still another described the workplace as an “extremely toxic environment. Culture of fear, distrust, micromanagement — coming from the top down.” Another: “Autocratic, capricious, punitive management and culture.” Only 26 percent of the reviewers said they would recommend working at Marguerite Casey.

Later, Vega-Marquis convened an all-hands meeting where she was joined by Douglas Patiño, a member of the Marguerite Casey board. Vega-Marquis said she wished that whoever had posted the reviews had come to her first. “I was totally dismayed that people didn’t have the courage to come and talk to me directly,” she says now. “I have an open-door policy.” Patiño took a tougher stance. Whoever did this is disloyal, he said, grabbing his tie with his fist and pulling it up beside his head, as if to make a noose. To those in the room, the message was clear: The board stood behind Vega-Marquis and had no interest in hearing complaints from the staff.

For what it’s worth, Laura Boyle, the director of communications and HR at Marguerite Casey, says this incident “did not happen nor would it be tolerated here at the foundation.” Two people at the meeting told me that it did, in fact, happen; the story subsequently became part of the foundation’s lore, shared with former as well as new employees.

To put those Glassdoor reviews in context: Marguerite Casey’s 26 percent “approval” rating compares with 71 percent for the Gates Foundation, 66 percent for the Ford Foundation and 73 percent for the Hewlett Foundation. Perhaps more surprising, Casey’s rating also falls below those for Amazon, Walmart and McDonald’s (74, 66, 54 percent). Put simply, Marguerite Case is an outlier and not in a good way.

My story — please read it in full! — was written, not to single out Vega-Marquis or Marguerite Casey, but to illustrate a couple of broader points.

First, sad to say, leaders of nonprofits and foundations sometimes become so focused on their mission that they neglect the well-being of their staff or, worse, exploit their workers. This is particularly a problem with well-entrenched executive directors and CEOs. I’ve reported on this phenomenon at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Humane Society of the US and the Farm Animal Rights Movement, and heard about it from friends and relatives who work in the sector. It deserves more attention. Too often there’s a disconnect between the face that nonprofits present to the world, and the reality of how they treat their own people. A foundation or nonprofit where people are alienated or worse cannot be as effective as one where people are engaged and inspired to do good work.

Second, these workplace problems persist only when boards are disengaged. That appears to have been the case at Marguerite Casey. Even after those dismal Glassdoor reviews, the board did little. To this day, there has never been an anonymous survey of Marguerite Casey staffers to see how they assess the workplace culture or the leadership of Vega-Marquis. Turnover has been high; people were fired, given severance and in exchange required to sign non-disclosure agreements. There’s no good reason for non-disclosure agreements in the nonprofit world. This, too, did not get the attention of the board.

It’s no coincidence, in my view, that Marguerite Casey board members are well-compensated. The Chronicle story says:

They are paid $40,000 a year if they attend all meetings, with $26,667 paid in cash and $13,333 paid into a tax-advantaged deferred-compensation plan. Marguerite Casey’s 2017 federal tax return reports higher payments due to investment earnings on the deferred compensation: $47,910 for [board chair Freeman] Hrabowski;, $47,852 for vice chair Pat Schroeder, the former congresswoman; $43,992 for treasurer David Villa; and $47,866 for secretary Douglas Patiño. Over time, the deferred compensation adds up. When William Foege, a prominent epidemiologist and former director of the Centers for Disease Control, left the board after 16 years in 2017, he collected $265,412 in deferred payments. Marguerite Casey board members also get an annual discretionary grant budget of $60,000, as well as matching grants when they donate their own money.

An important element of a board’s job is to oversee the CEO and protect an organization’s people. But when a payday of more than $250,000 awaits a board member who hangs in for a decade or two, who wants to rock the boat?

A few days before The Chronicle published my story, Vega-Marquis announced that she will step down from her role at Marguerite Casey, albeit not until the end of 2020. After the story came out, others in the foundation world came to her defense. On his blog, Robert K. Ross, the president of the California Endowment, criticized the Chronicle’s report and wrote:

Over the past two decades of observing your leadership from the front row, it can be argued that no single leader in the field of philanthropy has done more to lift, advance, and support the voices of community-based, grassroots activism and advocacy for social justice than Luz Vega-Marquis.

Fair enough. But what about the experiences of those who worked for her? Some told me they were traumatized; other say they remain so fearful of retaliation they won’t go public with their criticisms. Don’t they count?

Ross went on to say that philanthropy needs more leaders like Vega-Marquis.

Most of those who worked for her, I assure you, would strongly disagree.

An update: This Facebook post from Ludovic Blain, who directed Equal Voice Campaign, a project of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, adds more color to the story. So do the comments that follow, which confirm my intuition that this is not an isolated situation in the nonprofit world. Please take a look on Facebook, especially if you doubt the seriousness of the problems at Marguerite Casey. Edgar Villanueva also writes about Luz Vega-Marquis in his fine book, Decolonizing Wealth.

This story was originally published on Medium. Please follow my work there.

Short-termism is endemic in government, industry and philanthropy. Politicians focus on the upcoming election. Corporations are judged by their quarterly results. With few exceptions, charitable giving seeks to address today’s problems.

Ben Delo, Britain’s youngest self-made billionaire, aims to change that, and not in a small way. Shaped by the principles of effective altruism (EA), Delo promises to donate the majority of his wealth to efforts to protect the long-term future of humanity.

“All lives are valuable,” he says, “including those of future generations.”

Delo, 35, who is the co-founder of a Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange called BitMEX, has just signed the Giving Pledge, the initiative created by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet for billionaire philanthropists. He is the first signatory to focus his pledge on making sure that human beings don’t destroy themselves; so, for example, he is supporting research designed to prevent a global pandemic and efforts to manage artificial intelligence. Global pandemics, runaway AI, nuclear war and climate change are among the existential threats to humanity that worry him, Delo says in his Giving Pledge letter.

In his pledge letter, Delo writes:

My ambition now is to do the most good possible with my wealth. To me, this means funding work to safeguard future generations and protect the long-term prospects of humanity. This includes mitigating risks that could spell the end of human endeavour or permanently curtail our potential.

He goes on to say:

While today may be the most prosperous period in our history, it may also be the most dangerous. Our distant ancestors did not possess technology that could cause human extinction. We do. Nuclear security cannot be taken for granted. The prospect of extreme climate change is real. Looking forward, advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology will pose new and complex challenges.

Put simply, we’ve never been in this position before: with the power to destroy the future, but not necessarily the wisdom to wield that power responsibly.

Delo has been inspired by Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, a founder and theorist of the effective altruism movement who he met through a childhood friend. MacAskill introduced him to Effective Giving, a nonprofit consultancy led by Natalie Cargill along with Liv Boeree, a world champion poker player and advocate for EA.

“My mathematical mind was immediately drawn towards applying the scientific method to improving the world, and I’ve been working with Effective Giving for over a year,” Delo told me by email.

Delo also intends to collaborate with the Open Philanthropy Project, which advises Giving Pledge signatories Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, and his wife, Cari Tuna, who are also guided by the EA movement. In the last six months or so, Delo has met with Tuna and Holden Karnofsky, who leads OpenPhil, as well as with leaders of such EA-influenced nonprofits as the Future of Humanity Institute, He met with Rob Wiblin, the host of the podcast, 80,000 Hours, which features long conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how people can use their careers to solve them, and agreed to fund 80,000 Hours.

“It’s obviously great to have another major donor on board,” Wiblin told me by email, when I asked what Delo’s commitment will mean for effective altruists. “Ultimately it should allow us to grow some projects focussed on his interest areas — like building the effective altruism movement or mitigating existential risks — more quickly than we otherwise could.”

Delo, who lives with his wife, Pan Pan Wong, in Hong Kong, graduated from Oxford in 2005 with double first class honors in mathematics and computer science. He worked for IBM and JP Morgan Chase as a software engineer before co-founding BitMEX.

He has already donated to several organisations working to safeguard humanity, including the Center for Human-Compatible AI, a research center at Berkeley dedicated to the design of safe and reliably beneficial AI systems, and a collaboration between Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Future of Humanity Institute on mitigating and preventing of global pandemics. He also donated to a project at Decision Research, a nonprofit founded by psychology professor Paul Slovic, looking at the understanding of potential effects of nuclear weapons.

Delo also provided seed funding for the Forethought Foundation, a new non-profit founded by MacAskill, which aims to promote research within philosophy and the social sciences on how best to positively influence the long-term future.

Via press release, MacAskill said: “Civilisation might continue for millions of years, and almost everyone who will ever live is still yet to come, but almost all academic research and policy advice focuses on near-term issues. With Ben’s support, we’re able to start addressing that gap.”

Not all of Delo’s philanthropy has targeted long-term risks. Last fall, he donated £5m to endow two teaching fellowships at Worcester College at Oxford, where he studied. But Delo’s decision to dedicate most or all of his philanthropy to preventing existential threats to humanity will be controversial, even among effective altruists. It would appear to rely on a set of questionable beliefs: That the lives of people who are yet to be born are as important as those who are alive today; that those vast numbers of people have no voice in decisions made now that could affect them; and that an intervention with even a very, very small chance of enabling them to be born would do more good that an intervention with a much better chance of saving lives or alleviating suffering right now. [For more on these arguments, which can get complicated in a hurry, you can read The Case for Reducing Extinction Risks by Ben Todd, listen to this 80000 Hours podcast with Nick Beckstead of the Open Philanthropy project or read this skeptical take by Dylan Matthews of Vox.] At the very least, some will argue, Delo should donate a portion of his wealth to try to alleviate suffering among people who are alive today.

That said, philanthropists — unlike government or business leaders — have the freedom to take risks and to pursue unpopular or neglected causes. Those who care deeply about today’s global poor may look askance at a cryptocurrency billionaire who frets about runaway AI or evildoers planning to engineer a global pandemic. Ben Delo may be wasting his money. But if the researchers and think tanks he’s backing figure out how to make the world a safer place, future generations will thank him.

This story was originally published on Medium.

Psychedelic drugs are having a moment in the sun. They have great potential, we’re learning, as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. They are also attracting interest as a gateway to meaningful experiences that, advocates say, should be available to all.

Philanthropists are taking note. More donors — though not nearly enough — are stepping up to support both research into the medical benefits of these days and advocacy on their behalf.

Here’s why psychedelics present an untapped opportunity for philanthropy.

The latest on psychedelics as therapy: Last month in London, Imperial College opened the world’s first formal center for psychedelics research, which will seek to developing psilocybin therapy into a licensed treatment for depression and investigate its potential for treating other conditions. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, a prominent researcher who is leading the effort, says: “This new Centre represents a watershed moment for psychedelic science; symbolic of its now mainstream recognition.” Five founding donors, including the best-selling author, podcaster and investor Tim Ferriss, have committed a total of £3 million ($3.9 million US) to fund the center.

Tim Ferriss

“This is my №1 priority,” Ferriss told me recently. Ferriss has become a leading evangelist for psychedelic research, donating his own money as well as raising funds from others. “I have seen lives saved by these compounds, not once, not twice, but dozens of times,” he says.

Two months ago, the FDA approved esketamine, a derivative of ketamine — a party drug with psychedelic effects — as a treatment for depression. Unlike existing drugs that treat depression, esketamine appears to work by inducing an extraordinary mental state that causes shifts in perception and behavior.

“It’s a game changer for psychiatry,” says Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, the president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which provided funding to study ketamine as a rapid-acting antidepressant.

The latest on psychedelics for everyone: This month, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to effectively decriminalize psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in the so-called magic mushrooms that have been used for centuries in traditional cultures. (The Green Party and the Libertarian Party supported decriminalization, for whatever that’s worth.) Efforts are underway to decriminalize psilocybin in Oakland, CA, and in Oregon.

Next month will bring the opening of the Atman Retreat, a pop-up retreat center that promises to offer “safe, legal psilocybin experiences” at a beachfront property in Jamaica. Aaron Nesmith-Beck, who is starting the Atman Retreat, is active in the effective altruism (EA) community, where debate is underway about whether support for psychedelic research and advocacy should become a cause supported by EAs.

These are all exciting developments, although, as with everything related to psychedelic drugs, some caution is in order. The medical benefits of therapy assisted by psilocybin or MDMA have yet to be demonstrated on a large scale. Unfettered recreational use of psilocybin could prove unwise, not least because these drugs remain illegal in the U.S.

The author Michael Pollan, whose best-selling book about the new science of psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, has played no small part in rekindling interest in these drugs, took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times after the Denver vote to urge restraint.

“As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years, they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone,” Pollan wrote.

My interest in these drugs, er, mushroomed after reading Pollan’s book. Since then, I’ve spoken with scientists, advocates and donors while reporting stories (here and here) about philanthropy and psychedelics for the May issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The evidence is growing that psilocybin and MDMA, when administered by trained professionals and accompanied by short-term therapy, can help to alleviate suffering from an unexpectedly broad array of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, anorexia, and addictions to tobacco, alcohol and opiods.

Surprisingly, patients in clinical trials report that a single drug experience or two can have lasting effects on their attitudes and behaviors. These drugs can literally help change your mind, it seems.

In a recent article in the journal Neuropharmacology called Psychedelics: Where We Are Now, Why We Got Here, What We Must Do, Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield write: “Such lasting benefits aided by one to two doses of a medication, particularly in severely ill and debilitated patients, may emerge as one of the most momentous breakthroughs in psychiatry and medication development in decades.” The so-called renaissance of psychedelic science is now proceeding apace, with research underway at Johns Hopkins, NYU, Yale, the University of California at San Francisco, as well as at Imperial College.

An unusual array of donors

Philanthropy is essential to this research. The stigma around psychedelic drugs remains so strong that there’s little government support for the research. With a budget of $1.8bn, the National Institute of Mental Health is the largest funder of research on mental illness in the world, but almost none of this money goes towards studies of psychedelics.

With a few exceptions, drug companies are disinterested as well.

“Psychedelics are off-patent, can’t be monopolized, and compete with other psychiatric medications that people take daily,” explains Rick Doblin, the founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a research and advocacy group that is the leading nonprofit in the field.

Rick Doblin

Two years ago, MAPS’ own research into the use of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder was granted “breakthrough therapy” designation by the FDA. MAPS’ protocol, which combines therapy with three administrations of MDMA, is currently in a final phase of clinical trials, and could gain FDA approval as soon as 2021.

MAPS has been sustained entirely by donations from individuals and family foundations. These donors include ex-hippies, liberal activists, New Age types, political conservatives, technology entrepreneurs and an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire known as Pine. Prominent American families, including the Rockefellers and the Hyatts, have funded research.

Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz — he’s the billionaire co-founder of Facebook — have supported three nonprofits that focus on research into psychedelics. Good Ventures, their family foundation, has made two $100,000 grants to the Heffter Institute and a $500,000 grant to the Usona Institute for research testing the use of psilocybin to treat depression. Good Ventures also made two $500,000 grants to MAPS for its research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.

The philanthropy of Tuna and Moskovitz has been influenced by effective altruism, which encourages people to use reason and evidence to do as much good as they can. EAs look for causes that are important, tractable and neglected (for explanations, see this and this), which makes psychedelic research an excellent fit. The suffering from mental illness is widespread, there’s growing evidence that psychedelics can help and relatively few philanthropic dollars flow into the cause — well under $100m a year, by my estimate. By comparison, the American Cancer Society spent $838m and the American Heart Association spent $890m in their most recent fiscal years.

“If you look at the amount of funding for brain research, as compared to other illnesses, such as cancer, it’s minuscule,” says Dr. Borenstein of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Particularly as we learn more about the workings of the brain through scans, the opportunity to help those who suffer from mental illness is growing.

That said, there’s reason to be skeptical about psychedelic therapy, as blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander explains. He writes, among other things, that “between 10% and 50% of Americans have tried psychedelics. If psychedelics did something shocking, we would already know about it.” It’s important not to let the exuberance surrounding psychedelics get too far out front of the evidence.

Psychedelics’ transformative potential

Meantime, the advocacy work being done on behalf of psychedelics could have even more world-changing potential, some say. The advocacy is driven by a simple but profound belief: That people should have the freedom to choose what substances to put into their bodies.

For many, the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics could outweigh the risks: An intriguing 2006 study led by Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins found that psilocybin could reliably lead to “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” It was a small study, with just 30 volunteers, but two-third of them said the drug trip was among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.

By starting Atman Retreat in Jamaica, Nesmith-Beck will make psilocybin legally available to those who can spend four days and about $1700, plus airfare, for a group experience with doses tailored to each user’s preferences, preparation and integration with trained facilitators, and amenities such as beachfront access and vegetarian meals. His first retreat aims to attract EAs, and it is mostly filled.

On an Effective Altruism Forum, Nesmith-Beck makes a bold claim:

We believe increasing access to high quality psychedelic experiences can be impactful for improving mental health, boosting personal efficacy, perhaps making people more altruistic, and promoting human flourishing in the long run.

I heard similar claims while reporting my story for The Chronicle. Several enthusiasts told me that psychedelic experiences will connect people more closely to nature, and there’s at least weak evidence that people who have experienced LSD, psilocybin and mescaline during their lifetimes feel closer to nature and engage in ecological behaviors like recycling. Of course, that could be a matter of correlation, not causation.

Allan Badiner, a writer, editor and environmental activist, has experimented with psychedelics while supporting environmental causes. He served on the board of the Rainforest Action Network for more than 25 years and now helps to fund for psychedelic research and advocacy at the Threshold Foundation.

Threshold, a liberal foundation, has a funding circle called PREP (psychedelic research education and policy) that is “grounded in the view that psychedelics are powerful tools for the expansion of consciousness and have been so for all of human history.” It aims to “support smart psychedelic use as a medicine, a powerful adjunct to therapy, a tool for self-development, and as a result, contribute to a more compassionate, healthy, and peaceful society.” PREP has made small grants to such groups as MAPS, the California Institute for Integral Studies, and the International Center for Ethnobotanical Research and Service.

Badiner sent me these words from Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who has studied psychedelics and other altered states of mind for more than 60 years:

Deep reverence for life and ecological awareness are among the most frequent consequences of the psycho spiritual transformation that accompanies responsible work with non-ordinary states of consciousness….It is my belief that a movement in the direction of fuller awareness of our unconscious minds will vastly increase our chances of planetary survival.

For philanthropists, there may be risk in getting behind psychedelic research and advocacy — but the potential upside is huge.

This post was originally published @Medium.


“Universities,” says Harvard, “have a special role and special responsibility to confront the global challenges of climate change and sustainability.”

Indeed they do. But by financing the exploration and production of fossil fuels, Harvard is failing to live up to that responsibility.

In an effort to hold the university accountable, a group of prominent alumni, led by former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, will try to reinvigorate a campaign to persuade Harvard to divest its $40-billion endowment of fossil fuels.

Joining Wirth, a longtime climate activist, in the campaign are writer and activist Bill McKibben, former SEC commissioner Bevis Longstreth and Todd Gitlin, an author and scholar, all of them Harvard alums. Working with them are Gina McCarthy, the former EPA secretary, who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Stephen Heintz, who as president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, led its successful effort to cleanse its endowment of fossil fuels. They’ll describe their plans on Earth Day [Monday, April 22] as part of Heat Week, a week of climate activism at Harvard.

In a January letter to Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, Wirth and his allies wrote:

We believe that the University should immediately cease holdings in companies exploring for or developing further fossil fuel reserves. This can be a first step toward the long-term goal of fully decarbonizing the portfolio. We are well aware that this is a difficult challenge, but Harvard is capable of great challenges and rightly should be among the first to undertake the challenge of aligning its endowment with a bet on the future rather than the past. If Harvard can’t do it, who can?

They met soon after with Bacow and William Lee, a lawyer and fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and while the meeting was (of course!) cordial, Bacow signaled that he saw no need to revisit the divestment position laid out in 2013 by Drew Faust, his predecessor. “The endowment,” she wrote, “is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Every now and then, though, Harvard has, in fact, used the endowment to drive change or reflect the university’s values. The Harvard Management Co., which invests the endowment, says in its sustainable investment policy that

very rare occasions may arise when companies’ activities are so deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable as to warrant the University’s institutional dissociation from those activities. In recent decades, such ethical considerations have led the Harvard Corporation to instruct HMC not to own shares in certain companies involved in the perpetuation of apartheid in South Africa, in the manufacture of tobacco products, and in enabling genocide in Darfur.

The question, then, is whether the fossil fuel industry’s actions have been repugnant and unethical. While there’s no doubt that coal, oil and gas have been engines of economic growth for centuries, the industry has recently gone to extraordinary lengths to oppose climate action, even as scientists agree that burning of fossil fuels at our current pace threatens human and planetary health.

Bacow says Harvard’s proper role is to work with the fossil fuel industry, which, as it happens, also works with Harvard. (BP, Shell and Chevron finance energy and environmental research at Harvard’s Belfer Center.) In a letter to Wirth and his colleagues, Bacow wrote:

We share the same basic goals in this area, but differ on tactics…My own view is that the university’s continued engagement with industry in this domain is more likely to achieve those goals than an approach that emphasizes stigmatization

This view is unsupported by history. Shareholder advocates focused on climate change have engaged with fossil fuel companies for nearly two decades, and they have almost nothing to show for it. ExxonMobil agreed to appoint a climate expert to its board, but the company remains almost entirely focused on producing oil and gas. No amount of engagement will magically transform fossil fuel companies into allies in the campaign to curb climate change.

Says McKibben: “Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies has proved its uselessness, yielding less than a molehill when we must climb a mountain.”

It’s about politics, not economics

Then again, divestment alone won’t transform the oil industry either. The economics are daunting: The Go Fossil Free campaign launched by McKibben, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club in 2012 has yet to persuade any of the US’s biggest universities or foundations to divest. (Rockefeller Brothers, the biggest foundation to do so, has about a $1.2 billion endowment.) What’s more, it’s hard to know whether university and foundation could, by themselves, drive down the share prices of the oil majors. (Interestingly, after Harvard and many other institutions divested tobacco stocks, shares of the cigarette companies wildly outperformed the broader market until just a few years ago.) Finally, giant oil companies owned by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran are unaffected by divestment campaigns because their shares aren’t traded on public markets.

But divestment can help change the politics of climate change. That, in fact, is the point — to demonize and weaken the fossil fuel industry. McKibben argues that divestment can “push the climate issue into the center of political debates, depriving the industry of some of the social license it needs to continue gaming the politics of the issue.” Or, as Stephen Heintz has said: “This is largely symbolic, but symbols have power. They motivate people. They inspire people. They can change behavior.”

That’s why this Harvard campaign is important. Harvard’s endowment is the biggest of any university, and its influence extends far beyond its investment portfolio. Harvard is, well, Harvard: It has educated eight US presidents, half the members of the Supreme Court, numerous CEO and world leaders, and so it has an unmatched ability to shape the values of future elites.

Wirth and his allies are argue that the university’s values should compel action.The oil companies, they say, have misled the public for decades about the threat of climate change, even when they knew better. They spent a fortune, McKibben says, building “an architecture of deceit, denial and disinformation.”

Gitlin told me: “Here’s Harvard — which is devoted to Veritas — and here are these companies that are devoted to the opposite of veritas. They’ve been lying machines.”

It’s a compelling argument. So, too, is the broader claim that the business-as-usual approach to endowment investing taken by Harvard is a wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis.

Wirth told me: “The traditional endowment investment policy simply is no longer credible — at Harvard or elsewhere. If we persist and focus, I believe we can have a real impact.” His group has raised foundation funds to enable the Better Future Project, a grass roots group based in Cambridge, to hire an organizer to support DivestHarvard.

1_Fwtj2q5UoAiDombjJV1MsgTwenty-six-year-old Jacy Reese is — or perhaps was — a rising star of the animal rights movement. His book, The End of Animal Farming, was blurbed by Steven Pinker. He has delivered a TedX talk, written for Vox and The Guardian and spoken in more than 20 countries, according to his website. He is co-founder and research director of the Sentience Institute, a think tank that “dedicated to the expansion of humanity’s moral circle” and shaped by the principles of effective altruism.

Then this: An 812-word statement, under the headline “Apology,” posted a week or so ago by Reese on the forum of the Centre for Effective Altruism, the global hub of the effective altruism movement.

“It has recently been brought to my attention that I have made people uncomfortable through my verbal and written advances,” he wrote. “I’m deeply sorry to everyone I hurt or made uncomfortable.”

“I intend to step back from public life and the activism communities I’ve belonged to and reflect on my mistakes further,” he continued. He has committed “to not making advances on anyone employed in the animal advocacy movement. I wanted to err on the side of caution and avoid doing any further harm.”

His apology doesn’t get more specific, in part because the allegations against him were made anonymously and details have not been shared.

So what, exactly, did Jacy Reese do wrong? That, alas, is hard to know.

This is a problem not just for Reese, but for the #metoo movement, for effective altruism and for the farmed animal movement. Animal activism is just now emerging from an awful year, marked by revelations that several of its prominent leaders, notably Wayne Pacelle, the former president of the Humane Society of the US, had engaged in sexual harassment. Pacelle was credibly accused of verbally and physically hitting on women who worked for him, actions that cost him his job.

Here’s the problem, though: Without specifics, people are left to speculate about Jacy Reese. Sexual harassment has become an all-encompassing concept that can mean everything from grabbing a person’s body (although, really, that’s sexual assault) to making a comment about a co-worker’s looks (“love the way that dress looks on you”) to the display at work of “sexually suggestive objects, pictures or other materials” (like the 1967 movie poster for The Graduate?), to quote the anti-harassment policy of Mercy for Animals. These are, of course, very different things.  Distinctions matter. As a group of French women, including Catherine Deneuve, wrote in a letter to Le Monde last year: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime.”

In the case of Jacy Reese, as best I can tell — which is not very well at all — he is being accused by a number of women of “insistent or clumsy flirting,” most of it online, via text or Facebook message. “My approach to expressing romantic or sexual interest has always been forward and direct,” he wrote in his apology. This  behavior is often described as “unwanted sexual advances,” a phrase that puzzles me: How is anyone to know if an advance is unwanted, without making the advance?

This has been a challenge for Reese. “He’s a bit socially awkward and can’t read clues,” says a colleague in the animal-advocacy world, who has seen screen grabs of lewd text messages that he sent to women, even after they showed no interest. He has been warned by friends that his behavior was not only putting his reputation at risk, but that it could set back causes that he cares about. (He disputes this.) Some women have avoided EA and animal advocacy events when they knew he would be present.

Reese’s public apology was not exactly voluntary. It came only after the Centre for Effective Altruism approached him “after receiving reports from several parties about concerns over several time periods,” the organization says. The CEA described the reports as “credible and concerning.” It severed its ties with Reese — the centre had previously been a fiscal sponsor of the Sentience Institute — and told him he was no longer welcome at its events. That sounds serious.

And yet Reese and Kelly Witwicki, the co-founder of the Sentience Institute, want his apology to close the matter. In an email, Witwicki told me that when the allegations came to his attention, he promised not to come on to “anyone employed in the animal advocacy movement.” (A curious pledge — are volunteers fair game?) Here it must be noted that Reese and Witwicki are partners in life as well as advocacy — he proposed to her last year, in the most romantic fashion, by reading her a passage from his book while on a rowboat in Central Park. They are also polyamorous. The full texts of Witwicki’s emails to me are here.

Competing values

There’s more to this story — quite a bit more — but before unraveling it, let’s recognize that what we have here is a clash of values that’s not easy to resolve. Seeking to create safer workplaces for women, the #metoo movement urges women to speak out about their concerns, anonymously if necessary; confidentiality is important because women should not be subject to retaliation if they have been harassed by powerful men. But, given the stakes, men deserve to know who is accusing them and, at minimum, what, exactly, they are said to have done. That isn’t a dodgy excuse for the patriarchy — it’s a matter of fairness. Then there’s the importance of transparency. Only with more clarity and openness can colleagues, allies and donors make informed judgments about who they want to work with or support. Without transparency, there’s no accountability. That’s why the conclusion of the sexual-harassment scandal at the Humane Society was so unsatisfying.

This is equally unsatisfying. Some people credit Reese for making a public apology, albeit under pressure. Julia Wise, a respected effective altruist and a community liaison at CEA, told me by email that reporting this story would be counterproductive: “I respect the decision (Jacy) has made to step back from EA generally. I think he responded appropriately, and I don’t want to dis-incentivize that.” Others, though, worry that Reese and Witwicki are now free to spin the story and minimize the wrongdoing.

Reese’s history further complicates matters. During his sophomore year at Brown, Reese, who then went by his full name (Reese is his middle name), was expelled from the university after being accused of sexual misconduct. The specifics, again, are unknown, but he denied wrongdoing, portraying himself as the victim of a witch hunt. In a letter to the Brown Daily Herald, Reese argued that students accused of harassment deserve more due process. “My career at Brown has been destroyed by these false accusations,” he wrote.

Witwicki, for her part, has been a forceful advocate for women. In a long and thoughtful 2017 post on the Effective Altruism Forum, headlined Why & How to Make Progress on Diversity and Inclusion in EA, she urged the CEA to “enforce a clear policy” for dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination. She wrote:

Commensurate consequences and reform procedures, escalating as necessary to expulsion, are critical. The perpetrator is not so much more important than the greater number of people they are driving away, [emphasis added] the risk of a lawsuit to the organization protecting them, or the risk they bring to the community’s reputation, that such actions should be protected.

Restorative justice

Last November, on the the Sentience Institute website, Witwicki took a more forgiving stance, arguing that “restorative justice” and not “retributive justice” is what all of us want and deserve when we make mistakes. She wrote:

“No tolerance” is an important policy for preventing and responding to misconduct, in the sense that every issue will be addressed. But no tolerance doesn’t require a “heavy handed” approach — to the contrary, I think it’s critical for the heaviness of our responses to be commensurate with the severity of an action and to escalate progressively with failures to participate in restorative processes. Small transgressions, for instance, should be “called in” so the person who made the apparent mistake has the opportunity to defend themselves if necessary, or to rectify their mistake and improve. If someone has committed a transgression, we want them to seek understanding, and if they do come to understand, apologize, and demonstrate a credible intention to improve, they should be given the chance to carry forward as a better community member, if possible depending on the severity of their action.

We can speculate that she wrote this with her fiancee in mind, but it is nevertheless a point well taken. It would be a shame if these accusations do serious or long-term damage to Jacy Reese’s career, presuming that he has — finally — learned to treat women with respect. The Sentience Institute, which researches the best ways to effectively advocate for animals, is a promising newcomer to the animal advocacy movement; it’s deserving of support, with or without him.

But if Reese is to become the leader he so clearly wants to be, he has other things to learn, too. Humility, for one. On his website, he calls himself “a co-founder of the effective altruism movement.” Huh? He was in high school in 2009 when Will MacAskill and Toby Ord started Giving What We Can, the first effective-altruism organization, and he was a college sophomore when the term effective altruism was coined. When I asked him about this, Reese replied:

Regarding “cofounder,” there were many people involved in the beginnings of the effective altruism community, including people at Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and in online internet forums like LessWrong and Felicifia. I was involved in many early discussions and early strategizing for the community (before and after it settled on the name “effective altruism”). I volunteered with Giving What We Can and helped run the first effective altruism student network called THINK. However, my impression is that most of us, including me, have some discomfort with the term “cofounder,” given it’s a diffuse community rather than an organization or company.

Sorry. In no one’s mind but his own does that make Jacy Reese a co-founder of the effective altruism movement.

For more on his perspective, and Kelly Witwicki’s thoughts,  please read her responses to my questions and to this story.

This story was originally published on Medium.


Wayne Pacelle and Lilly, in happier times

So much for Wayne Pacelle’s denials. Early in 2018, when women at the Humane Society of the U.S. alleged that Pacelle, the organization’s charismatic leader, had sexually harassed them, he maintained his innocence before resigning under pressure. “This is a coordinated attempt to attack me and the organization,” Pacelle said. “And I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward.”

Now we know that the complaints were valid. On March 12, the Humane Society concluded a “reconciliation process” that was designed to understand what went wrong and strengthen the organization for the future.

The key finding? Things were worse than previously disclosed.

In a press release addressed to staff and supporters, Susan Atherton and Tom Sabatino, the new co-chairs of the Humane Society board, wrote:

Our problems were far greater than what was publicly discussed in early 2018. There were more victims of abuse, harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior than had previously been known, and there were more bad actors involved as well.

Atherton and Sabatino, who are new to the board, said the directors were, in part, to blame.

It is also clear that the Board struggled to find its way through the situation and in many ways came up short. We let the organization down and, more importantly, let down the women who were the targets of these inexcusable acts. We failed the organization. There is not one member of this Board who is not extraordinarily sorry for that.

This is unsatisfying. Saying that the board “struggled to find its way through the situation” is like saying that the Titanic struggled to find its way to port. Here’s what happened: The HSUS board abruptly terminated an outside investigation into Pacelle’s conduct when it became public. The board then stood by the CEO and dissed his accusers, until pressures from staff and donors forced him out. (See Times Up: Wayne Pacelle is out as CEO of the Humane Society.) What’s more, the board evidently either tolerated the workplace problems at HSUS for years, or was unaware of them.

Yet, as the reconciliation process concludes, no one on the board is being held accountable. The board chair, Eric “Rick” Bernthal, and two other members of the board executive committee who backed Pacelle, Chuck Laue and Jason Weiss, continue to serve.

One striking feature of the letter from the board chairs and a similar letter from Kitty Block, the Humane Society’s new CEO, is that they don’t mention any names — not Pacelle, not Bernthal, not any of the men who have been accused of wrongdoing in the press or on Facebook. The result is, there’s no more clarity today about who did what to whom than there was a year ago, although enough of Pacelle’s accusers have gone public — in the Washington PostThe New York Times and with me — so that it’s clear that he abused his power.

Board chairs Atherton and Sabatino said they will not share details of the findings because they want to “protect the confidentiality that was promised to all participants.” This is laudable, but surely there’s a way to say more while still guarding the privacy of those who preferred to remain unidentified.

In an open letter on her website, Kate Kimpel, a well-respected lawyer and feminist who led the reconciliation process, had this to say about the confidentiality issue:

Finding the right balance between transparency and confidentiality is difficult; while there is likely no balance that would satisfy all stakeholders, I am confident that the balance being set here is one motivated by a true desire to protect those brave individuals who participated in the process.

That carries some weight with me. We’ll see whether it satisfies donors who had hoped the findings would become public and that the old guard on the board would depart. Here are some other thoughts on the reconciliation findings:

The scope of the workplace problems: About 120 people came forward voluntarily to talk Kate Kimpel. That’s a lot of people! So many that Kimpel extended the deadline for completing her inquiry a couple of times. That tells me that the workplace problems at HSUS go well beyond a misstep or two by Pacelle.

Paul Shapiro’s conduct: An influential figure in the animal welfare movement, Shapiro left HSUS last year after writing a book about plant-based alternatives to meat. He’s now CEO and cofounder of The Better Meat Co. Some women are displeased because, they say, he’s never been held accountable for his behavior at HSUS. He apologized last year for what he called “sophomoric and unprofessional behavior” but it remains unclear what, if anything, he did wrong. Making some top-line findings of the investigation public might have allowed him to clear his name — or not.

Kitty Block’s role: A survivor of sexual harassment at HSUS in the 1990s, Block wrote that she had “learned over the past year” that “some of those we trusted and admired most betrayed us all.” She went on to say:

No person’s dignity, safety, or humanity should ever be compromised in the name of fighting for animals; to tolerate this degrades us all and compromises the moral force of our cause. I have been sickened to learn what so many went through, and I want to take this opportunity to personally apologize. I am so very sorry.

Strong words. But questions remain about what she knew, and when she knew it. Did she really first learn about the bad behavior only after it became public last year?

A former HSUS staff member wrote me:

It wasn’t hidden. The entire movement knew. Wayne and Paul (Shapiro) “dating” their female employees was a constant source of gossip, jokes and warnings. They would flirt with women and tell crude sex jokes in front of anyone. In work meetings, at events. Kitty held high positions at HSUS for many years. There is absolutely no way she didn’t know exactly what was going on.

Others are skeptical as well.

When I ran this by HSUS, spokeswoman Anna West sent me this reply from Kitty Block:

It is absolutely untrue that I knew all, most, or even much about what went on here and the ways in which people were being victimized. I have been horrified and heartbroken for much of this past year. And had I known, I can confidently say that I would not have stood idly by; my actions in 1995 [when she sued HSUS after being harassed] prove that.

The good news — and it’s no small matter — is that many people believe that a new era is underway at HSUS. Whatever Block’s past role, she’s now seen as an ally of women. In her letter, she said: “Let me state emphatically that moving forward the HSUS will hold those who harass or assault accountable.” The board has put in place what it calls “a clear, comprehensive, and transparent set of policies and protocols” to protect staff. The new rules, the board says, will enforce “accountability at all levels of the organization.”

Accountability. You hear that word a lot at HSUS. Last week, on her blog, Block promised that HSUS will hold food companies accountable for promises they’ve made to phase out cages for pigs and chickens. That’s good. Companies should be held accountable for their actions.

So, though, should nonprofits and their leaders. That’s why it’s disappointing that HSUS has so far failed to hold its board and staff members accountable for the damage they did to women — and to the animal-welfare movement.

This story originally appeared on Medium.