Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Advocacy groups are almost entirely disconnected from anything that feels like a market. The people who pay their bills – foundations and individual donors – are not their customers. They typically can’t measure their effectiveness. And their “competitors,” to the degree they have any, are often their allies. The Nature Conservancy and WWF compete with one another for funding, for media attention and for employees.

There’s one more way that incentives for advocacy groups are weird: Bad news is good news, and good news is bad news. Trump’s election set off a fundraising bonanza for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. The LGBTQ movement was confounded when the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.

That’s the context for my new story at Medium, posted under the headline, When the good news about smoking is bad news for anti-smoking groups. And it’s really good news! The campaign against teen smoking in the US has been enormously successful. Teen smoking is down by more than 90 percent from a decade ago. Since most smokers start young, this augurs well for future declines in adult smoking, which is also falling.

You’d expect, as a result, to hear enthusiastic cheering from organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Nope. Instead of declaring victory and shutting down, they have shifted their focus from teen cigarette smoking to teen vaping.

They’ve done so despite overwhelming evidence that vaping is much safer than smoking or underage drinking, which is widespread among teens. Tobacco-Free Kids would not exist without harm, so they look for harm wherever they can find it. 

Perversely, these groups now want to ban vaping, the very thing that has helped teens avoid smoking and helped adults to quit smoking. It’s nuts.

So I’ve been writing about marijuana. Recently, it came to my attention that a 40-year-old Pittsburgh man named Daniel Muessig — a former criminal defense lawyer and freestyle rapper — was, in all likelihood, headed to prison for five years for selling large quantities of weed. This is, of course, exactly what publicly-traded companies like Canopy Growth and Green Thumb Industries do in states where marijuana is legal. Legal cannabis is a $30.6bn business in the US. But for some reason–namely, the stubbornly prohibitionist mentality of Washington politicians, up to and including President Biden–people’s lives are being ruined for selling pot. Still.

Yesterday I told Daniel’s story in Reason, a libertarian magazine that I’ve read and admired for years. Here’s a link. Reason has long crusaded for an end to the drug war, and for other causes that matter to me — free speech, gay rights, open borders (or at least massively more immigration), abortion rights, religious freedom and, broadly speaking, far less government intervention in the economy. I’m probably one of the few writers who has contributed to the socialist newspaper In These Times, Fortune, The Guardian and Reason, but there you have it.

Today I posted a story about Daniel’s case, marijuana reform and the Biden administration to Medium. Here’s the link. Daniel is not your typical drug dealer. He’s Jewish and college-educated with no criminal record. Of the 1,118 people sentenced in federal courts for marijuana trafficking in FY2020, some 62 percent were Hispanic and 18 percent were black, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Since reading The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s fantastic book about mass incarceration, I’ve believed that ending the drug war is one of the most important things we can do to promote racial justice in America.

Marijuana is the perfect place to start. On that score, the Biden administration has utterly failed. He’s broken his campaign promises around an issue that is a political winner. People like Corey Booker and Chuck Schumer get this. So far, Biden does not. I hope you’ll take a look at these stories and speak up for legalizing marijuana.


“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.