Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation

Foundations are peculiar institutions. They lack competition or meaningful regulation. They are perhaps the least accountable institutions in the US. Many want to live forever.

Last week, the Ford Foundation, which has an endowment of $13.7 billion, said that it has decided to borrow another $1 billion to be able to give more money away now to meet the needs of nonprofits that are struggling during the Covid-19 crisis. The announcement was greeted with near-universal acclaim–no surprise, since much of the praise came from those in a position to benefit from Ford’s largesse.

Ford’s president, Darren Walker, has been an influential leader in philanthropy, and a good one. He put challenging inequality at the center of Ford’s work. He got the foundation to make unrestricted long-term grants to nonprofits, as part of an initiative called Build. He persuaded Ford’s trustees to invest a share of the foundation’s endowment to do good, as opposed to simply investing to maximize returns.

Yet the decision to borrow $1 billion to meet current needs puzzled me. How confident can we be that today’s needs are more important than tomorrow’s? And if a foundation decides to spend more now than the customary amount — legally, they are required to spend or give away at least 5 percent of their assets — why borrow money to do it? Why not just spend some of the endowment, if this, is, indeed, an emergency?

My latest story for Medium, headlined The Ford Foundation and the fierce urgency of now, is my attempt to explore those questions. You can read it here.

This is a strange and deeply disturbing time. I’d like to be writing more about racial justice and Covid-19 and, in an indirect way, I did just this morning, at Medium. My story looks at two progressive, criminal-justice ballot initiatives that are all but certain to be on the November ballot in the state of Oregon. One would decriminalize possession of all drugs–yes, all drugs. The other would make psychedelic medicines available under a tightly regulated regime.

The story is timely because, as most know, the criminal justice system discriminates against people of color, from arrest and conviction through sentencing and parole–and, these days, via the coronavirus. I learned while researching the story that the first federal prisoner to die from Covid-19 was Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old man who was serving a 27-year sentence for selling cocaine. (One reason why his sentence was so long was that he lived within 1,000 feet of a junior college. Really.) Jones had a record of criminal convictions, most for burglarly, but he was not a violent man, by all accounts. Here’s the best one I could find, from the excellent Marshall Project. What’s more, he seemed to have turned a corner in prison. (Some experts say that career criminals age out of crime.) Last fall, Jones wrote a heartbreaking letter to a federal judge seeking release; he was turned down and that decision became a death sentence.

Oregon’s proposed new drug law would not have saved Patrick Jones. It decriminalizes possession of drugs, not the sale. But it is a meaningful step in the right direction. Here’s how my story begins:

Oregon is approaching a milestone in the drug wars: It’s poised to become the first state in the US to decriminalize possession of all drugs, from marijuana and ecstasy to heroin and LSD.

This fall, voters in Oregon will be asked to approve an initiative that would end prison sentences for people who possess drugs for their personal use, and instead offer treatment to all who want it.

Supporters of the ballot initiative, known as IP44, have collected 147,000 signatures, well over the 112,000 signatures need to secure a place on the ballot. Internal polling shows that most Oregonians favor decriminalization, according to Anthony Johnson, a lawyer and one of the chief petitioners for IP44.

“This is a watershed moment,” Johnson told me. “Oregonians — and people nationwide — realize that what we are doing around the drug war isn’t working.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Every October, Kingston, N.Y., a city of 23,000 people in the Hudson Valley, attracts throngs of visitors to the O + Festival, a weekend celebration of art, music and wellness.

The O + Festival — it’s pronounced O Positive — is no ordinary civic gathering. It is, improbably, an alternative to America’s profit-driven health care system: The artists and musicians who participate can barter their work for medical or dental care. Help paint a mural, get a cavity filled.

In a story about Kingston headlined The US city preparing itself for the collapse of capitalism, The Guardian last fall called O + Festival an “anti-capitalist, anti-establishment healthcare network” and an “example of a model that could supplant corporate America.” The story explains:

Locals have launched a non-commercial radio station, Radio Kingston WKNY, with widely representative, hyper-local programming that broadcasts via power generators if the grid goes dark. A regional micro-currency called the Hudson Valley Current now exists to, according to co-founder David McCarthy, “create an ecosystem that includes everyone.”

Agricultural initiatives like Farm Hub work toward equitable, resilient food systems. A network of bike trails quietly connects local towns to local farms (for the day when there is no more gas for our cars). And organizations like RiseUp Kingston…facilitate civic engagement, combat displacement, and advocate for policies to address an increasingly dire housing shortage.

What the story neglects to say is that all these organizations — the O + festival, the radio station, the farm hub, the local currency project and Rise Up — share a powerful patron: The NoVo Foundation, led by Peter Buffet, the youngest son of legendary investor Warren Buffett, and Peter’s wife Jennifer. In 2010, Peter and Jennifer Buffett bought a 19th century farmhouse for $1.2 million in Kingston, a historic city perched on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 100 miles north of Manhattan.

“What started as a weekend getaway,” Buffett says, “became a core piece of what we’re doing at the foundation.”

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Philanthropic dollars helped to create today’s psychedelic renaissance by funding medical research into the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin and LSD. The research has generated a great deal of excitement, as I reported last year in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and in Medium.

Now, startup companies want to bring psychedelic medicines to market. That’s the topic of a story that I posted today at Medium.

Here’s how it begins:

Despite Covid-19, a crashing economy and formidable legal obstacles, a growing number of entrepreneurs and investors are betting that medicines derived from psychedelic drugs can become a real business and heal millions of people. They are joining the researchers,  activists,  philanthropists and journalists who until now have been driving what’s been called the psychedelic renaissance.

A dozen or more startup companies are developing medicines from psilocybin, MDMA, ibogaine and LSD, all of which are illegal in the US, as well as from ketamine, a legal anesthetic with hallucinogenic properties. They hope to treat a surprisingly wide range of mental conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, addiction, even Alzheimer’s disease.

This is excellent news. Developing new drugs is an expensive proposition. Especially in today’s tough environment for fundraising, nonprofits are likely to have a hard time bringing in enough donations to stage clinical trials, secure regulatory approval, manufacture and distribute the medicines, persuade doctors to use them and convince insurance companies to pay for them.

Investors, by contrast, may be willing to risk their money with the hope of eventually making a financial return. Just this week, Otsuka, a global pharmaceutical company based in Japan, invested in Compass Pathways, a UK-based startup that aims to help people suffering from treatment-resistant depression by giving them psilocybin along with therapy. To the best of my knowledge, that’s the first investment by an established pharmaceutical company in psychedelic medicines.

You can read the full story here on Medium.

When writing about foundations and nonprofits, I try to keep something in mind: Surprisingly few social programs do what they set out to do. When subjected to rigorous evaluation, most fail to produce “meaningful progress in education, poverty reduction, crime prevention and other areas,” as Arnold Ventures puts it. This is one reason why my favorite charity remains GiveDirectly, which sends money to those living in extreme poverty, mostly in Africa.

Cash, at the very least, makes people a little less poor.

Few foundations, though, have funded direct cash transfers–until now. So I was heartened to learn last week that some big, influential funders are supporting programs to give away money, with no strings attached, to Americans suffering from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I wrote about this for Medium. Here’s how my story begins:

The well-educated folk who lead America’s big foundations have over the years devised no end of theories about how to do what they do. Strategic philanthropyCollective impactVenture philanthropyBig betsParticipatory grantmakingTrust-based philanthropy.

Now, in response to the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, they are trying something completely different: Giving money, with no strings attached, to those who need it.

Foundations that are supporting direct cash transfers include Blue Meridian Partners (a funding collaborative) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as the foundations of Charles Koch, Pierre Omidyar, Steve Ballmer and Sergey Brin.

You can read the rest of my story here. If you find it worthwhile, I’d be grateful if you give it a “clap” or share.

This story began as a conversation in my family–how do we get groceries or order food while trying to shelter at home during the pandemic? Some argue that going to the supermarket is needlessly risky. Others are reluctant to ask others, who are less well off, to assume those risks.

We’re having similar debates, as you may be, about whether to order take-out from restaurants or patronize a favorite coffee shop. What, if anything, do we owe to these places that have been there for us for years?

I had hoped to talk to some gig-economy workers for this story but they were too busy. (Surprise!) So I talked to ethicists, and read what I could about the working conditions and pay at Instacart, the giant in the Internet home delivery business. Here’s how my story, which appears at Medium, begins:

“When the plague came to London in 1665, Londoners lost their wits,” the historian Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker. “Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst: Having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies.”

Today, only the richest of the rich have poor servants to do their shopping. The rest of us rely on Instacart, Door Dash and Uber Eats.

This raises a thorny question: Is it ethical, during the pandemic, for healthy people to hire others to bring them food and take risks they want to avoid? The Silicon Valley gig-economy firms do not provide workers with health insurance or hazard pay, and they need not pay even the minimum wage.

“Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that enable us to work from home need to be honest with ourselves about whether we are bearing our fair share of the collective risk, or whether our comfort is coming at too high a price to others,” says Karen Stohr, a senior scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. “If we’re healthy, this may mean going to the grocery store ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us.”

You can read the rest here.

Social distancing? Not for workers at Marriott’s new corporate HQ [March 24]

On April 2, two people working on the construction of Marriott’s new corporate headquarters in downtown Bethesda, MD, tested positive for the coronavirus. Their illness was entirely predictable — and preventable.

Hensel Phillips, the prime contractor for the $600m project, said it would temporarily suspend work, clean up the site and resume the work in a few days.

That’s nuts.

The politically influential construction industry wants special treatment. Last week, industry executives told the Washington Post that their work is essential. Builders, they said, would protect the health of workers. Neither claim holds up to scrutiny.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

Companies have failed to advocate for climate action in Congress

Thirty years ago, McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund embarked on what they called “a groundbreaking collaboration to change the way environmental progress” is achieved. They created a template for business-friendly green groups to work with global corporations. EDF helped Walmart develop its landmark sustainability program. WWF helped Coca-Cola protect freshwater. The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical came up with tools to help companies invest in nature.

Such partnerships are fine, but they don’t go nearly far enough, particularly when it comes to climate change. At best, they generate modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At worst, they deflect attention from a bigger problem: Most big US companies have failed do the most important thing they can for the planet, namely, to use their political power to push for smart climate policy. 

A new coalition of 10 environmental groups has set out to change that. They were joined just days ago by a new nonprofit called ClimateVoice, the brainchild of Bill Weihl, the former sustainability czar at Google and Facebook.

“Silence is no longer an option,” Weihl says. “America’s corporate sector has the power to…put us on a path of steep carbon reductions,” and companies need to use their political clout for good.

Victoria Mills, a managing director at Environmental Defense Fund, which is part of the coalition, adds: “We need to get all of corporate America off the couch when it comes to climate policy.” The coalition also includes WWF, the World Resources Institute, BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility), and CDP (the Carbon Disclosure Project).

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

This is a remarkable moment for psychedelics. Elite universities, including Johns Hopkins and Imperial College in London, have opened centers to research the medical benefits of such drugs as psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in certain mushrooms. The nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) is recruiting people suffering from PTSD to participate in FDA-approved clinical trials using MDMA, better known as molly or ecstasy. CBS News’ 60 Minutes last fall reported on life-changing psychedelic journeys.

So far, the psychedelic renaissance has focused on the potential of these dugs to heal mental illness, and rightly so. A growing body of research suggests that they can alleviate suffering caused by a broad array of ailments: depression, addiction and anxiety, among others. Philanthropy is critical to sustain progress because there’s almost no government money for research and scant interest from private industry.

This story, though, is not about how psychedelics can heal the mind. It’s about how they can heal the world. There is sickness all around us. The threat of climate change. Unconscionable poverty amidst great wealth. Extreme political polarization. These are manifestations of deeper ills: People feel disconnected from one another and from nature.

Serious people — not just hippies, but neuroscientists with PhDs, and their philanthropic supporters — say psychedelics can help address these deeper problems. Drug trips, under controlled conditions, break down the barriers between people and bring users closer to nature.

“These medicines can help us wake up to new levels of caring and concern,” says David Bronner, a philanthropist and the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, the family-owned maker of natural soaps. “It’s crucial to wake up to the miraculous world we’re part of and understand how we can serve and make it better for all of us.”

You can read the rest of the story on Medium.

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.