Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

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.

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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?”

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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

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading