Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Social distancing? Not for workers at Marriott’s new corporate HQ [March 24]

On April 2, two people working on the construction of Marriott’s new corporate headquarters in downtown Bethesda, MD, tested positive for the coronavirus. Their illness was entirely predictable — and preventable.

Hensel Phillips, the prime contractor for the $600m project, said it would temporarily suspend work, clean up the site and resume the work in a few days.

That’s nuts.

The politically influential construction industry wants special treatment. Last week, industry executives told the Washington Post that their work is essential. Builders, they said, would protect the health of workers. Neither claim holds up to scrutiny.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Companies have failed to advocate for climate action in Congress

Thirty years ago, McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund embarked on what they called “a groundbreaking collaboration to change the way environmental progress” is achieved. They created a template for business-friendly green groups to work with global corporations. EDF helped Walmart develop its landmark sustainability program. WWF helped Coca-Cola protect freshwater. The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical came up with tools to help companies invest in nature.

Such partnerships are fine, but they don’t go nearly far enough, particularly when it comes to climate change. At best, they generate modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At worst, they deflect attention from a bigger problem: Most big US companies have failed do the most important thing they can for the planet, namely, to use their political power to push for smart climate policy. 

A new coalition of 10 environmental groups has set out to change that. They were joined just days ago by a new nonprofit called ClimateVoice, the brainchild of Bill Weihl, the former sustainability czar at Google and Facebook.

“Silence is no longer an option,” Weihl says. “America’s corporate sector has the power to…put us on a path of steep carbon reductions,” and companies need to use their political clout for good.

Victoria Mills, a managing director at Environmental Defense Fund, which is part of the coalition, adds: “We need to get all of corporate America off the couch when it comes to climate policy.” The coalition also includes WWF, the World Resources Institute, BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility), and CDP (the Carbon Disclosure Project).

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

This is a remarkable moment for psychedelics. Elite universities, including Johns Hopkins and Imperial College in London, have opened centers to research the medical benefits of such drugs as psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in certain mushrooms. The nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) is recruiting people suffering from PTSD to participate in FDA-approved clinical trials using MDMA, better known as molly or ecstasy. CBS News’ 60 Minutes last fall reported on life-changing psychedelic journeys.

So far, the psychedelic renaissance has focused on the potential of these dugs to heal mental illness, and rightly so. A growing body of research suggests that they can alleviate suffering caused by a broad array of ailments: depression, addiction and anxiety, among others. Philanthropy is critical to sustain progress because there’s almost no government money for research and scant interest from private industry.

This story, though, is not about how psychedelics can heal the mind. It’s about how they can heal the world. There is sickness all around us. The threat of climate change. Unconscionable poverty amidst great wealth. Extreme political polarization. These are manifestations of deeper ills: People feel disconnected from one another and from nature.

Serious people — not just hippies, but neuroscientists with PhDs, and their philanthropic supporters — say psychedelics can help address these deeper problems. Drug trips, under controlled conditions, break down the barriers between people and bring users closer to nature.

“These medicines can help us wake up to new levels of caring and concern,” says David Bronner, a philanthropist and the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, the family-owned maker of natural soaps. “It’s crucial to wake up to the miraculous world we’re part of and understand how we can serve and make it better for all of us.”

You can read the rest of the story on Medium.

My wife Karen Schneider and I gave away about nine percent of our pretax income in 2019. Like most people, I delayed my charitable giving until the end of the year–a bad practice, because nonprofits have needs all year–so I’m just now writing my annual blogpost about where the money went. The Life You Can Save, a nonprofit inspired by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, has a calculator that recommends the percentage of your income that you should give, as well as an excellent list of top charities.*

My biggest gift went to GiveDirectly, which makes unconditional cash grants to people living in extreme poverty. Give Directly is my favorite charity. In 2018, I traveled to Rwanda to see how the organization operates and talk to recipients of its grants. I could say a lot about GiveDirectly but my biggest takeaway from the trip was this: The money that well-to-do Americans spend on a few restaurant meals, or for a single night in a nice hotel, is enough to make a meaningful difference to the life of a poor person in Africa. If you care about inequality–and it seems that more and more people do–there’s no better charity than GiveDirectly.

Next on the list is GiveWell, a donation platform that identifies and analyzes effective charities in depth. If you want to do the most good you can for each dollar that you spend on charity, GiveWell is essential. Most of the money it raises flows to charity that improve global health, in particular by helping poor people protect themselves against malaria.

Together Karen & I also donated to our synagogue, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation. In this, we are like most Americans; religion was the biggest category of individual giving last year. My religious beliefs and synagogue community are an important part of my life.

I also made a significant donation to Animal Charity Evaluators, which identifies nonprofits that advocate on behalf of farm animals; the unnecessary suffering of farm animals is an underrated problem.

New to the list is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research, or MAPs, which is conducting groundbreaking research into the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD caused by war, sexual assault, violent crime and other traumas. More broadly, MAPS advocates for the careful use of psychedelic drugs and marijuana to heal people and the planet. I wrote about philanthropy and psychedelics last year for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, here, and for Medium, here,  and came away impressed with MAPS and with the enormous potential of psychedelic medicine.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that these donations were made through a donor-advised fund (DAF) at Vanguard Charitable that Karen and I set up at the end of 2017. I’ve been a critic of DAFs because I believe they should be regulated, to prevent people from exploiting the fact that they can get tax deductions by giving to a DAF without ever pushing their money out to where it is needed. [See America’s Biggest Charity is Built on a Lie.] In our case, we estimated our charitable giving for 2018, 2019 and 2020 and deposited that money into our DAF. We plan to distribute all the money to “real” charities by the end of 2020.

Why I am writing about this? Several reasons. (1) I believe in transparency. (2) I’d like to influence you to be more intentional about their giving, and perhaps even to give to some of the groups I’ve studied. (3) I’d like to encourage more conversation about charitable giving, both to promote more giving and so that we can learn from one another.

*Some language here is drawn from my posts about giving in 2017 and 2018 since our giving has not changed much over the years.

Thanks, friends and readers, for following my work in the year that is about to end. Here are my most read stories of 2019.

1. Science created factory farming. Science could end it.

2. Philanthropy, psychedelics and effective altruism

3. The peculiar me-too story of an animal rights activist

4. This animal charity is a hot mess. It gets four stars from Charity Navigator.

5. Woodstock Sanctuary, Jenny Brown and the perils of charisma

These all ran on Medium. Excluded from the list is my 2017 blogpost, Why Amazon Smile doesn’t make me smile, which remains by far my most read story, with a cumulative total of 195k views.

Happy 2020 to all!

These were the books I read this year. My favorites were the Frederick Douglass biography, Catch and Kill and A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. Finding enjoyable fiction remains a challenge. My favorite novel of the past year was The Overstory.

Asymetry by Lisa Halliday. A widely praised first novel, loosely based on the author’s romance with Philip Roth. High brow, perplexing and ultimately, for me, underwhelming.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. A majestic biography of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th (or any) century. Born a slave, Douglass became a towering civil rights and political leader who celebrated emancipation but, by the end of his life, was “sickened once again by the power of white supremacy.”

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy. During four astonishing seasons between 1963 and 1966, Koufax was otherworldly: He pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game, won three Cy Young Awards and twice was named World Series MVP. Then, at age 30, he was done.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. A tangled tale about trees and the people who love them. Hard to describe, and long, but a pleasure to read.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin. Colorful stories about larger-than-life characters who lived during a tumultuous time.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Ostensibly the story of a 1986 fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles public library, but really a tribute to the power of libraries, then and now. Digressive to a fault.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. How the youngest child of a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho found her way to college and beyond. Self-educated is more like it. Fascinating.

Working by Robert Caro. How a great reporter and biographer does what he does. I’d read more books like this by extraordinary people.

Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. An insider’s persuasive critique of establishment philanthropy. But is all great wealth really stolen?

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, this novel of two families moves along crisply even as it explores class, race, art and family. Coming soon to Hulu!

The Border by Don Winslow. The last of a sprawling and violent trilogy about a DEA chief and the jefe of a Mexican cartel boss he’s chased for decades. A page turner, fortunately, because there are 736 pages to turn.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig. The little-known, fascinating and world-changing story of Gregory Pincus, the iconoclastic scientist who invented the birth control pill, and the allies who helped him do it.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, by Dani Shapiro: Beginning writers are told to “write what you know.” Shapiro took that advice to heart. This is her fifth (!) memoir. Still, she’s got a lively tale to tell, and a mystery to solve, set off by the discovery that the man who raised her is not her biological father.

Evvy Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. A young widow, recovering from a bad marriage, rents a room in her Vermont home to a former big league pitcher with great stuff who can no longer get the ball over the plate. Romance ensues. A fun read.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. When Charles Lindbergh – American hero, isolationist, Nazi sympathizer – defeats FDR for the presidency in 1940, everything changes for the Roth family of Newark. Democracy, tolerance and the rule of law are fragile, are they not?

On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Growing Old by Parker Palmer. Essays and advice, from a warm-hearted man.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The New York Times reporters who helped bring down Harvey Weinstein are terrific reporters, but this is disappointing. Nothing new.

Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Anker. A shrewdly observed comic novel about a failing marriage, set among Manhattan’s rich, becomes a more meaningful story about how “having it all” is “just a lie we tell girls to make their marginalization bearable.”

How to be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. “Like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination,” Kendi writes, in a book that intersperses memoir, social history and polemic. A challenging read.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow. There are very bad people in the world (including at NBC News) and they want to stop the author from telling the truth about Harvey Weinstein. Nevertheless, he persisted. A captivating tale.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Center by Timothy Snyder. Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Critics loved this family drama, with its shifting perspectives and time periods, about a psychiatrist, a feminist author and their son. It confused and disappointed me.

The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals by Jenny Brown. An inspiring memoir by a vegan activist, but there’s more to the story.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. How we got to where we are. More fun to read that you would guess.

A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century by Jason DeParle. Three decades of the life of a Filipino family. Deeply-reported, insightful and timely. Immersive journalism at its best.

On to 2020! Up next are Elton John’s autobiography and the Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other

As the season of giving comes to a close, we can be sure of this: The charity that will raise more money than any other will be Fidelity Charitable, an $30bn enterprise that manages the charitable giving of more than 200,000 mostly well-to-do clients.

Last year (2018), Fidelity Charitable collected $9bn in deposits. That was more than the combined haul of the five biggest charities — the United Way, the Mayo Clinic, the Salvation Army, Alsac/St. Jude’s Children Hospital and Harvard — on the list of America’s Favorite Charities compiled annually by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

While legally classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Fidelity Charitable is a charity in name only. It is, instead, a middleman–a rest stop on the way to the ultimate charitable destination–where donors can invest their money for as long as they like before donating to what most of us would recognize as a real charity. It is also a profit center, albeit a modest one, for its parent, Fidelity Investments. Fidelity Charitable has grown rapidly because clients can take an immediate tax deduction when they deposit money, even if they have no intention of giving the money away anytime soon.

This is a problem. For more, please read the rest of this story, headlined America’s biggest “charity” is built on a lie, on Medium.