Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


Jeanne Manford, a founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), carries a sign at a 1972 Gay Liberation Day parade. She is interviewed on Making Gay History. Credit: Les Carr. Courtesy: PFLAG

Not all that long ago–during my lifetime, in any event–every institution of US society was arrayed against gay and lesbian Americans. Local police. Federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Private employers. Educators. Hollywood, and the newspapers. Churches, of course, and synagogues who told gay people that they were sinners. Worst of all, perhaps, the psychologists and psychiatrists who told them they were perverts and deviants, and set out to cure them with shock treatment, drugs, castrations and lobotomies. So much for the idea of liberty and justice for all.

Most of that is history, thank goodness, and the stories of people who made it so are told in a wonderful podcast called Making Gay History, which recently wrapped up its third season. Eric Marcus, an author and journalist, began work on the podcast in 2015, during the waning Obama years, but Making Gay History turns out to be perfectly suited for this dismal Trumpian moment: It is illuminating and inspiring, a welcome reminder that change happens, sometimes quickly, when people push hard enough for it.

The podcast features interviews with pioneers of the gay rights movement, some little-known or forgotten, including Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the US; Frank Kameny, who fought an 18-year battle with the US government after being fired from his job at the US Army Map Service in 1957 for being a homosexual; and trans rights activist and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera.

“These people fought for their rights at a time that was far more difficult than our own,” Marcus, 59, told me, when we spoke by phone last week. “They provided a roadmap. They set examples for us. Their stories are inspiring.” Continue reading

downloadUntil recently, Al Cantor and I had never met. We connected on Twitter,  traded emails, talked by phone and enjoyed our interchanges. Al has spent more than three decades in the nonprofit world, as executive director of an agency helping at-risk New Hampshire boys, as an executive at a community foundation, and as vice president of a community loan fund that provided financing for people with low incomes. He started his own consulting firm in 2012. I spent four decades as a reporter covering politics, media and business before starting to write about philanthropy and nonprofits in 2015. Al and I share common values, but recently Al wrote that he had come to believe that “we’re the Yin and Yang of charitable cynicism: everything that I distrust, you embrace; and everything that I embrace, you distrust.” Really? Let’s see:

Marc: What got us going, Al, was a blogpost where you wrote: “I give from my heart–and my observation is that most other donors do the same thing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.” You’re right that most donors give from the heart. But there’s a lot wrong with that. It’s one reason why we have so many ineffective and inefficient charities. Nonprofits don’t have a financial incentive to measure and report on their impact because donors don’t take the time to try to figure out which nonprofits are really making a difference. It’s odd: Many of us set aside time to research our investments and plan our vacations. We look for reviews and ratings before going to a movie or restaurant. Shouldn’t we be as thoughtful and intentional when giving to charity?

Al: Well, Marc, first, let’s not belittle the role of emotion in making important decisions. The most important decision of my life was getting married to Pat, and I didn’t sit back and do research and analysis before falling in love. (By the way, 35 years later, and we’re doing great.) People connect emotionally with charitable organizations, too — and they develop bonds with their leaders. There’s truly is nothing wrong with that — and it drives vastly more charitable giving (generally, a good thing) than intellectual dissection of financial statements and impact measures.

But second, I’m highly skeptical of nonprofit reviews and ratings. The best-known evaluation outfits, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch, work from offices half a continent away from the organizations they’re judging. They pull information from the charities’ Form 990s, draw conclusions about their efficiency and effectiveness, and slap on a rating — three stars, B-, whatever. (I wrote about this a while back in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.) You have to realize, Marc, that it’s frighteningly easy to game the 990s and make your organization look more efficient than it is. These evaluators presume, too, that spending on “overhead” — administration, fundraising, finance — is by definition bad, and spending on “program” — the direct costs of service delivery — is good. That’s a wildly over-simplistic and dated model for judging nonprofit effectiveness. And finally, whenever evaluators get into measuring actual program impact, they find that it’s nearly impossible, so they fall back on painful jargon about “theories of change” and “logic models” that frankly make my teeth hurt, and that mean virtually nothing in the real world. Continue reading

Rules, they say, are made to be broken.

This is not necessary when it comes to the rules designed to promote transparency in foundations. They’re so ineffectual that there’s no need to break them.

Wealthy donors can and do hide charitable giving for which they claim tax deductions, the investments they hold in tax-advantaged accounts and information about what they pay their professional staff, which is also tax-deductible.

The result is that despite such well-meaning initiatives as Glasspockets and the Fund for Shared Insight, transparency and accountability in the philanthropic sector are on the wane.

Billions of dollars of philanthropic dark money are flowing into so-called donor-advised funds, the black boxes of philanthropy. Private foundations and charities, meantime, have devised their own ways to avoid public scrutiny.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, the money flowing into foundations and nonprofits is tax-subsidized. Donations are tax deductible, as are most earnings from investments. In order to judge whether the tax subsidies are beneficial, people and their elected representatives should know where the money comes from, how it’s managed and where it goes. Second, big-time philanthropy is an exercise of power. The charter school movement, environmental activism, Washington think tanks of every stripe–these are all fueled by charitable dollars. By deploying dark money, the wealthy escape accountability.

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sp001pxHelping the world’s poorest people escape poverty is, in principle, a simple matter: Give them cash! The trouble is, there are too many of them: About 700 million people  more than twice as many people as live in the US — are thought to live on less than $1.90 a day, according to best estimates from the World Bank. Probably the only practical way to end poverty on that scale is with robust economic growth. That will take time.

In the meantime, though, unless we choose to ignore their suffering,  it would be helpful to figure out how governments, foundations, donors and profits should use their wealth to lift the incomes of the poor. Should the wealthy give cash grants, gifts of livestock, low-interest loans, job training or something else to the extreme poor?

It’s an important question. While longer term investments in public goods — roads, ports, education, health care systems, good governance — can help spur economic growth, so can helping poor people be less poor. As Jeremy Shapiro, a founder of nonprofit GiveDirectly, has said: “Poverty alleviation through redistribution–if it acts as a stimulus or engine for human capital–can further economic development.”

Two recent studies — both about nonprofits that I’ve praised on this blog — have got me thinking about short-term poverty alleviation. One is a randomized evaluation from Innovations for Poverty Action, a research and policy nonprofit that often works with development economists, that looked at a “graduation” program run by Village Enterprise in Uganda. The study found that the graduation program–a multi-faceted attempt to improve livelihoods–lifted the consumption, assets, nutrition and self-reported well-being of the poor, and that it did so better than cash alone. The Village Enterprise program included a cash grant of about $100, classes in business practices, two years of mentoring and a savings group that enabled small-scale entrepreneurs to pool their resources. Graduation programs have been well-studied, notably in a landmark 2015 study of six programs that produced encouraging results. Even Nick Kristof wrote about itContinue reading

The Chronicle of Philanthropy last month published my opinion piece on climate philanthropy. They’ve kindly agreed to let me repost it here.

America’s foundations have poured billions of dollars into the fight against climate change. What do they have to show for their money?

Big environmental grant makers — Hewlett, MacArthur, Moore, Packard, and the rest — can point to a few meaningful victories.

The Energy Foundation laid the groundwork for renewable-energy policies that 29 states have adopted. The ClimateWorks Foundation coordinated work to help developing countries replace polluting refrigerants with efficient, climate-friendly cooling. Bloomberg Philanthropies financed the Sierra Club’s campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants. Foundations have backed educational efforts, ranging from Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth to the Climate Central website, which helped persuade Americans that humans have contributed to climate change and that the government should do more to promote clean energy and take other steps to protect the planet.

But when it comes to U.S. climate policy, grant makers and the environmental nonprofits they support have been stymied. President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is dismantling the agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. The Republicans who control Congress are hostile to climate action.

Globally, the picture is nearly as grim. In the past two decades, annual emissions of greenhouse gases have grown from the equivalent of 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year to nearly 50 billion, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are rising relentlessly.

If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed. The U.S. government is further from acting to curb climate change than it was a decade ago. Without action by the United States, which is an indispensable player on the global stage, it will be all but impossible for the planet to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Robert Brulle, a sociology professor at Drexel University, says: “The big funders have learned way too little from the success of the conservative movement. They’ve spent millions and millions of dollars, and the climate movement, such as it is, continues to fail.”

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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.

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.











[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 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.