Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

“Young Mostly White Feral Cat” by Chriss Pagani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sometimes I chase stories. Other times, stories chase me.

In the case of a Bethesda, MD-based animal welfare charity called Alley Cat Allies, it’s definitely the latter.

I came across Alley Cat Allies in 2018 when I reported on its problems for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. A lawyer for the charity responded with an idiotic letter asking The Chronicle to remove the story, which, of course, The Chronicle did not do. I followed up with a long blogpost, then a Medium story and today, yet another. Every time I think I am done with these folks, a staff member or former staff member reaches out to me with new information.

Why bother to keep after Alley Cat Allies? Mostly because, from the start, this has been about a bigger issue–the failure of Charity Navigator and Candid to warn donors away from this deeply dysfunctional organization. To the contrary, despite public information pointing to problems with Alley Cat Allies that dates back 2004, Charity Navigator and Candid have rewarded the nonprofit with their highest ratings.

Here’s a link to the latest catalog of misdeeds at Alley Cat Allies.

At the very least, this should be a message to anyone who relies on Charity Navigator or Candid to vet charities: Don’t.

Some $2-billion was invested in the above-ground psychedelics “industry” last year. That’s stunning when you stop and think about it.

Most psychedelic drugs — LSD, psilocybin, MDMA — remain not merely illegal but Schedule 1 substances, according to the DEA. That means that they have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” the government says.

No psychedelics company is profitable, as best as I can tell. Most have no revenues. Their business models are highly speculative–no one knows whether insurance companies will pay for treatments, and efforts to patent drugs like psilocybin that have been used by indigenous people for decades or centuries have met stiff resistance.

Still, the dollars are flowing in. That’s because investors and entrepreneurs alike believe that these drugs have enormous potential to alleviate suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. They’re embracing the risks, in large part because FDA-sanctioned clinical trials of these medicines have produced exciting results.

In my latest story for Medium, I talk with the founders of a venture capital firm called Palo Santo that has raised about $42 million and invested in 28 companies. Like many in the sector, they grew excited about working with psychedelics after experiencing the power of the drugs themselves. You can read my story here.

Happy new year, readers! A little late, but it’s still January.

I’d intended to post links to all my writings here in a timely fashion, but as John Lennon sang, ​​life is what happens to you when you are busing making other plans. So here goes.

LSD Chemist Leonard Pickard, Free at Last was my first story of 2022. I heard the 76-year-old Pickard speak at Horizons, a conference about psychedelic drugs, and was moved by his story. A brilliant, Ivy League-educated victim of the drug wars, Pickard spent 20 years in federal prison after being convicted of making large quantities of LSD. 

I then turned my attention back to e-cigarettes. I can’t let go of this important story because so much coverage of vaping (to the extent that there is any coverage at all) is lazy or ill-informed. Worse, the relentless campaigns against teen vaping from groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative perversely make it harder for adult smokers to switch from lethal combustible cigarettes to vapes, which are far less dangerous.

The CDC’s EVALI Screwup looks at the misnaming of a lung disease that was caused, not by legal e-cigarettes, but by illicit THC products. The CDC erred in calling the disease EVALI, which stands for “E-cigarette or Vaping use-Associated Lung Injury,” and it has refused to correct the error. This is awful, again, because it will discourage smokers from quitting and turning to e-cigs for the nicotine hits they want or need.

Then, back on the philanthropy beat, I took another look at Bloomberg Philanthropies’ critical role in financing anti-vaping campaigns. The story, headlined Michael Bloomberg Loves Data. Except When He Doesn’t, reports for the first time that some of the nation’s leading anti-smoking experts have been trying to meet with Bloomberg since last spring. He has refused. He and his colleagues seem entirely uninterested in listening to critics. One more bit of evidence (not that we need it) that foundations are accountable to no one.

Thanks for reading.

Politicians on the left and right valorize small business. As it happens, small businesses create most of the new jobs in the US. Yet businesses that sell e-cigarettes, most of which are family-owned and employ just a few people, are the targets of unrelenting assaults from governments at all levels.

My new story for Medium, The unrelenting assault on vaping is taking a toll, looks at the impact that bans, taxes, prohibitions on shipping, misinformation and FDA rules have had on vaping. An estimated 3,500 vape shops have closed since 2018. Jobs and tax revenues have been lost. 

Worse, anti-vaping campaigns are making it harder for smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, which are a much safer way to obtain nicotine. That’s terrible.

Most vape shop owners are former smokers who quit by using e-cigarettes. They’re motivated by passion as well as money. Kim “Skip” Murray, who is about to close her vape show in Brainerd, MN, tells me: “Being involved with this technology has been a privilege.”

I’ve been mildly obsessed with the story of vaping for more than a year now, and I’m going to try to stay on top of it. There is so much misunderstanding about vaping and smoking. And it is literally a life-and-death issue. Please take a look at my story.

Giving Tuesday is, in theory, a lovely idea. Heck, if the people of this great nation want to celebrate Black Friday and Cyber Monday by spending money they don’t have on stuff they don’t need, why not set aside a day for what’s been called “an opportunity for people around the world to come together through generosity in all its forms by sharing acts of kindness and giving their voice, time, money, goods, and advocacy to support communities and causes.” Only a scrooge could object.

Still, it is worth noting that while Giving Tuesday reliably produces an avalanche of unwanted emails from nonprofits, it does not produce a measurable increase in the amount of charitable giving by Americans, which has remained more or less steady for years. People shift their donations to Giving Tuesday, and away from the other days of the year..

If there is a benefit to Giving Tuesday, it is to encourage more thoughtful giving. I’ve just written a couple of stories that, I hope, will spur people to think harder and do some research before clicking on a “donate now”  button or writing a check.

Which are the best climate change nonprofits?, for Medium, reports on the recommendations of a small meta-charity called Giving Green that seeks to guide people who want to use their donations or investments to help curb climate change. 

Why the future of animal welfare lies beyond the west, for Vox, reports on a disconnect that has long vexed the animal advocacy movement: Most giving on behalf of farm animals goes to groups in the US and EU, while the vast majority of the world’s farm animals live, and suffer, elsewhere. Fortunately, donors and animal advocates are redirecting more of their efforts to work in the global south. 

If you care about climate change or animal rights, these stories may interest you.

Unfortunately, it is really hard to identify standout nonprofits. Charity Navigator doesn’t have the staff or budget to do the job. That is why a handful of meta-charities like Giving Green, GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators are so valuable. Guided by the principles of effective altruism, they do deep research into nonprofits to find those that do the most good.

If you are looking for a place to give, consider GiveDirectly, my favorite charity, which simply (and very efficiently)  gives money to the world’s poorest people, trusting that they know their own needs better than we do. I first wrote about GiveDirectly here in 2015, and I’ve donated to them annually ever since.

The trustees of the Virginia G. Piper Trust

Big-time philanthropy is a peculiar enterprise – undemocratic, accountable to no one and slow to change.

If you doubt it, consider the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Arizona’s largest private foundation. The trustees are paid $44,000 a year, more than the directors at the Ford or Rockefeller foundations, which are far bigger. They took control of the biggest day of giving in the trust’s history, excluding the paid staff. And what do you know? Some of the most generous grants went to charities on whose boards they sit.

It’s all perfectly legal, and it may be just what Virginia G. Piper, the trust’s eponymous benefactor, would have wanted.

You can read my story about the Piper Trust on Medium.

The government last week released encouraging news about youth vaping. It is down by 60 percent over the last two years.

It’s too early to be certain — the results of this latest government survey are not strictly comparable with data from past years — but it appears as if the youth vaping epidemic is over.

ou would think this would be reason to cheer. But anti-vaping groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative instead downplayed the decline, focusing only on those teenagers who continue to vape. As always, they ignored the interests of the millions of adult smokers who have used e-cigarettes, which are less dangerous than combustible tobacco, to kick their habit.

In my latest story for Medium, I look at how the data released by the CDC and FDA was distorted or taken out of context by the groups that want to ban flavored e-cigarettes. I also try to put the vaping problem in perspective, noting, among other things, that binge drinking among teens is a bigger problem that gets far less attention. But Bloomberg Philanthropies is not funding campaigns against binge drinking; it is spending $160 million to prevent youth vaping.

Increasingly, I see the story of the anti-vaping movement as a classic example of a point made the other day on Substack by Freddie deBoer: That “nonprofits are self-serving entities that exist to perpetuate their funding and the jobs of their workers.”

“This is not an allegation of cynicism on the part of any individuals,” he goes on to say, “but a function of the nature of systems.”

Like all of us, nonprofits are influenced by incentives–their biggest is to please donors.

Why else would Tobacco-Free Kids and Truth Initiative continue to crusade against vaping when there’s growing evidence that they are doing more harm than good? You can read my story here on Medium.

MDMA is an illegal drug that, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, has no medical value and a high potential for abuse.

Yet MDMA — better known as ecstasy or molly — is being welcomed into a veterans administration hospital where it will be used to help combat veterans with PTSD.

How can that be?

As a practical matter, the research at a Bronx, NY, VA hospital has been permitted by the FDA, which, to its credit, continues to approve clinical trials to assess the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic medicines. Guided by science and not by the politics of the war on drugs, FDA regulators are increasingly aware of the potential of psychedelics; when accompanied by therapy, they appear to be able to help alleviate suffering from a range of mental disorders.

Specifically, this clinical trial took root at a meeting at Burning Man and was made possible by the philanthropy of two colorful billionaires. You can read more in my latest story at Medium.

Here we are, with summer coming to a close, and I am more than a little surprised to find that I have devoted most of my working time during 2021 to a single topic–electronic cigarettes. I’ve never been a smoker or a vaper, and paid no attention to e-cigarettes until late last year, when I began reporting a story about Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The more I learned, the more I came to believe that the topic meets the three criteria that I try to apply when deciding what stories to report. (1) Is it important? (2) Is it being covered well by others, i.e., do I have something to contribute? (3) Can my coverage in some way, big or small, make a difference?

(Those of you familiar with Effective Altruism will recognize those criteria as the framework of importance, neglectedness and tractability used by EA-influenced organizations such as the Open Philanthropy Project when deciding where to allocate resources to solve a problem.)

Tobacco policy is important–a life and death matter, literally, and one involving questions of racial justice and personal freedom as well. The topic is neglected or poorly covered by the mainstream media; misinformation is rampant. My stories are getting read (although not as widely as I would like) so, for now, I’m going to keep writing them.

In the last week, I’ve written two new stories for Medium about e-cigs.

Why do opponents of vaping want to suppress or dismiss science? explores the debate over conflicts of interest in the tobacco-control community. There’s a mini-scoop in the story: I report that Joanna Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor who opposes the publication of science that is backed by tobacco or e-cigarette interests, turned for PR advice to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-vaping group. See the problem? She’s opposed to conflicts of interest but collaborating with an organization that has staked out a hard-line, neo-prohibitionist approach to e-cigarettes.

Yesterday, I posted a story with the headline “Vaping can benefit public health.” That’s not my opinion. It’s the conclusion of 15 former presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, who argue in a new paper that a growing body of evidence suggests that vaping, which is safer than smoking, can be an effective way of helping today’s smokers quit. “The potential lifesaving benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers deserve attention equal to the risks to youths,” these scientists write. “Millions of middle-aged and older smokers are at high risk of near-future disease and death.” This is rebuke to, among others, government health authorities in the US and elsewhere, Bloomberg and Tobacco-Free Kids, all of which are pushing to restrict access to vapes. The paper by these eminent scientists deserves to be read widely.

If nothing else, my reporting on vaping has reminded me of lessons that we all should have learned long ago–that we should greet pronouncements from foundations and so-called public interest groups with the same skepticism that we apply to government or corporate action.