Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


Colonial Williamsburg, a one-time grantee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has left its mark on America.  Founded in 1940 by five sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr.–John 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David–it has been a major supporter of New York’s Riverside Church (where the family worshipped), the Museum of Modern Art (which their mother co-founded), Colonial Williamsburg (where JDR 3rd and Winthrop chaired the board) , a national park in the Virgin Islands (where Laurence developed an eco-resort), the Asia Society (where John 3rd was the first president) and Spelman College (named in honor of Laura Spelman Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.). Who says philanthropy isn’t personal?

Lately, though, the RBF, as it’s called, has been better known for its investments than for its grant-making. In 2014, RBF made headlines everywhere–The Times, The New Yorker, CNN, The Guardian–by announcing plans to divest from fossil fuels; the decision to stop investing in oil and gas by the heirs to a vast oil industry fortune was an irresistible story. While the divestment campaign is symbolic — it has produced no more than at blip, if that, on the world’s financial markets —  it has set the stage for productive debate on college campuses and in foundation boardrooms as well as, to a lesser extent, on Wall Street. As Stephen Heintz, president of the RBF, told me in 2015: “This is largely symbolic, but symbols have power. They motivate people. They inspire people. They can change behavior.”

Last week, I sat down with Stephen Heintz to get an update on fund’s divestment process and to discuss RBF’s mission-aligned investing which, we agreed, has more immediate impact than divestment. We also talked a little about the fund’s grant-making and about why a foundation built by a 19th century fortune should persist into the 21st century. (Speaking of persistence, on a personal note: Stephen and I were meeting for the first time since the early 1980s, when he was Connecticut’s welfare commissioner and I covered state government for The Hartford Courant.) Continue reading


Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation

I spent last weekend in Charleston, WV, with my daughter, her husband and my two grandsons. They’re doing well. The same can’t be said about the state where they live. Nearly one in five people living in WV fall below the poverty line, which is $23,834 for a family of four. The percentage of children living in foster care is higher than in any other state. WV has the second highest rate adult obesity rate in the US, behind Louisiana. WV is also plagued by “a drug crisis that is ravaging our state and has left us with the highest overdose rate in the nation,” says Carol Casto, the U.S. attorney for WV’s southern district. My son-in-law, a federal prosecutor, recently helped extract a guilty plea from a doctor who admitted that he wrote over 370 oxycodone prescriptions totaling 22,255 pain pills in a single day. Unbelievable.

Rural whites in WV are hurting, in part because of thedeep decline of the coal industry. Their pain, as well as their anger, helps explain why Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the popular vote (68.6%) in West Virginia than in any other state. Coal country in WV, Kentucky and Pennsylvania went heavily for Trump, who connected with coal miners and factory workers. Urban elites, by contrast, ignore poor white Americans, or regard them with scorn.

Big Philanthropy has been part of the problem. Many foundations that were attuned to racial injustice, or the climate crisis, or global health paid little attention to coal country or to other parts of the South. According to studies from Grantmakers for Southern Progress, grant-making by 1,000 of the country’s largest foundations between 2010 and 2014 averaged $41 per capita in the Alabama Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, compared with a national average of $451. I haven’t found comparable data for WV or KY, but I’d bet the results would be similar.

Thankfully, that’s changing. Foundations big (Bloomberg, MacArthur) and small are turning their attention to what’s called a just transition–that is, a transition from fossil fuels to a clean-energy economy that does not leave workers and communities behind. Corporate foundations could help, too, by supporting economic development or even helping people move out of declining communities to find work.

Just transition isn’t a new idea. More than two decades ago, labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, an executive with the oil, chemical and atomic workers union, wrote: “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.” Continue reading

DR_JIM_YONG_KIM_v1A saintly aura follows Jim Yong Kim as he glides from stage to stage, at the Skoll World Forum, the London School of Economics, the Global Philanthropy Forum and the spring meetings of the World Bank, over which he presides. The introductions are kind, the questions invariably gentle, the resume glittering: A physician and an anthropologist, Kim is co-founder of Partners in Health, the much-celebrated nonprofit that delivers health care to the global poor; a Harvard Medical School prof; the former director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDs unit;  the former president of Dartmouth College; and now, as head of the World Bank, an organization whose work is anchored in two goals: “Ending extreme poverty and “promoting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner.” Kim is now a film star, too, in Bending the Arc, a new documentary about Partners in Health, which was screened at the bank during its spring confab.

Often, Kim reminds listeners that he was once a fierce critic of the World Bank, even calling for its shutdown. In the introduction to a book called Dying for Growth, Kim wrote that the penalties for the failures of development finance “have been borne by the poor, the infirm, and the vulnerable in poor countries that accepted the experts’ designs.”  He objected, in particular, to the bank’s demands for “structural adjustments,” that is, the privatizations and cutbacks in government services that the bank required before lending to governments of poor countries. Those policies were mostly gone by the time Kim was named president of the bank in 2012. Indeed, he said then that “the bank has shifted tremendously since that time, and now the notion of pro-poor development is at the core of the World Bank.”


Natalie Bridgeman Fields

But is it, really? Natalie Bridgeman Fields, who is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called Accountability Counsel, isn’t so sure. Accountability Counsel is one of several small nonprofits–others include the Bank Information Center, EarthRights International, SOMO and Inclusive Development International–that work to make sure that the World Bank, and other financial institutions and global companies, respect the rights of the poor to help shape the development projects that affect them.

“Accountability Counsel,” says Fields, “serves communities to make sure their voices are heard when they’re harmed by internationally financed projects, like dams, mines and pipelines.” It’s a job that needs doing because an internal watchdog at the World Bank Group says the institution is not tracking its social and environmental impact as well as it should, particular at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a unit of the World Bank Group that makes loans to the private sector.

It’s not just Fields who argues that the bank has repeatedly violated its own safeguards. A 2015 investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Huffington Post found that about 3.3 million people “were forced from their homes, deprived of their land or had their livelihoods damaged because they lived in the path of a World Bank project.”

You’d think that as a one-time reformer, Jim Yong Kim would ally himself with these critics, so that he can remedy the problems at the bank. But no. To the contrary, he sounds exasperated when critics like Fields dare to publicly challenge him to do better. Continue reading

InequalityNonprofits often talk about inequality.

Rarely do they talk about inequality in the nonprofit sector.

But it’s a problem.

Scale begets scale in the nonprofit world. Big nonprofits, with their brand names and hefty marketing budgets, grow faster than small ones, even when the smaller ones are demonstrably more effectiveThe rich get richer; the rest are left behind. Sound familiar?

That’s the topic of a story that I wrote for Vox, headlined Rich charities keep getting richer. That means your money isn’t doing as much good as it could.

Here’s how the story begins:

The election of Donald Trump has lit a fire under people who donate to nonprofit organizations — or, at least, to some nonprofit groups. In the three months after Election Day, the ACLU collected more than $79 million online — more than 60 percent of what the organization spent in all of 2016. Planned Parenthood has been raking in donations as well, though it won’t say how much, possibly because the figure is so large that disclosing it would discourage more giving.

The largesse has been unequally distributed, however. Lesser-known organizations remain vulnerable. Washington, DC-based Ayuda, which provides legal assistance and social services to low-income immigrants, has seen a “nice uptick” in fundraising, executive director Paula Fitzgerald told me, but she fears losing, through Trump’s budget cuts, much of the 55 percent of its $4 million budget that comes from government. “We see real threats to our funding sources,” Fitzgerald says — and the increase in private donations she’s seen so far wouldn’t be nearly enough to make up the difference.

Small nonprofits that serve the global poor worry that they will be forgotten entirely because of the attention and dollars sucked up by big groups opposing Trump.

The power of brands in the nonprofit world has helped to create a remarkably stagnant sector. It’s harder than it should be for startups to grow. It’s also harder than it should be for big incumbents, no matter how ineffective, to fail. Continue reading


The Whitman Institute supports Cosecha, which is establishing college campuses as places of resistance and protection for immigrants

The Trump administration is having an unmistakable impact on philanthropy. That was brought home to me at this month’s Skoll World Forum, notably with the Omidyar Network’s promise to commit $100 million to support independent journalism and combat hate. On a panel about philanthropy, Laleh Ispahani of the Open Society Foundations described the organization’s $10-million Communities Against Hate initiative, which is making nearly 100 grants to nonprofits that promote tolerance. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation will support arts and cultural programs aimed at reducing bias against Muslims. The Craig Newmark Foundation will “stand against deceptive and fake news.” The Rockefeller Foundation made grants to the International Rescue Committee, the ACLU Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League. Etc.

All good. But is it enough? Consider, by way of contrast, how The Whitman Institute (TWI), a small foundation based in San Francisco, responded to Trump. Whitman’s trustees decided in January to conduct the bulk of its grant-making in the next two or three years, to maximize its impact in these parlous times. Since then, Whitman has backed nonprofits that fight for vulnerable populations–undocumented immigrants, incarcerated youth and Muslim and Arab communities in the US, among others.

Whitman’s decision to spend down, in a hurry, is worth pondering. Pia Infante, the foundation’s co-executive director, told me: “At this moment in history, it’s important to take a values-based stand…All of us were terribly concerned for the future of American democracy. It feels not just threatening, but dangerous.”

If, unlike Infante, you aren’t worried about our nation, you aren’t paying attention. As Andrew Sullivan wrote last week about Trump:

What on earth is the point of trying to understand him when there is nothing to understand? Calling him a liar is true enough, but liars have some cognitive grip on reality, and he doesn’t…He has no strategy beyond the next 24 hours, no guiding philosophy, no politics, no consistency at all — just whatever makes him feel good about himself this second. He therefore believes whatever bizarre nonfact he can instantly cook up in his addled head, or whatever the last person who spoke to him said….Occam’s razor points us to the obvious: He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. Which is reassuring and still terrifying all at once.

Terrifying indeed. So, for that matter, is the threat of global warming. (See my recent blogpost, It’s crunch time for climate philanthropy.) If neither the Trump White House nor global warming concern you, what about the billions of people on our planet who lack electricity, clean water and decent health care?

The point is, foundations could do more about Trump, climate change, global poverty or whatever concerns them, but they don’t. This is largely because most foundations want to go on in perpetuity. If, as a foundation leader, your primary goal is to keep your foundation alive, you won’t feel the urgency to do as much good as you can right now. Which, frankly, is bad news for people threatened by Trump, the health of the planet or the world’s poorest people. Continue reading


Don Henley, Jeff Skoll and Bono at the Skoll World Forum

To avoid becoming depressed by the malevolence of the Trump administration, it helps to cultivate a long-term and global perspective. Last week’s Skoll World Forum offered both, and a bit of fun, too. Spend time at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and you’re reminded that Britain has endured much worse that Trump. Listen to people who work to curb disease, alleviate poverty and improve schools in Africa or India, and you remember that the world is getting healthier, wealthier and better educated. Breathe deep; this, too, shall past.

The Skoll forum is intended, among other things, to celebrate social entrepreneurs, a term so broad as to almost become meaningless. They are, in essence, leaders of nonprofit or for-profit organizations of the teach-a-man-to-fish variety that attack big problems that business or government have failed to solve.

Skoll gatherings attract A-listers, and this year was no exception. There’s economic power: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, billionaire yogurt mogul Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani and Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker. Star power: Bono, the Eagles’ Don Henley and actress Julia Ormond of anti-slavery Asset Campaign. And, of course, legions of well-known do-gooders, people like Paul Farmer of Partners in Health and Dr. Atul Gawande, the author and founder of nonprofit Ariadne Labs.

This was my first Skoll powwow. I moderated a panel about philanthropy, wrote a story [paywall] about the event for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and came home with these impressions after three jam-packed days amidst 1,200 madly-networking folk:

Continue reading

B-Corps-LG-Graphic-2016The B Corporation movement, which certifies companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, has made enormous progress since its launch in 2006 by nonprofit B Lab.

Well-known brands that have embraced the B Corp label include Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, New Belgium, Seventh Generation, Warby Parker and Etsy. At last count, some 2,076 B Corps have been certified in 50 countries. That’s impressive.

But the B Corp movement is at a crossroads. If B Lab is to achieve its bold vision — “that one day all companies compete not only to be the best in the world, but the best for the world” — then publicly-traded, mainstream companies, the companies  that dominate the U.S. economy, need to become B Corps.

Otherwise, B Corporations will remain a niche, albeit a valuable niche, like the Fair Trade or Organic certifications, to which it is often compared. Less than 1 percent of US cropland was certified organic, as of 2011. Fair Trade is a blip in the global trade marketplace. Continue reading