Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

My wife Karen Schneider and I gave away about nine percent of our pretax income in 2019. Like most people, I delayed my charitable giving until the end of the year–a bad practice, because nonprofits have needs all year–so I’m just now writing my annual blogpost about where the money went. The Life You Can Save, a nonprofit inspired by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, has a calculator that recommends the percentage of your income that you should give, as well as an excellent list of top charities.*

My biggest gift went to GiveDirectly, which makes unconditional cash grants to people living in extreme poverty. Give Directly is my favorite charity. In 2018, I traveled to Rwanda to see how the organization operates and talk to recipients of its grants. I could say a lot about GiveDirectly but my biggest takeaway from the trip was this: The money that well-to-do Americans spend on a few restaurant meals, or for a single night in a nice hotel, is enough to make a meaningful difference to the life of a poor person in Africa. If you care about inequality–and it seems that more and more people do–there’s no better charity than GiveDirectly.

Next on the list is GiveWell, a donation platform that identifies and analyzes effective charities in depth. If you want to do the most good you can for each dollar that you spend on charity, GiveWell is essential. Most of the money it raises flows to charity that improve global health, in particular by helping poor people protect themselves against malaria.

Together Karen & I also donated to our synagogue, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation. In this, we are like most Americans; religion was the biggest category of individual giving last year. My religious beliefs and synagogue community are an important part of my life.

I also made a significant donation to Animal Charity Evaluators, which identifies nonprofits that advocate on behalf of farm animals; the unnecessary suffering of farm animals is an underrated problem.

New to the list is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research, or MAPs, which is conducting groundbreaking research into the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD caused by war, sexual assault, violent crime and other traumas. More broadly, MAPS advocates for the careful use of psychedelic drugs and marijuana to heal people and the planet. I wrote about philanthropy and psychedelics last year for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, here, and for Medium, here,  and came away impressed with MAPS and with the enormous potential of psychedelic medicine.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that these donations were made through a donor-advised fund (DAF) at Vanguard Charitable that Karen and I set up at the end of 2017. I’ve been a critic of DAFs because I believe they should be regulated, to prevent people from exploiting the fact that they can get tax deductions by giving to a DAF without ever pushing their money out to where it is needed. [See America’s Biggest Charity is Built on a Lie.] In our case, we estimated our charitable giving for 2018, 2019 and 2020 and deposited that money into our DAF. We plan to distribute all the money to “real” charities by the end of 2020.

Why I am writing about this? Several reasons. (1) I believe in transparency. (2) I’d like to influence you to be more intentional about their giving, and perhaps even to give to some of the groups I’ve studied. (3) I’d like to encourage more conversation about charitable giving, both to promote more giving and so that we can learn from one another.

*Some language here is drawn from my posts about giving in 2017 and 2018 since our giving has not changed much over the years.

Thanks, friends and readers, for following my work in the year that is about to end. Here are my most read stories of 2019.

1. Science created factory farming. Science could end it.

2. Philanthropy, psychedelics and effective altruism

3. The peculiar me-too story of an animal rights activist

4. This animal charity is a hot mess. It gets four stars from Charity Navigator.

5. Woodstock Sanctuary, Jenny Brown and the perils of charisma

These all ran on Medium. Excluded from the list is my 2017 blogpost, Why Amazon Smile doesn’t make me smile, which remains by far my most read story, with a cumulative total of 195k views.

Happy 2020 to all!

These were the books I read this year. My favorites were the Frederick Douglass biography, Catch and Kill and A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. Finding enjoyable fiction remains a challenge. My favorite novel of the past year was The Overstory.

Asymetry by Lisa Halliday. A widely praised first novel, loosely based on the author’s romance with Philip Roth. High brow, perplexing and ultimately, for me, underwhelming.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. A majestic biography of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th (or any) century. Born a slave, Douglass became a towering civil rights and political leader who celebrated emancipation but, by the end of his life, was “sickened once again by the power of white supremacy.”

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy. During four astonishing seasons between 1963 and 1966, Koufax was otherworldly: He pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game, won three Cy Young Awards and twice was named World Series MVP. Then, at age 30, he was done.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. A tangled tale about trees and the people who love them. Hard to describe, and long, but a pleasure to read.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin. Colorful stories about larger-than-life characters who lived during a tumultuous time.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Ostensibly the story of a 1986 fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles public library, but really a tribute to the power of libraries, then and now. Digressive to a fault.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. How the youngest child of a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho found her way to college and beyond. Self-educated is more like it. Fascinating.

Working by Robert Caro. How a great reporter and biographer does what he does. I’d read more books like this by extraordinary people.

Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. An insider’s persuasive critique of establishment philanthropy. But is all great wealth really stolen?

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, this novel of two families moves along crisply even as it explores class, race, art and family. Coming soon to Hulu!

The Border by Don Winslow. The last of a sprawling and violent trilogy about a DEA chief and the jefe of a Mexican cartel boss he’s chased for decades. A page turner, fortunately, because there are 736 pages to turn.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig. The little-known, fascinating and world-changing story of Gregory Pincus, the iconoclastic scientist who invented the birth control pill, and the allies who helped him do it.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, by Dani Shapiro: Beginning writers are told to “write what you know.” Shapiro took that advice to heart. This is her fifth (!) memoir. Still, she’s got a lively tale to tell, and a mystery to solve, set off by the discovery that the man who raised her is not her biological father.

Evvy Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. A young widow, recovering from a bad marriage, rents a room in her Vermont home to a former big league pitcher with great stuff who can no longer get the ball over the plate. Romance ensues. A fun read.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. When Charles Lindbergh – American hero, isolationist, Nazi sympathizer – defeats FDR for the presidency in 1940, everything changes for the Roth family of Newark. Democracy, tolerance and the rule of law are fragile, are they not?

On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Growing Old by Parker Palmer. Essays and advice, from a warm-hearted man.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The New York Times reporters who helped bring down Harvey Weinstein are terrific reporters, but this is disappointing. Nothing new.

Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Anker. A shrewdly observed comic novel about a failing marriage, set among Manhattan’s rich, becomes a more meaningful story about how “having it all” is “just a lie we tell girls to make their marginalization bearable.”

How to be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. “Like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination,” Kendi writes, in a book that intersperses memoir, social history and polemic. A challenging read.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow. There are very bad people in the world (including at NBC News) and they want to stop the author from telling the truth about Harvey Weinstein. Nevertheless, he persisted. A captivating tale.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Center by Timothy Snyder. Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Critics loved this family drama, with its shifting perspectives and time periods, about a psychiatrist, a feminist author and their son. It confused and disappointed me.

The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals by Jenny Brown. An inspiring memoir by a vegan activist, but there’s more to the story.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. How we got to where we are. More fun to read that you would guess.

A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century by Jason DeParle. Three decades of the life of a Filipino family. Deeply-reported, insightful and timely. Immersive journalism at its best.

On to 2020! Up next are Elton John’s autobiography and the Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other

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.