Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

Fact: Nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of all the electric power in the US, more than hydropower (7.5%), wind (6.3%) and solar (1.3%) combined, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Put another way, they account more than half of the low-carbon electricity in the US.

Fact: The IPCC, the International Energy Agency, former energy secretary Steven Chu, climate scientist James Hansen, futurist Stewart Brand, economist Jeffrey Sachs and many other experts say that nuclear power is a vital climate change solution.

Fact: Of 2,509 grants distributed by 19 big US foundations between 2011 and 2015, not a single grant supported work on promoting or reducing the cost of nuclear energy. Not one!

Something’s wrong with this picture, no?

The first two facts are known, or should be, to anyone paying attention to climate change. The third is troubling. It comes from an analysis by Matthew Nisbet, a Northeastern University professor who studies the role of communication, journalism, and advocacy in policy debates. His report, titled Strategic philanthropy in the post-Cap-and-Trade years: Reviewing U.S. climate and energy foundation funding, was released today.

The report illustrates what Nisbet calls a “very strong, long-standing technology bias towards renewables and efficiency” among climate funders. Between 2011 and 2015, nearly a quarter of all funding from the biggest foundations was “dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions with comparatively little funding devoted to other low-carbon energy technologies,” he writes. This reflects a bias not just against nuclear power but also against carbon-capture and storage technology that might–might–enable countries to burn cleaner coal.

This isn’t, however, a blogpost about nuclear power or carbon capture technology. It’s about climate philanthropy. Specifically, it’s about the way in which the groupthink of big climate funders has helped to give us a US climate movement that is neither driven by evidence nor politically powerful.

It’s also a classic example of how the lack of accountability of foundations can lead to insular thinking and ineffective grant-making.

I’ve been paying attention to the climate movement since the mid-2000s, when I covered business and sustainability for FORTUNE. Progress has been lamentably slow. Last year, I wrote a long, reported essay on climate philanthropy that The Chronicle of Philanthropy published in February under the headline, Opinion: Foundations Are Losing the Fight Against Climate Change. The essay noted that the US climate policy is today moving in the wrong direction, even as global GHG emissions continue to rise, despite the so-called pledges made in the Paris climate accord. “If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed,” I wrote.

Learning from failure?

And yet. No foundation, to the best of my knowledge, has published an evaluation of its own climate grant-making, or made public a critique of any of the environmental groups or strategies that it funded. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, funders.) The only exceptions I’m aware of are a pair of reports that were commissioned, commendably, by the Rockefeller Family Fund and an evaluation of the ClimateWorks Foundation that surfaced only after WikiLeaks published emails from the hacked account of John Podesta, who is on the foundation’s board.

Without public accountability and open debate, how can foundations and environmental nonprofits learn from their mistakes?

You’d think that we were winning the fight against climate change. Continue reading

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Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna

The Open Philanthropy Project funds an array of causes that would seem, at first glance, to have little or nothing in common.

OpenPhil, as it’s known, gave away about $240m last year, making major grants to nonprofits that seek to alleviate global poverty, reform the US criminal justice system, perform basic scientific research, improve the welfare of farm animals and reduce the dangers posed by existential threats to humanity.

Smaller grants went to organizations that want to shift the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to promote employment, provide guidelines for solar geoengineering research, study the history of philanthropy and improve the quality of human decision-making.

Does that make any sense?

In a word, yes.

If nothing else, OpenPhil is relentlessly logical in its approach to philanthropy. Shaped by a philosophy known as effective altruism, the organization simply aims to do as much as good as possible with its giving. With that in mind, it seeks out causes that meet three key criteria: They are important, neglected and tractable.

I took a close look at OpenPhil in a story headlined Giving in the Light of Reason that was published yesterday by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Here’s how it begins:

There’s an old saw in philanthropy: If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation. Each is distinctive, which makes sense: Extremely wealthy people do not get to be that way by following the crowd, so they want their foundations to stand out as well.

Still, of the 86,000 or so grantmaking foundations in the United States, few stand quite so far outside of the mainstream as the Open Philanthropy Project, which guides the charitable giving of Dustin Moskovitz, the cofounder of Facebook, and his wife, Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Open Phil, as it’s known, has a vast fortune to give away. Moskovitz’s net worth was estimated to be about $14.3 billion at the end of 2017, and Moskovitz and Tuna say they intend to disburse nearly all of it before they die. In terms of assets, that puts them ahead of the Ford Foundation and behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in a ranking of America’s philanthropic giants.

Their giving is shaping up to be a grand experiment in rationalism—the idea that it’s possible to think through nearly all of the messy questions at the heart of philanthropy. Should grants go to education, science, or the arts? To a nearby community or to poor people overseas? To cure disease or influence public policy? As Open Phil grapples with such questions, it is guided by the principles of effective altruism, a philosophy and a movement that seeks to use reason and evidence to determine the best ways to do good. “They are unabashed technocratic engineers of good outcomes,” says one insider.

The story, which runs for more than 6,000 words, explains the genesis of OpenPhil and its approach to grantmaking. I’m generally an admirer of its work, which, in my view, deserves more attention from others in philanthropy. People at OpenPhil bring more rigor and transparency to their work than most other big foundations do. They are also, to their credit, unafraid of risk, willing to embrace causes that are out of the mainstream (like the well-being of chickens) and long-term thinkers, as the story explains.

I do have a couple of reservations about OpenPhil. First, the operation is run by a small group of people, fewer than two dozen, who are charged with giving away very large sums of money. Most are young, white and educated at elite schools. They run some risk of getting caught in groupthink, and would do well to find ways to open themselves up to critical, dissenting ideas.

Second–and I’m not as sure about this–is my concern about a coming shift in their grantmaking away from people (or animals) who suffer today and towards efforts to prevent so-called existential risks to future generations. Part of me wants to applaud this idea. After all, neither governments nor companies nor other philanthropists tend to think very long term, as a rule, and we are at a peculiar moment in human history where, for the first time, a number of technologies have become so powerful that they could wipe out the human race. In response, OpenPhil is making grants designed to reduce the catastrophic risks posed by general artificial intelligence and pandemics. If you haven’t paid attention, here’s a long but readable blogpost from Wait But Why explaining the dangers of AI.

In a blogpost on cause prioritization published in January, Holden Karnofsky, the brainy executive director of OpenPhil, wrote: “It is reasonably likely that we will recommend allocating >50% of all available capital to giving directly aimed at improving the odds of favorable long-term outcomes for civilization.” This reflects the worldview, popular among effective altruists, that ascribes very high value to the long-term future. Some effective altruists reason that improving the prospects for preserving the human race by even a fraction of a percent could have enormous impact because trillions of future lives are at stake.

That said, I’m just back from a reporting trip to Rwanda where I took a close look at rural poverty for the first time. Seeing a mother living with a 15-day old baby in a hut without running water or electricity is a sobering experience. To its credit, again, OpenPhil has in its relatively short life given more money than any other donor to groups recommended by GiveWell that try to alleviate the suffering of the global poor. (Why other foundations have not done so is a mystery.) But as a greater share of OpenPhil’s grant-making goes towards preventing long-term catastrophic risks, a smaller share will be left to reduce the suffering of poor people today.

Visiting Rwanda reinforced my belief that the vast majority of our charitable giving should flow to the global south, where the needs are greatest and charitable dollars can go a long way towards meeting those needs. As Charlie Bresler, the founder and executive director of The Life You Can Save, told me the other day: “We focus on extreme poverty because it’s tractable. It’s something we can do something about.” It’s harder to see what, if anything, can be done to prevent superintelligent general AI from wiping out humanity.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that OpenPhil is doing important work. If more foundations approached their giving with as much seriousness and rigor, we’d all be better off.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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Some people who start out poor and then make a lot of money forget their roots. Not Mario Morino. In a speech to the august City Club of Cleveland in 2012, Morino talked about growing up in one of the city’s working class neighborhoods.

He said:

My dad sold vacuum sweepers door to door and drove a cab. My mom cleaned offices. I’m sure they are looking down from the heavens today, not quite believing what they see. In fact, I can see my mom up there waving the wooden spoon she used for making sauce for Sunday pasta, whispering, “Do good, Maduch. Please don’t screw up in front of all these important people!”

Looking back on it, there’s no question I grew up poor. I just didn’t know it.

My mom was the rock. In addition to cleaning offices, she cleaned other people’s homes and ironed shirts to keep the family afloat. She made sure my brother, sister, and I—and oftentimes our friends and cousins—were well fed, clothed, and loved.

Morino went on to describe the community institutions–the churches, schools, local Y and public library–where he was supported by committed teachers and coaches.

Then he said:

When I drive through my old neighborhood today, it’s a completely different story…So many elements of the connected and supportive community I knew were broken by lost manufacturing jobs and have given way to vacant buildings and empty lots.

A kid today growing up on my old street—a kid born with intelligence and drive and a caring parent—doesn’t have nearly the same opportunities I had.

For more than two decades, Morino has been working in one way or another to create better opportunities for those kids who have the misfortune to grow up without the family or community support that enabled him to do so well. Most recently, he has built a network of nonprofit leaders known as the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community that aims to improve the performance of nonprofits.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has my story about Morino and the Leap Ambassadors in its May issue. Here’s how it begins:

Mario Morino would soon turn 70. For a blue-collar kid from Cleveland, he had done very well for himself. He had made a fortune in the software industry and given a lot of it away — about $40 million, he estimates. He had helped pioneer venture philanthropy, an approach to charitable giving modeled on venture capital. He had written a book called Leap of Reason, urging nonprofits “to create more meaningful, measurable good.”

Morino was unsatisfied. He took time off after publishing his book, and he was restless.

“I felt guilty,” he recalls. “I’d been out of the action for two years.” He could have joined another board or two, but he wanted more. So he set out to build a movement to improve the performance of America’s charities.

“There are too many nonprofits,” Morino says, “that are just not doing enough to ensure they’re making a positive difference.”

You can get access to the story here to find out just how Morino and his colleagues are trying to help nonprofits perform better. They are doing important work, in my view. I should add that while my story in the Chronicle focuses on Morino, what originally drew me to the story was seeing the caliber of people who have chosen to be part of the Leap community. It has attracted some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders in America, and it is very much a collaborative effort. But it would have never happened without Morino.

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A guest room at the Heaven Boutique Hotel

Josh Ruxin had big plans when he moved to Rwanda in 2005. He was running an NGO that built and improved health clinics, and he launched a Millenium Village project, with support from Stephen Lewis, the Canadian politician and philanthropist. An Ivy-educated PhD, Ruxin had worked almost all his life in nonprofits and academia.

Today, Ruxin and his wife, Alissa, are all business. They own and operate Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. He’s still involved in health care, but as co-founder of an East African chain of pharmacies called Goodlife. Meantime, he’s raising money for a startup retail chain called SupaPharm that aims to deliver basic health services to the poor.

“I didn’t see any of this coming,” Ruxin told me, when we met last week at Heaven. “I was a development nerd.”

Heaven is, well, aptly named. It’s an oasis of calm and beauty in the bustling, albeit orderly, city of Kigali. It’s become a cliche to say that Kigali is the cleanest, safest city in Africa, but like most cliches, this one is true.

Heaven was my home away from home during a recent 10-day reporting trip to Rwanda. It’s perched on a hill, just down the street from the presidential home of Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame. The views of the city below are lovely, the rooms are charming, the restaurant is first-class and the people who work there are exceptionally friendly and helpful.

During my trip, which was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, I reported on a USAID-funded project to provide chickens to Rwandan farmers, on the cookstove company Inyenyeri, on a social enterprise called EarthEnable and on the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for vulnerable children. The theme of my stories, which will be rolled out on this blog and elsewhere, is: Alleviating poverty in Rwanda: What works? Continue reading

Too many nonprofit boards are weak. The board of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation was reputed to be one of them. That changed, dramatically, today when the board put Emmett Carson, the foundation’s CEO, on paid leave while it conducts what certainly appears to be a serious investigation into the workplace culture of the foundation, and Carson’s role in tolerating harassment and abuse.

Immodestly, it’s safe to say that this would not have happened without my reporting on the weird and outrageous behavior of Mari Ann Loijens, the foundations’ chief fundraiser, which went on for more than a decade. The Chronicle of Philanthropy published the story, headlined A Star Performer Created A ‘Toxic’ Culture at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Insiders Say, last week. (It’s now outside the paywall.) Megan O’Neil, the Chronicle’s News Editor, contributed crucial reporting and has kept on top of developments since then.

This is the latest. It’s an example of a board living up to its responsibilities:

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Days after a workplace scandal with #metoo overtones led to the departure of Mari Ellen Loijens, the chief fundraiser at the fast-growing Silicon Valley Community Foundation, questions are swirling about Emmett Carson, the founding CEO of the SVCF.

Carson has been trying hard to distance himself from the noxious behavior of Loijens, which was exposed last week in a long, investigative story in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It isn’t going well.

The background: Loijens has been accused by more than 20 former staff members of bullying and belittling people, making tawdry and sexually inappropriate comments at work and, in one instance, back in 2008, telling a woman who worked for her that she wanted to kiss her. The unprofessional behavior stretched over more than a decade, those former employees of the SVCF told me and Megan O’Neil, news editor at The Chronicle. The foundation hired a law firm to investigate and, less than 24 hours after our story was published, said that Loijens had resigned. With $13.5bn in assets under management, the community foundation is a philanthropic powerhouse–bigger than Ford or Rockefeller.

Before and after our story was published by the Chronicle, Carson made a series of statements indicating that he was unaware of the depth and extent of Loijens’ conduct.

Some former employees say that’s not true. Others say he did not want to know. Still others say that it was his obligation to find out why so many people were unhappy with Loijens and left the foundation.

Let’s compare some of Carson’s statements with what others say.

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Last night, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a long story about the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that I wrote with help from Megan O’Neil, the news editor at the Chronicle.

The headline:

A Star Performer Created a ‘Toxic Culture’ at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Say Insiders

An investigation is looking into reports of bullying, sexual comments, and an oppressive office culture….

This afternoon, Loijens resigned, the foundation has confirmed. That was fast. It is not and should not be the end of this sad story.

The Chronicle story is based on interviews with 19 former employees of the community foundation, which, with $13.5bn assets under management, is bigger than the Ford Foundation. Those ex-staffers “accuse Mari Ellen Loijens, the foundation’s top fundraiser, of engaging in emotionally abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior, and they use words like ‘toxic’ and ‘terrible’ to describe the workplace over which she presides,” the story says.

This blogpost is about the story behind this story. It explains the challenges of reporting on a big foundation like the SVCF, and points to problems in the way Emmett Carson, the foundation’s CEO, has responded to the allegations.

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