Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Welcome to the so-called giving season. If you have given to charity, you will soon be inundated with letters and email imploring you to do so again. Giving Tuesday approaches! Gifts will be matched! Bad charities will claim to be good!

Giving is good, but don’t make any impulsive decisions. Instead, consider the work of the philosopher Peter Singer and in particular his book, The Life You Can SaveBeginning on Giving Tuesday, a 10th anniversary edition of the book will be given away by a nonprofit called, not coincidentally, The Life You Can Save.

Some background: The book and the organization can be traced back to an essay written by Singer in the fall of 1971 when thousands of people in what is now Bangladesh were dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Their death and suffering was neither inevitable nor unavoidable, Singer wrote in the essay, called Famine, Affluence and Morality.

He argued, first, that is the duty of those of us who are financially comfortable to do what we can to prevent needless death and suffering, and that, second, this moral obligation extends not just to those who we know but to those who are far away.

Singer made the case with a now-famous thought experiment:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

What’s more, he wrote, it should make no difference whether “this is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

This a radical argument. If more people felt the urge to help poor people in the developing world, Singer wrote, the affluent would spend less money on themselves, give more away and “our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” His essay was published in an academic journal and taught at colleges. But not much changed — at least not for a while.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Slightly off topic, but please forgive me. This is about more than baseball.

Last week my beloved Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series in thrilling fashion. There’s lots to learn from this team. Here are nine reasons to love the Nats:

Nevertheless, they persisted: That the underdog Nationals won should not have come as a shock; they’re a very good team, and anything can happen in a series of five or seven games. What’s remarkable is how they won. They played so miserably in April and May that, after losing 31 of their first 50 games, FanGraphs gave them a 22 percent of chance of making the playoffs and a 1.6 percent chance of winning the World Series. During the postseason, they played five games in which a loss would have ended their season. They fell behind in all five and still prevailed. That’s unprecedented. It’s worth remembering when pursuing anything that’s hard. Never give up is a cliche. It’s also useful advice.

Immigrants! They get the job done: The Nationals’ season turned around not long after signing Gerardo Parra, a journeyman outfielder from Venezuela who had just been cast off by the San Francisco Giants. Coincidence? I think not. Parra’s on-field performance was unexceptional, but he and Anibal Sanchez, a pitcher and fellow Venezuelan, brought a sense of fun — dugout dance parties, orange sunglasses and, of course, Baby Shark — to the team. “We didn’t start winning until Gerardo Parra came in May. We’re lucky to have these guys here — the Latin guys,” reliever Sean Doolittle told Tom Boswell of The Washington Post. Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Wander Suero (all from the Dominican Republic), Yan Gomes (the first Brazilian-born major leaguer) and Asdrubal Cabrera (another Venezuelan) round out the team’s Latin posse.

They don’t just dance. They hug: These guys really like one another. Importantly, they are not afraid to show it — or say it. While celebrating the World Series victory, Brian Dozier told Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic that winning the World Series is “not a life changing thing.” Dozier said: When all of this is gone and the champagne fades, what we are going to really remember and hold on to is the chemistry we’ve built here. The camaraderie.” If you think that doesn’t matter, you’ve never worked with a bunch of people you can’t stand.

You can read the rest of this post on Medium.

What, exactly, does it take to lose a plum seat on the board of a national nonprofit?

A lot, it seems, at least in the case of Tessie Guillermo, the former chief executive of ZeroDivide, a $50m foundation based in San Francisco that collapsed abruptly in 2016, leaving troubling questions in its wake.

Missing money? A failure to file tax returns? Unpaid staff? The stonewalling of former partners and funders? All this and more are part of Guillermo’s legacy at ZeroDivide. ZeroDivide is being investigated by the attorney general of California, which regulates nonprofits.

Yet Ms. Guillermo remains chair of the board of CommonSpirit, a nonprofit hospital chain with $29bn in revenues and 150,000 workers, and a board member at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a social-justice grant-maker. Together, the two board seats pay her more than $120k per year.

The problem is not that Ms. Guillermo made mistakes. We all do. The problem is, she has steadfastly refused to take responsibility for her actions. And, as best as I can tell, neither CommonSpirit nor the Marguerite Casey Foundation have held her accountable. This is curious, to say the least.


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

The people who run billion-dollar foundations like to talk about their grants. They pump out press releases, produce slick videos, post on social media, publish annual reports and compile searchable databases, all calling attention to the ways they give away money.

But how do they invest their money? Many won’t say. Fewer than half of 15 of the biggest U.S. foundations, which together own tens of billions of dollars of assets, report on their investments. They decline even to disclose the stocks and bonds they own.

The upshot: It’s all but impossible to know to what degree foundations invest in companies that extract and produce fossil fuels, manufacture assault weapons or operate private prisons — companies, that is, whose operations may well undermine their missions.

This is a problem. It’s makes no sense, for example, for foundations like Hewlett, Packard or Bloomberg — all of which fund organizations seeking to curb climate change — to invest their endowments in companies that seek to increase the supply of fossil fuels.

“What are they hiding?” asks Timothy Wirth, the former U.S. senator from Colorado who has been advocating for fossil-fuel divestment publicly at Harvard, his alma mater, and quietly in the world of philanthropy. “What reason do they have not to disclose, unless they are embarrassed?”


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

A Beyond Meat burger, made from plants

It’s a nice story, the tale of a Delaware farmer’s wife named Cecile Steele who gave birth to the modern chicken industry. In 1923, the story goes, Mrs. Steele ordered 50 chickens for her egg-laying flock. A nearby hatchery accidentally delivered 500. She crammed them into a shed, raised them for meat and her profits grew. She ordered another 1,000, then 10,000 and soon raised 25,000 chicks at a time. Her neighbors took notice. Today, chicken growers on the peninsula known as Delmarva, which includes the eastern shores of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, raise more than 600 million chickens a year.

Yes, it’s a nice story, but the truth is more complicated. What really made possible the explosive growth of today’s chicken industry was science and technology. Scientists working in university and corporate labs, often with government funding, invented, developed and perfected technologies that underlie the global meat business—antibiotics that prevent chickens and pigs kept in close quarters from spreading disease, modern genetics so they can be bred to grow faster and fatter, mechanization that allows a single farmer to raise thousands of animals and advances in shipping and logistics that make it easy for beef, pork and poultry meat to be shipped around the world.

Now, it seems entirely possible that the new science of “clean meat” could bring an end to factory farms–and to the suffering of animals who are raised in intensive, confined quarters. “Clean meat” is a term used to describe both plant-based meats, made by startup companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and cell-based meats, grown from a few cells from animals, which together could replace the meat obtained from live animals.

In my first story for a Medium publication called OneZero, about science and technology, I look at the science of clean meat, and how it is rapidly advancing. Some of the science is funded by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but fundamental research is being underwritten by philanthropy from the Good Food Institute, a fast-growing nonprofit led by Bruce Friedrich. GFI made $3 million in grants last year to scientists researching clean meat, and recently announced that it would award another $3 million in the next few months. This is philanthropy with potentially incredible leverage–if these grants help make alternatives to meat tastier, healthier, cheaper or better for the environment, they will help drive an industry that will do enormous amounts of good.

You can read my story for Medium’s Onezero here.

Last June, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story about Luz Vega-Marquis, who has led the Marguerite Casey Foundation since 2001 . The headline was nuanced: Praised for Pathbreaking Grants, Marguerite Casey CEO Said to Foster a Culture of Fear by Staff Members. So, in my view, was the story. Vega-Marquis rightly has been acclaimed for her “longstanding commitment to provide unrestricted, multi-year funding to grassroots advocacy organizations, most led by women and people of color,” the story said. But she mistreated the people who worked for her; they described her as a “tyrant,” as “autocratic and capricious,” as someone who demanded absolute fealty, spread fear and presided over an “extremely toxic” workplace culture.

Be the change you wish to see in the world? Not Ms. Vega Marquis.

The story generated pushback, in part because there’s not much critical reporting (and even less investigative reporting) about the leaders of America’s foundations. They are accustomed to deferential treatment.

Some people who were unhappy with the story underscored Luz Vega Marquis’s pioneering role as one of the first Hispanics to lead a national foundation. In a letter to The Chronicle, Freeman Hrabowski, the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s board chair, wrote:

As a society, we must stand by the strong women-of-color leaders who are changing a field that clearly needs change.

On Twitter, Lori Villarosa, the founder and executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, wrote:

If The Chronicle is working to systematically expose a pattern of all of these behaviors, many of us can point you to many rather than starting with one of the very few Latina CEOs in the field. Who is calling out the unchecked egos by name elsewhere in the field?

A failure of accountability

There was more, in a similar vein. But the most consequential reaction came in the form of a phone call from a source, who asked to remain anonymous, pointing me towards a new story — this one about a foundation, called ZeroDivide, that collapsed in the spring of 2016, leaving unpaid debts, unanswered questions and a trail of hurt behind. ZeroDivide failed to file tax returns for 2015 and 2016. At least $600,000 in donations intended for other charities, including an organization for which it was a fiscal sponsor, disappeared without explanation. No one has been held accountable. Continue reading

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. Continue reading