Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

As the season of giving comes to a close, we can be sure of this: The charity that will raise more money than any other will be Fidelity Charitable, an $30bn enterprise that manages the charitable giving of more than 200,000 mostly well-to-do clients.

Last year (2018), Fidelity Charitable collected $9bn in deposits. That was more than the combined haul of the five biggest charities — the United Way, the Mayo Clinic, the Salvation Army, Alsac/St. Jude’s Children Hospital and Harvard — on the list of America’s Favorite Charities compiled annually by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

While legally classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Fidelity Charitable is a charity in name only. It is, instead, a middleman–a rest stop on the way to the ultimate charitable destination–where donors can invest their money for as long as they like before donating to what most of us would recognize as a real charity. It is also a profit center, albeit a modest one, for its parent, Fidelity Investments. Fidelity Charitable has grown rapidly because clients can take an immediate tax deduction when they deposit money, even if they have no intention of giving the money away anytime soon.

This is a problem. For more, please read the rest of this story, headlined America’s biggest “charity” is built on a lie, on Medium.

In August 2018, I received an email from a staff member at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, a refuge for farm animals in New York’s Hudson Valley, proposing that I write about Jenny Brown, the co-founder and former executive director. The staff member wrote:

I can no longer remain silent about what working at this organization was like working under this horrid individual. This person was abusive, and not just to me but to many who worked under them. I personally experienced not only bullying and sexual harassment, like many others, but I also endured attacks based in homophobia.

I’d written a lot about workplace conditions and #metoo in the animal rights movement, but I passed on the idea. About a year later, it came to my attention that Brown, her husband and co-founder Doug Abel and their allies had gone on the offensive against the current management of Woodstock. In a bizarre twist, Brown, Abel and Peter Nussbaum, the founder of a farm sanctuary in New Jersey called the Tamerlaine Sanctuary and Preserve, were accusing Woodstock of colluding with disgruntled former employees of Tamerlaine to try to shut down Tamerlaine. As it happens, I’d been told about the conflicts at Tamerlaine in 2018 but again chose not to investigate. This time, my curiosity was piqued.

Today, I published a story about Woodstock and Jenny Brown on Medium. It reports that Brown “verbally abused, threatened, humiliated and intimidated people,” citing interviews with more than a dozen current and former staff members and board members, as well as internal Woodstock documents and emails. 

Brown left Woodstock in 2016. So you may wonder: Why did I write the story?

First, I wanted to set the record straight. Brown and her allies have cast her as the victim, saying she was unconscionably forced out by the sanctuary. It wasn’t that simple.

Second, I want to make the point once again that boards of nonprofits need to take their oversight responsibilities seriously. So much hurt could have been prevented–and scandals could have been avoided–if boards did their jobs. This was true at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, at ZeroDivide, at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, at the Humane Society of the US and elsewhere.

Finally, I’ve come to believe that the exploitation of farm animals by industrial agriculture is one of the great moral issues of our time. Most people who consume meat, eggs and milk do not want to think about the unnecessary suffering of cows, pigs and chickens to which they are contributing. Only a strong animal rights movement can change that. Poor governance, weak boards and a lack of attention to organizational development are “in large part what has led to many of the problems in the movement,” says Krista Hiddema, an animal rights activist and expert on boards who is quoted in my story.

None of this is simple. Brown, it appears, was struggling with serious emotional issues; she had bone cancer as a child and part of her leg was amputated. The Woodstock board was made up mostly of her friends. Ethan Ciment, the current board president told me, said it took courage for the directors work through their feelings about Brown and Abel and to “prioritize the needs of the sanctuary, our employees, and the hundreds of animals in our care,” as they eventually did.

You can read my story on Medium.

Welcome to the so-called giving season. If you have given to charity, you will soon be inundated with letters and email imploring you to do so again. Giving Tuesday approaches! Gifts will be matched! Bad charities will claim to be good!

Giving is good, but don’t make any impulsive decisions. Instead, consider the work of the philosopher Peter Singer and in particular his book, The Life You Can SaveBeginning on Giving Tuesday, a 10th anniversary edition of the book will be given away by a nonprofit called, not coincidentally, The Life You Can Save.

Some background: The book and the organization can be traced back to an essay written by Singer in the fall of 1971 when thousands of people in what is now Bangladesh were dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Their death and suffering was neither inevitable nor unavoidable, Singer wrote in the essay, called Famine, Affluence and Morality.

He argued, first, that is the duty of those of us who are financially comfortable to do what we can to prevent needless death and suffering, and that, second, this moral obligation extends not just to those who we know but to those who are far away.

Singer made the case with a now-famous thought experiment:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

What’s more, he wrote, it should make no difference whether “this is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

This a radical argument. If more people felt the urge to help poor people in the developing world, Singer wrote, the affluent would spend less money on themselves, give more away and “our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” His essay was published in an academic journal and taught at colleges. But not much changed — at least not for a while.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Slightly off topic, but please forgive me. This is about more than baseball.

Last week my beloved Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series in thrilling fashion. There’s lots to learn from this team. Here are nine reasons to love the Nats:

Nevertheless, they persisted: That the underdog Nationals won should not have come as a shock; they’re a very good team, and anything can happen in a series of five or seven games. What’s remarkable is how they won. They played so miserably in April and May that, after losing 31 of their first 50 games, FanGraphs gave them a 22 percent of chance of making the playoffs and a 1.6 percent chance of winning the World Series. During the postseason, they played five games in which a loss would have ended their season. They fell behind in all five and still prevailed. That’s unprecedented. It’s worth remembering when pursuing anything that’s hard. Never give up is a cliche. It’s also useful advice.

Immigrants! They get the job done: The Nationals’ season turned around not long after signing Gerardo Parra, a journeyman outfielder from Venezuela who had just been cast off by the San Francisco Giants. Coincidence? I think not. Parra’s on-field performance was unexceptional, but he and Anibal Sanchez, a pitcher and fellow Venezuelan, brought a sense of fun — dugout dance parties, orange sunglasses and, of course, Baby Shark — to the team. “We didn’t start winning until Gerardo Parra came in May. We’re lucky to have these guys here — the Latin guys,” reliever Sean Doolittle told Tom Boswell of The Washington Post. Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Wander Suero (all from the Dominican Republic), Yan Gomes (the first Brazilian-born major leaguer) and Asdrubal Cabrera (another Venezuelan) round out the team’s Latin posse.

They don’t just dance. They hug: These guys really like one another. Importantly, they are not afraid to show it — or say it. While celebrating the World Series victory, Brian Dozier told Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic that winning the World Series is “not a life changing thing.” Dozier said: When all of this is gone and the champagne fades, what we are going to really remember and hold on to is the chemistry we’ve built here. The camaraderie.” If you think that doesn’t matter, you’ve never worked with a bunch of people you can’t stand.

You can read the rest of this post on Medium.

What, exactly, does it take to lose a plum seat on the board of a national nonprofit?

A lot, it seems, at least in the case of Tessie Guillermo, the former chief executive of ZeroDivide, a $50m foundation based in San Francisco that collapsed abruptly in 2016, leaving troubling questions in its wake.

Missing money? A failure to file tax returns? Unpaid staff? The stonewalling of former partners and funders? All this and more are part of Guillermo’s legacy at ZeroDivide. ZeroDivide is being investigated by the attorney general of California, which regulates nonprofits.

Yet Ms. Guillermo remains chair of the board of CommonSpirit, a nonprofit hospital chain with $29bn in revenues and 150,000 workers, and a board member at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a social-justice grant-maker. Together, the two board seats pay her more than $120k per year.

The problem is not that Ms. Guillermo made mistakes. We all do. The problem is, she has steadfastly refused to take responsibility for her actions. And, as best as I can tell, neither CommonSpirit nor the Marguerite Casey Foundation have held her accountable. This is curious, to say the least.


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

The people who run billion-dollar foundations like to talk about their grants. They pump out press releases, produce slick videos, post on social media, publish annual reports and compile searchable databases, all calling attention to the ways they give away money.

But how do they invest their money? Many won’t say. Fewer than half of 15 of the biggest U.S. foundations, which together own tens of billions of dollars of assets, report on their investments. They decline even to disclose the stocks and bonds they own.

The upshot: It’s all but impossible to know to what degree foundations invest in companies that extract and produce fossil fuels, manufacture assault weapons or operate private prisons — companies, that is, whose operations may well undermine their missions.

This is a problem. It’s makes no sense, for example, for foundations like Hewlett, Packard or Bloomberg — all of which fund organizations seeking to curb climate change — to invest their endowments in companies that seek to increase the supply of fossil fuels.

“What are they hiding?” asks Timothy Wirth, the former U.S. senator from Colorado who has been advocating for fossil-fuel divestment publicly at Harvard, his alma mater, and quietly in the world of philanthropy. “What reason do they have not to disclose, unless they are embarrassed?”


You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

A Beyond Meat burger, made from plants

It’s a nice story, the tale of a Delaware farmer’s wife named Cecile Steele who gave birth to the modern chicken industry. In 1923, the story goes, Mrs. Steele ordered 50 chickens for her egg-laying flock. A nearby hatchery accidentally delivered 500. She crammed them into a shed, raised them for meat and her profits grew. She ordered another 1,000, then 10,000 and soon raised 25,000 chicks at a time. Her neighbors took notice. Today, chicken growers on the peninsula known as Delmarva, which includes the eastern shores of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, raise more than 600 million chickens a year.

Yes, it’s a nice story, but the truth is more complicated. What really made possible the explosive growth of today’s chicken industry was science and technology. Scientists working in university and corporate labs, often with government funding, invented, developed and perfected technologies that underlie the global meat business—antibiotics that prevent chickens and pigs kept in close quarters from spreading disease, modern genetics so they can be bred to grow faster and fatter, mechanization that allows a single farmer to raise thousands of animals and advances in shipping and logistics that make it easy for beef, pork and poultry meat to be shipped around the world.

Now, it seems entirely possible that the new science of “clean meat” could bring an end to factory farms–and to the suffering of animals who are raised in intensive, confined quarters. “Clean meat” is a term used to describe both plant-based meats, made by startup companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and cell-based meats, grown from a few cells from animals, which together could replace the meat obtained from live animals.

In my first story for a Medium publication called OneZero, about science and technology, I look at the science of clean meat, and how it is rapidly advancing. Some of the science is funded by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but fundamental research is being underwritten by philanthropy from the Good Food Institute, a fast-growing nonprofit led by Bruce Friedrich. GFI made $3 million in grants last year to scientists researching clean meat, and recently announced that it would award another $3 million in the next few months. This is philanthropy with potentially incredible leverage–if these grants help make alternatives to meat tastier, healthier, cheaper or better for the environment, they will help drive an industry that will do enormous amounts of good.

You can read my story for Medium’s Onezero here.