Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

AHYet another prominent animal rights activist is being accused of treating women badly. This time, the spotlight is trained on Alex Hershaft, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, the founder of a pioneering farm-animal protection group and the organizer of the animal rights movement’s oldest and most important conference.

Andrea Jacobson and Cara Frye, who formerly worked for Hershaft, are urging him to cede control of the Animal Rights National Conference, which he has run for more than 35 years. Others–women and men–agree.

“If you want what is best for the movement,” Frye wrote on Hershaft’s Facebook page, “step down from your position of power over the Animal Rights Conference. We need a diverse team of activists co-chairing the conference before it can become a safer, more inclusive meeting space.”

“Should Alex step down as conference chair? Yes, of course,” says pattrice jones, a longtime animal rights activist who has clashed with Hershaft.

She says: “We need a national conference at which every sector of the movement is represented, where attendees actively confer with each other rather than passively listening to movement “stars” pontificate, where everyone has the chance to hear the newest and most innovative ideas while assessing the success (or lack thereof) of ongoing efforts, and where everybody can focus on doing that important work without worrying about being groped or otherwise harassed.”

Hershaft told me that he’s made mistakes but that he is neither sexist nor abusive towards women. His accusers, he said, have an ax to grind. But he also disclosed that he is planning to turn the AR conference over to his longtime associate, Jen Riley, who can lead it, “with my help of course.”

By email, he said: “I dread for the future of our movement, until this hatred and anger calm down.”

The thing is, Hershaft has no one to blame but himself for his current troubles. He set off a firestorm when he posted a comment on Wayne Pacelle’s Facebook page supporting the former chief executive of the Humane Society of the US, who resigned on Feb. 2 amid allegations of sexual harassment:

Women were enraged, and said so. Continue reading

mercy-for-animals-logo-colorThe #metoo problem rocking the animal welfare movement is about more than men who treat women badly and the women who are now speaking out. It’s about toxic cultures, failures of leadership and a lack of accountability.

Last week, it was the Humane Society of the US. This week, it’s Mercy for Animals.

In the last three days, Christina Wilson, who still works at Mercy for Animals, and Jaya Bhumitra, who left in 2016 and now works at Animal Equality, came forward to accuse Nick Cooney, a prominent animal-welfare activist, of harassing and bullying them while he was executive vice president of MFA..

The timeline is important. Wilson’s troubles began in 2016, and Bhumitra’s go back to 2015. Both say they told managers about the problems with Cooney, who left MFA in November, only after donors complained about his behavior.

The women weren’t alone in suffering abuse from Cooney, insiders say. Krista Hiddema, a vice president at MFA, said: “Sadly Christina and Jaya are in good company – there are many other women who have similar experiences with Nick.”

Yesterday [Feb. 8], Nathan Runkle, the founder of MFA, apologized online to all three women, disclosing for the first time that he had asked for Cooney to resign after “a growing number of employees—both male and female—expressed their challenges in working with Nick to me.”

That said, it must be asked: Why was Cooney allowed to get away with his bad behavior for so long? Why did Runkle, the chief executive of MFA until very recently, Matt Rice, who is now the group’s president, Vandhala Bala, its general counsel, and Jake Morton, who oversaw HR, fail to protect women in the organization? To borrow a question made famous by Watergate, what did they know and when did they know it?

Before trying to tackle that question, let’s hear from the women. First, Christina Wilson, whose powerful FB post you can read here:

Nick Cooney’s history of abuse is an open secret, and sadly, a history with which I have firsthand experience.

In the summer of 2016, surrounded by at least a dozen of my coworkers in a large room, Nick ran up to me, gleefully asking who had walked in on him naked earlier that day in our shared accommodations. Finding the accused “voyeur” was quickly turned into a game. He skipped from person to person for a few moments, finally landing on me: “Did you walk in on me? Was it you?” He was drunk, sloppy, and giggling. Mortified, with my face turning noticeably hot, I looked away – he didn’t. “Did you see my penis?” he demanded again and again. His voice was loud, and, while his demeanour seemed giddy, his tone was turning serious. I could feel blood rush to my cheeks as my colleagues and friends turned to watch. Then even louder, he asked: “Do you want to see my penis?” Silence. Finally, he turned and skipped away. Just when I thought the most humiliating moment of my life was over, he called out from the doorway, “If you do, all you have to do is ask!”

She goes on to describe a pattern of bullying.

Throughout the majority of last year, I experienced Nick’s gender-based bullying on a near-daily basis….His actions have dehumanized me, degraded my confidence, devastated my mental health, and made me question my sanity, worth, and competence for the better part of a year.

Jaya Bhumitra’s FB post describes interactions with Cooney that she says were  “fraught with stress and fear, creating an unbearable work climate.” They were not sexual in nature, but, as she notes, sexual harassment is not the only form of abuse that should be prohibited from workplaces. She says about Cooney:

He made me question my worth, ability, and sanity–an experience I have since learned is a pattern among numerous other women who have worked closely with Nick.

–Over time, Nick eroded my confidence by continually finding fault with my work, even when I had followed all his instructions; not listening to me when I spoke; undermining my authority and going over my head regarding decisions that were in my purview; belittling my ideas and contributions; and publicly and purposefully crediting others for my accomplishments.

–Nick behaved abrasively toward me when I refused to implement what I saw as unethical campaign actions, and discouraged me from seeking counsel from the legal or IT departments when I wanted to vet the liability of those actions to protect the organization.

… I was disappointed with how my situation with Nick was handled. I was forthcoming about my discomfort with Nick, and the only concrete attempt at resolution was an hour-long mediation call made at my suggestion, which was ultimately unsuccessful because Nick was unwilling to acknowledge any fault.

Bhumitra writes that told MFA’s leadership team, HR and general counsel  that she was leaving “exclusively because of Nick’s sexism, emotional abuse and bullying.”

By phone yesterday, Bhumitra stressed to me, more than once, that she admires the work of MFA. “I’m friends with many people there, and I want to see them succeed. They are my colleagues in advocacy.” MFA has, in fact, done great undercover work exposing factory farms and built a strong following, particularly among celebrity vegans in Los Angeles, its home base.

But Bhumitra also said that Cooney “left a trail of hurt” because no one stood up to him. “It’s not just the perpetrators of these abuses who are the problem,” she said. “It’s the enablers as well.”

That brings us back to Nathan Runkle and Matt Rice, the guys in charge. Runkle deserves credit for apologizing to the three women, and Rice has put meaningful reforms into place. But it sure looks as if both were slow to confront Cooney, who joined MFA in 2013. Cooney is the founder or co-founder of The Humane League, the Good Food Institute and New Crop Capital. He’s said to be a good fundraiser, and although he’s only in his mid-30s, he’s written three books, including one called How to be Great at Doing Good. Seriously.

 

Nick-Cooney-Feature

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[I emailed Cooney yesterday, but have not heard back. and his response is below. In a previous email, he told me he had a “perfectly clean HR record” and high ratings from most of  people who worked for him, while admitting that his directness rubbed some the wrong way. “I need to do a better job of demonstrating caring in my communications,” he said.]

downloadIn a comment posted on the three women’s FB pages, Runkle wrote:

I’m sorry for the pain you experienced working with Nick. I failed you, and for that I offer a sincere apology.

While none of the complaints brought to my attention involved sexual misconduct, over time it became clear to me that Nick’s continued employment at MFA was untenable and contributed to an erosion of morale, trust and a feeling of safety by some within the organization.

About his own failure to act more swiftly, he wrote:

In reflecting upon why I didn’t act sooner I realize that I too was subjected to gas lighting, a lack of information, manipulation, isolation and other tactics that made it difficult for me to see the situation with clarity. Part of my very nature is to trust others and see the best in them. As I’ve reflected, I understand that this spirit was taken advantage of.

Carol Adams, a prominent feminist and animal rights activist, shared with me her reaction to Runkle’s comments.

It’s a welcome beginning. I am sure it was carefully crafted given the situation. It would have been helpful if, given what is being said, it wasn’t a forced resignation, but a firing, so that a message would have been sent and silence would not have been allowed to obfuscate what happened.

As it happens, Adam’s blog, which has become essential reading for anyone interested in sexism in the animal protection movement, had a post yesterday headlined, We need better apologies, guys. Among the advice proffered:

Tell us what you’re sorry for, specifically. Tell us what you did, guys! You can’t own up if nobody knows what you’re owning up to. Do you even know? If you don’t, then make like a Monopoly thimble and Go Back To Start.

Tell us who you’re apologizing to. Who did you hurt? Did you apologize directly to them? If not, you should have. Do it now. I’m not forgiving you until she does, or they do.

Don’t waste our time to tell us, basically, that you’re a human being. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life and I’m trying to do better as I learn more” is not an apology. That’s a pretty common human behavior. Did you also used to be physically smaller when you were an infant?

Yesterday, I emailed Matt Rice with questions. He replied by saying, among other things, that he “like others, had professional challenges working with Nick” and that he “was not in a position of authority to fire or reprimand Nick during his time at the organization.” He described MFA’s commitment to do better, saying the organization has:

  • Implemented significant staffing changes and organizational restructuring to place more women in management, leadership and board positions. This is an ongoing process.
  • Started working with a leading outside consulting firm to improve our organizational health, communication and culture.
  • Adopted a stronger-than-ever anti-harassment and discrimination policy.
  • Expanded our people operations (HR) department to ensure that all staff receive support and opportunities for dialogue and growth. We also are implementing HR staffing changes and hiring a new head of HR, as well as supporting roles.
  • Resolved to hold training for all staff on additional steps and resources for preventing harassment and bullying and promoting actions that create an inclusive, safe working environment.
  • Will regularly be examining our workplace culture through anonymous, quarterly all-staff surveys.

Right about now you may be wondering, where was the board of MFA during all this? Good question! The board used to consist of Runkle, Rice and Derek Coons, who with Runkle co-founded Mercy for Animals. No independent directors. No women or people of color. Since then, Vandhana Bala, MFA’s general counsel, has replaced Rice. Still no outsiders. Rice tells me that MFA is recruiting new board members, adding: “Diversity on the board is of utmost importance to us.” To which one must ask, since when?

You may also wonder whether anyone other than Cooney has paid a price for the suffering of Christina Wilson and Jaya Bhumitra and others. Good question, again! Not Nathan Runkle, who’s chairing the board. Not Matt Rice, Vandhana Bala or Jake Morton. Any one of whom could have stood up sooner to say, enough is enough–but didn’t.

Update: Matt Rice and Nick Cooney respond

Matt Rice, president of MFA, felt that I was unfair to him, and to Vandhana Bala and Jake Morton in this post. He points, in particular, to the last sentence, and says that, in fact, he and his colleagues did stand up:

Assuming you read Nathan’s apology and saw that he admitted that Vandhana, Jake and I had been among the most vocal in getting rid of Nick because of complaints about his behavior, why did you craft this narrative that we did nothing? Nathan admitted that Vandhana, me and Jake all stood up and were very vocal on this issue.

I should not have implied that Matt, Vandhana and Jake did nothing. I should have been more specific, and simply said that their protests were ineffective.

Nick Cooney also emailed to say:

I had disagreements about what made for good communication and culture with a few other senior leaders, primarily the people Nathan named – Matt, Jake and Vandhana. They didn’t like some of my ideas on strategy and on candor in communication, and i didn’t like some of the ways that they were communicating with others and some of the things I saw certain senior leaders getting away with. That’s why me leaving MFA seemed like the best thing to do.

I posted the below in reply to Christina’s post on Facebook, but it seems she deleted it.

Christina, I am absolutely shocked and saddened to read this. I feel the need to reply at least in brief.

First, let me say that if you feel what you are saying here, I am very sorry that I contributed to it. I have never had any sense that anything I did as a manager made you feel negative in any way. I never heard any negative feedback or concerns from you along these lines, nor from anyone else in relation to you, until reading this post today.

In regards to the group conversation you are talking about, where you say I asked a bunch of people including you if they had walked in on me naked, let me please add context and correction. This exchange happened around midnight one night with a whole bunch of people hanging out, as you stated. What you don’t mention is the context, and maybe you weren’t aware of this context. Shortly before, Jenny*  had made up a rumor that someone had walked in on me when I was naked. It was a joke – no one had – but she told this to a bunch of people in the presence of me and several others who were hanging out as a group. One of the people in our group was Karen*, who either believed it was true, or decided to pretend she believed it was true (I’m not sure which). Karen began questioning a lot of people – basically everyone we crossed paths with for the next hour – to ask if they were the one who had walked in on me and saw my penis. These were her words, and she was the one going around asking people that question, including the group of a dozen or so people you were a part of. It is true that at times I played along with Jenny and Karen’s joke, asking things like “was it you?” “were you the one?” to the people in the big group that Karen was questioning, which included you. But that’s the only sort of thing that I said. I was playing along with their joke to be silly. In hindsight, clearly it was stupid of me to do so, and I’m terribly, terribly sorry if my doing so made you or anyone else in the big group that was there feel uncomfortable. I had indeed been drinking (as had the others in our group), and I hope I would not have played along with it if I had not been. [By the way, i am not blaming or criticizing Jenny or Karen. They were just being silly and doing a running joke. Me taking part in it was my own choice.]

In regards to our work interaction, it’s harder for me to respond because two people could see the same interaction dramatically differently, and I do see ours in a dramatically different fashion than you represent in your post. (Particularly because we rarely interacted – we spoke maybe once a month on average, or twice a month tops, since there were two layers of managers between us.) I know that I have a very direct way of communicating; I grew up with family who communicates that way, I like when people communicate with me that way, and to me it seems the most efficient way to share and debate ideas—and so that’s how I’d gotten used to communicating with others. I think many people appreciate that. When I did an anonymous survey of everyone I oversaw, on the day that I left MFA, the average score I got for the key question of “overall, how was your experience working with me?” was an 8.6 on a scale of 1 to 10. For women the average answer to that question was an 8.5 .  Several people said that my directness was one of the things they liked. (I shared links to all of those survey results, including the negative feedback, in my email to Marc for his blog post.) Still, I know that for some people, that style of communication comes across very badly and does not sit well. I’m sorry that it came across that way for you and had a negative impact on you.

I do strongly disagree with some of your characterizations and assumptions about my motivations and intentions. But rather than get into that, let me just say that I greatly appreciate all the good work that you have done, and I truly wish I had known you felt any of these things you are saying here now. The last thing I want is to cause you or anyone else to feel the way you describe. If there are any specific suggestions that you or anyone reading this has for how I can be better at communicating, I welcome them and will try to improve. If there is something else you would like me to do, please let me know.

More to come, alas, but not until after the weekend, I hope.
* I have changed the names in Nick’s response at the request of the women, who say that they “apologized deeply to Christina and took responsibility for not shutting down a joke that got out of hand.”

1005-alternate-2-440x400“Most donors don’t think their way into giving to charity.”

So writes Al Cantor, a smart guy and a veteran of the nonprofit world.

“I give from my heart – and my observation is that most other donors do the same thing,” he goes on to say. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

Sorry, Al, but no. Something is wrong. Incentives matter. So long as people give from the heart and not the head, charities will have good reason to invest in emotional appeals — photos of smiling children or adorable puppies — and they will feel less pressure to work harder to make a meaningful, measurable and demonstrable difference in people’s lives.

To be sure, the reality is that most people today give with their hearts. But we should no more accept that than we should accept the reality of global poverty, preventable diseases, crappy schools or climate change. Indeed, one way to alleviate those problems is to encourage people give more thoughtfully.

But how?

Donor-advised funds can help.

Donor-advised funds, a.k.a. DAFs, are the fastest growing part of the charitable sector. Six of the top 10 fundraising organizations in the US in 2016 were managers of donor-advised funds, led by the charitable arms of Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, Schwab and Vanguard, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Sometimes described as rest stops for charitable dollars, DAFs have major drawbacks because they enable people — typically the very wealthy — to avoid taxes, without requiring them to distribute their money for charitable purposes. (See The Undermining of American Charity, by Lewis B. Cullman and Ray Madoff.) Yet donor-advised funds have one decided advantage over conventional giving: They separate the decision of whether to give to charity from the decision of where to give. Continue reading

maxresdefaultScandal? Tragedy? Farce?

It’s been a roller-coaster week for the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), for the women who work there and for the animals they care about. But the controversy over sexual harassment that rocked the organization came to a climax on Friday afternoon when Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive of HSUS since 2004, resigned his position, effective immediately.

Pacelle stepped down less than 24 hours after HSUS’s 31-member board called off an investigation into his workplace conduct and voted to keep him on the job, despite evidence that he treated women badly and then lied about his actions. The board vote came even as major donors were asking the board to hold Pacelle accountable, not only for his actions but for a workplace culture that allowed the behavior of Paul Shapiro, a top HSUS executive whose conduct was exposed earlier in the week in an investigative story in Politico.

Now the board needs to be held accountable for its action, which has done untold damage to the Humane Society brand and the animal-welfare cause.

In an email to HSUS staff on Friday, Pacelle wrote:

We need to come together.  Our mission depends on unity. For that reason, I am recommending that the board launch a search for a successor.  I am resigning, effective immediately, to allow that process to move forward expeditiously and to put aside any distractions, in the best interests of all parties.

It’s very fitting that Kitty Block, a fabulous and highly qualified advocate, will now server as acting president and CEO. She’s been a cherished colleague to many of us here for nearly a quarter century.

A swift and forceful reaction to the board vote that spurred Pacelle’s departure:

–Seven HSUS board members quit in protest.

–Major donors said they would withdraw or reconsider their support.

–Two of Pacelle’s accusers went public with their charges. Others surfaced.

–HSUS’s top lobbyist in California, Jennifer Fearing, ended her contract with the group.

–A nonprofit that rates charities amended its evaluation of HSUS.

Dozens of HSUS staff members, meanwhile, organized into a by-invitation-only Facebook group to decide how to effectively voice their unhappiness. Continue reading

MetooDays after the Harvey Weinstein horror story broke, the anger among women in the animal welfare movement, which had simmered for years, boiled over during a panel on gender and race at the Animal Law Conference in Portland, Oregon.

“Too often we excuse the wrongdoing of our colleagues who treat their employees with disrespect and downright cruelty,” said Joyce Tischler, the founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

“There are some cruel and vicious people in (our) organizations, right now,” said lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project.

“There is no legitimate excuse for tolerating predatory male behavior,” declared Jennifer Fearing, who led policy and advocacy efforts in California for the Humane Society of the U.S. before starting her own advocacy and lobbying firm.

The movement is vulnerable to lawsuits, or a PR crisis, Fearing warned.

Yep. That PR crisis is here.

Much of what has surfaced in the last week — a Washington Post story detailing damaging allegations against Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, of the US (HSUS),  a Politico investigation of charges against Paul Shapiro, a former Humane Society executive, and my own reporting on this blog and in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which broke the news that an outside law firm was investigating Pacelle — can be traced back to that Saturday afternoon panel discussion in Portland. (You can watch it on YouTube.)

An influential donor

In the audience was Rachel Perman, an animal-welfare activist and the director of charitable giving at Tofurky, the vegetarian food company, and a pivotal figure in what has unfolded in the last few months. During her talk, lauren Ornelas urged donors to look at the staffs, boards and gender bias policies of animal-welfare groups. Perman did exactly that, and she reached out to other donors, notably an Oregon woman named Nicole Brodeur. Soon after, Tofurky imposed new demands on the groups it supports, while Brodeur and her husband, Alex Payne, one of the first engineers hired at Twitter, wrote on her Facebook page that they had come to believe that several nonprofits they support had, as they put it, “been harboring serial harassers, either on staff or as board members.”

“If the causes we support are to be successful,” Brodeur and Payne wrote, “it is essential that the movement leaders we invest in do not replicate the sort of predatory and exploitative injustices that we are struggling against together.

The movement took notice. Continue reading

171101-ryan-metoo-tease_ann11kSexual harassment and gender bias in the animal welfare movement have been talked about for years, mostly but not entirely in private. Now the problems are bursting into public view, and not a moment too soon.

Last night, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story about the Humane Society of the U.S. It reports that Humane Society’s board of directors has hired a Washington, DC, law firm to investigate an allegation of workplace misconduct against its longtime chief executive, Wayne Pacelle. Among the topics, insiders say, is an alleged sexual relationship between Pacelle and a female employee.

The investigation at HSUS, which is the nation’s most important animal welfare group, comes as women in the animal protection movement are publicly calling out some of the movement’s most prominent leaders, accusing of them of offenses that range in gravity from using language that creates a frat-like “bro” culture to sexual assault.

Several leaders will be named in this blogpost because people in the movement have heard the names, but please do keep in mind that an accusation is not the same as evidence of wrongdoing. In this #metoo moment, it is, sadly, all too easy to rush to judgment. Having said that, evidence indicates that false allegations of sexual assault are invariably and consistently low.

HSUS has said little about the investigation into Wayne Pacelle. The group’s board chairman, Eric Bernthal, said via email: “We believe it is important to deal in substance and not rumors, and our process is designed to ensure confidentiality and fair consideration of these issues.”

wayne-pacelle

Wayne Pacelle

Pacelle continues to work at HSUS during the investigation, which is being done by Morgan Lewis, a DC firm with a substantial labor and employment practice. This is serious stuff. Most organizations frown upon even consensual relationships between superiors, especially the CEO, and subordinates. (Google “Brian Dunn” and “Harry Stonecipher” if you doubt.) Pacelle has worked for HSUS since 1994, and he has been its president and CEO since 2004.

This isn’t, however, a problem confined to HSUS. Having spoken or emailed in the last week with more than a dozen people in the movement, it’s become clear to me that gender bias and sexual harassment are significant problems for the animal protection movement, and they have been for a long time.

An overdue reckoning

Lisa Kemmerer, a professor of philosophy and religion at Montana State University who has written a series of academic papers about sexual harassment in social justice organizations, told me: “I’ve been in this movement for 30 years. This (reckoning) should have happened long ago.” Continue reading

img_0959-739x493The numbers are mind-boggling. Between 50 and 170 billion farmed fish, and as many as two trillion wild fish are killed each year to feed people and animals, it’s been estimated. More fish are killed for food each year than all other animals combined. Those fish feel pain when they are caught and processed, many scientists say.

Yet the animal-welfare movement has until recently paid scant attention to fish. You hear it frequently: “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish.” (Uh, no.) Peter Singer, the philosopher and animal-rights advocate, has rightly described fish as “the forgotten victims on our plate.”

That may be about to change, as I reported last week in a story for Civil Eats, a website that encourages critical thinking about food, that is headlined Fish Are Getting Their Animal Rights Moment.

Yes, fish, and this attention to the welfare of fish is being driven in large part by philanthropy–actually, by a single foundation–as the story explains:

The Open Philanthropy Project, a leading funder of the animal welfare movement, last year made three grants totaling $1.2 million to support European groups that advocate on behalf of fish, and awarded $1.5 million in funding to strengthen standards that address the well-being of fish. The hope is that reforms achieved in Europe, where consumers and governments are more attuned to animal welfare issues, will make their way to the U.S.

Will this effort succeed? It’s much too soon to say, but I’d have to guess that it’s a long shot. Many obstacles face those advocating for the better treatment of farmed fish, not the least of which is the difficulty that most people have in empathizing with slippery, scaly creatures that live underwater and don’t communicate, at least not in ways that we humans can hear.

Dylancalf 2It’s no accident that advocacy on behalf of farm animals began with veal calves, who can be adorable. It has since then worked its way through cows, pigs and chickens, which are less and less like us. The trouble is, if my friends who love dogs (and you know who you are) can happily chow down on steaks and pork chops, what hope is there for getting people to care about the suffering of a fish that would up as in tuna salad sandwich or as a slice of smoked salmon on a bagel?

Yet this is precisely the kind of problem that foundations are uniquely suited to take on. At the very least,  the willingness of the Open Philanthropy Project to take on the quixotic cause of fish welfare reflects an admirable willingness of those who work their to chart its own path. OpenPhil, as you may know, is a forced to be reckoned with: It guides the charitable giving of Cari Tuna and her husband, Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, who have pledged to give away most of their fortune, which is estimated to be about $14bn.

Regular readers of Nonprofit Chronicles are familiar with my belief — really, it’s a lament — that private foundations are the least accountable institutions in the US. Big foundations have enormous power, yet they are under no obligation to explain or justify what they do. Yes, they have to fulfill IRS reporting requirements, listing their grants, expenses, and trustees, and they are required to spend about five percent of their assets on charitable activities, very broadly defined, but that’s about it. They are profoundly undemocratic institutions.

As Stanford scholar Rob Reich asked few years ago in an essay in the Boston Review:

With little or no formal accountability, practically no transparency obligations, a legal framework designed to honor donor intent in perpetuity, and generous tax breaks, what gives foundations their legitimacy in a democratic society?

Reich offers a response that is relevant to this fish story. He writes:

Foundations can operate on a longer time horizon than can businesses in the marketplace and elected officials in public institutions, taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation that we should not routinely expect to see in the commercial or state sector.

Put another way, the biggest liability of foundations — their lack of accountability, which can lead to insular thinking and ineffective grantmaking — can be turned into a valuable asset if foundations seize opportunities to embrace risk, take on unpopular causes or ideas or tackle problems that will take years or decades to solve. Today it might be fish welfare. Fifteen years ago, it was the Civil Marriage Initiative, which with Freedom to Marry, helped drive the movement for marriage equality, which was seen as a long shot at the time. A half century earlier, four mid-sized foundations provided critical support for the civil rights movement, as this report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argues.

Will the welfare of fish–and, broadly, the suffering of many millions of farm animals–turn out to be a cause that moves from the fringes of society to the mainstream? Maybe, but not for a while. But, as I learned while reporting my story, there’s a growing body of evidence that fish can suffer. So what’s not to like about an effort to alleviate their suffering?

You can read the rest of my story here.