Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

kittens-cat-cat-puppy-rush-45170What’s going on at Alley Cat Allies? And why aren’t the so-called charity watchdogs paying attention?

Alley Cat Allies is a $10-million charity that calls itself the “global engine of change for cats.” It’s got issues–poor governance practices, a board that failed to meet for nearly a year and a disgruntled workforce with high turnover, according to reviews on Glassdoor and my own conversations with a half dozen current and former staffers who raise troubling question about the charity’s practices.

Typical is Katie Cook, a former fundraiser for Alley Cat Allies. “I was miserable,” she says. “I never worked in a more horrible place, and I worked for Roger Stone for three years.” Which might be funny, except it isn’t. On GlassDoor, only 18 percent of the workers who posted reviews say they approve of Becky Robinson, the president and founder of Alley Cat Allies.

There’s more. Alley Cat Allies has donated at least $20,000, and possibly much more, to a pig sanctuary, despite the fact that its mission and its messaging to donors focuses exclusively on cats. It acquired two homes in suburban Virginia, including one next door to the home of Becky Robinson; the charity says they were investment properties but in neither case did Robinson inform the full board about the deals or seek its approval. Alley Cat Allies promises on its IRS tax return to make its conflict-of-interest policy and financial statements available on request, but it has declined my requests to see them.

Yet Alley Cat Allies continues to enjoy top scores from Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

This is a problem. Indeed, it’s the main reason why I’ve paid attention to Alley Cat Allies. Millions of donors turn to Charity Navigator to become smarter about giving. Its website says: “Use our objective ratings to find charities you can trust and support.” GuideStar isn’t strictly speaking, a ratings agency, but its website says that “millions of people use GuideStar information to make decisions about nonprofits and the work they do.”

Charity Navigator gives Alley Cat Allies a four-star rating, which is said to describe an organization that “exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.” GuideStar says its platinum designation demonstrates that “you are an organization that is focused on measuring your progress and results.”

Those descriptions don’t fit Alley Cat Allies, but the scores are featured on the front page of Alley Cat Allies website:

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I first reported on Alley Cat Allies in a Nov. 6 story for The Chronicle of Philanthropy headlined The Limits of Nonprofit Oversight and then in a blog post headlined Alley Cat Allies, and the charity “watchdogs” that aren’t. The stories spotlighted governance problems at the charity, which is based in Bethesda, MD, and has been run by Becky Robinson for 28 years. Among the irregularities was the fact that the nonprofit’s board was chaired for many years by Donna Wilcox, a paid vice president of the charity who reported to Robinson until Wilcox left her job last month.

Some questions for Alley Cat Allies

I subsequently learned about other problems. By email and by registered letter on Dec. 13, I asked Alley Cat Allies a new set of questions. With all due respect to Charity Navigator and Guidestar, these are questions they might want to ask, too. Here they are:

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Past criticisms of governance: In 2004 and again in 2012, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, another charity monitoring organization, pointed to problems with ACA’s governance. (See this 2004 story from the Chronicle of Philanthropy and this this archived page from 2012 .) What, if anything, did ACA do in response?

Transparency (1): BBB Wise Giving Alliance now says that ACA is not an accredited charity because ACA has not responded to its requests for information. Is this correct? Why has ACA not responded?

Transparency (2): The ACA board is no longer listed on the website. Who are the board members and the board chair? Has Donna Wilcox stepped down from the board? I’m told that Rachel Gorlin, Irini Dline and Karyen Chu, all of whom served on the board, have left the board. Is that true?

Transparency (3): ACA told me that the homes owned in Virginia were rental-producing properties, purchased as part of an investment strategy. But Part VII, Line 6, of your most recent IRS tax return, for the year ended July 31, 2017, lists no rental income. Can you explain?

Transparency (4): On the IRS tax return, you say: “The organization makes Form 1023, conflict of interest policy and its financial statements available available upon request.” Will you provide me the conflict of interest policy and the last three years of financial statements?

Mission creep? On your most recent IRS tax return, you list a $20,000 grant to PIGS Animal Sanctuary in Shepherdstown, WV. I’m told that Alley Cat Allies has continued to make grants to PIGS during 2018. I understand that PIGS provides direct care for some cats, but I’m told by your employees and former employees that the payments to PIGS have far exceeded the cost of caring for cats. Can you say how much you have paid to PIGS, and explain why?

Fundraising costs: In an anonymous letter to Charity Navigator provided to me by a former executive with Alley Cat Allies, this executive writes:

Our self-reported fundraising expenses of $525,104 are wildly inaccurate. At minimum fundraising expenses exceed $3.5 million. $2.6 million in hard costs annually for direct mail and web fundraising (postage, printing, services and list rental), another $360,000 (by contract) for fundraising consulting services and $4,000-5,000 in monthly copywriting, graphics and production fees. Back-end donor management: acknowledgements, file maintenance and data processing costs $400,000.

This executive made similar allegations to GuideStar. Can you respond?

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I asked Alley Cat Allies to get back to me in a week. I heard nothing.

There’s a good deal to unpack here.

First, several weeks after the Chronicle published my story, Charity Navigator did issue an advisory saying it had a “low concern” about Alley Cat Allies–but it also kept the charity’s four-star rating! In a comment on Charity Navigator, Alley Cat Allies said that my Chronicle story was “based on false, disparaging claims and baseless rumors.” Seems a bit unfair that Charity Navigator would permit Alley Cat Allies to attack The Chronicle of Philanthropy and my reporting, without asking the charity to document its charges.

Meantime, critics of Alley Cat Allies approached me. That’s how I learned that BBB Wise Giving Alliance had, not once, but twice said that Alley Cat Allies failed to meet its standards for governance and transparency. Nicely done, BBB Wise Giving! You would think this would, at the very least, be a reason forCharity Navigator and Guidestar to take a closer look at Alley Cat Allies. BBB Wise Giving Alliance today won’t accredit Alley Cat Allies because of its failure to provide information. This tells me that the three organizations–Charity Navigator, GuideStar and BBB Wise Giving Alliance–need to get better at sharing information.

New questions also arose about the home purchases, which Alley Cat Allies said had been approved by an “investment committee” consisting of CEO Robinson, vice president Wilcox and former board member Karyen Chu. But my sources say that the investment committee was not formed until late in 2015–after the first house was purchased.

Then there’s the pig sanctuary. Current and former staff members say that Alley Cat Allies has made numerous payments to the pig sanctuary; one current employee estimated that PIGS has been given well over $100,000. That seems like a lot of money to care for cats. Becky Robinson’s assistant, I’m told, did administrative and payroll work for PIGS.

On the issue of how to account for fundraising costs, Alley Cat Allies is surely not the only nonprofit organization to categorize its direct mail as programming or advocacy, in an effort to keep its overhead ratio low. The lines between the two are blurry. But when a senior fundraising executive inside the organization reports issues to Charity Navigator and GuideStar, even in an anonymous letter, that should be cause for concern.

What’s needed? Board oversight

“I know how much donors rely on entities like Charity Navigator and GuideStar,” says Laura Ramos, a former Alley Cat Alley employee. “They need to know that those places don’t scrutinize things like staff turnover, office culture, board health, or really anything beyond the very basic information pulled from the 990.” Ramos worked in programming and communications for six years at Alley Cat Allies.

Other former staffers were troubled by the way the place was run. Robinson and her deputy, Charlene Pedrolie can be unpredictable and harshly critical, they told me. These staff members had concerns about the lack of HR policies, but they didn’t feel as if they could bring their concerns to the board. Turnover was high.

Alison Grasheim, who worked in the communications department of Alley Cat Allies between 2008 and 2013, told me: “It could be a healthier organization if it followed the best business practices.”

Patricia Jones, a former media consultant, told me: “I was a consultant for Alley Cat Allies and finally had to fire them as a client in 2014 as the toxic and dysfunctional environment grew increasingly worse.”

Some former employees were reluctant to speak, in part because Alley Cat Allies has pursued long and expensive litigation against Elizabeth Putsche and her husband, Jason. Elizabeth Putsche formerly worked in communications for the organization, and Jason supplied it with hundreds of photographs. It has used the litigation to subpoena documents from former employees, including their contacts with me.

Alley Cat Allies desperately needs an engaged, independent board. I’m told that three new board members have been or will be appointed–a DC-based lawyer named Anne Lynch, an ethics and compliance officer named Justin Oravetz, and a finance and audit executive named Kevin Lee. I contacted all three, simply to ask whether, in fact, they had joined the board. None responded. Not an encouraging sign.

It’s important to say here that information providers like Charity Navigator and GuideStar can’t look deeply into every nonprofit in America. They have small staffs, cover thousands of charities and rely on self-reporting by the charities, most of whom, it’s safe to assume, are honest and open.. They can’t worry about workplace morale or try to figure out whether the nonprofits actually do any good–which, in a better world, would be the point of evaluating charities.

But the Alley Cat Allies story illustrates just how little investigating they do. Here you have a charity that has been denied accreditation three times by BBB Wise Giving Alliance, that has a board structure that falls well short of best practices and that was the subject of anonymous but detailed complaints from an insider. What, I wonder, does a nonprofit have to do to fall out of favor with Charity Navigator and GuideStar?

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Fun? Yes. An energy solution? No.

Who could object to efforts to bring clean, renewable energy to people without electricity? Donors and investors love social enterprises (D.Light, Greenlight Planet, BrightLife) and nonprofits (SolarAid, GivePower) that bring solar panels, lights or phone chargers to poor households in Africa and south Asia. Why, even President Obama, on a visit to Tanzania, played with a Soccket, a soccer ball that generates just enough energy to power a light bulb or charge a phone.

Trouble arises, though, when these well-intentioned, small-scale initiatives draw attention away from utility-scale energy projects that can power businesses and drive economic growth–the kinds of big projects that lifted the US, Europe, Japan, China and much of the rest of the world out of poverty. Or, worse, when an absolutist devotion to renewable energy stands in the way of big, centralized projects–specifically, the natural gas, coal and nuclear power projects that, even today, provide more than 80 percent of the electricity used in the US.

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Photo credit: Shawn Miller

This is Todd Moss’s concern. Moss, 48, is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a former state department official and a PhD economist who recently launched the Energy for Growth Hub. The Energy for Growth Hub is a network of scholars and advocates who want to bring some common sense to the conversation about how get energy to everyone in Africa and Asia. They are focused not just on the 1.3bn people whose homes are without a light switch but the 3bn or so who live in places where a lack of reliable, abundant electricity remains a barrier to progress.

Moss sat down with me recently in Bethesda, MD, where we both live, to talk about how he and his colleagues want to convince policymakers to help poor countries achieve the high-energy future they need to become prosperous. 

Household solar panels won’t get the job done. Big wind  and solar farms, natural gas plants, hydroelectric dams, geothermal plants and, perhaps, nuclear power will be required.

Even if that means — dare we say it? — taking a small step backwards in the battle against climate change.

“Climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity and it’s likely an existential challenge to humanity,” Moss tells me. “I don’t think it can or should be solved on the back of poor Africans.”

After all, the world’s poorest people didn’t cause the climate crisis. It’s not fair to ask them to sacrifice, particularly as those of us in the west enjoy the benefits of abundant, cheap energy.

Consider this graphic, via Moss, that went viral a few years ago:

energy pov 2 fridgeOr this one, timely because it shows that decorative holiday lights in the US use more energy in a year than entire countries:

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There are opportunities here for philanthropy, if only because the impacts of energy poverty are so far-reaching. Millions of people die every year because they cook over open fires. Health care clinics operate without reliable power. Schools lack electricity, Students can’t study at night. Most of all, robust economic growth–the only thing that can lift large numbers of people out of poverty–requires high rates of energy consumption. Anyone who cares about global poverty should care about energy.

“A low energy future is a jobless future,” says Moss.

What’s more, without industrial-scale energy, people in energy-poor places will be ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change. They are the most likely to suffer from extreme heat, drought, crop failures, rising sea levels and floods. Of the 2.8 bn people living in the hottest parts of the world, only 8 percent currently have air conditioning, compared to 90 percent ownership in the US.

As Moss told me: “They’ll need more energy, not less. They need to live in resilient houses. Their roads and airports can’t be washed away by storms. They will need steel and concrete, which require lots of energy. They need to be richer.”

None of this should be controversial. It is. Some environmental groups, as well as global development agencies, are reluctant to support fossil-fuel projects or big dams, even in countries that desperately need energy and are blessed with energy resources.

Opposition to large-scale hydroelectric dams, for example, has dramatically curbed support for such dams from development institutions such as the World Bank. “Major dam projects have been cancelled or suspended in Myanmar, Thailand, Chile, and Brazil,” Jacques Leslie reported at YaleE360.

In an effort to halt development funding for fossil fuels, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the city of Boulder, Colorado, filed a lawsuit years ago alleging that the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) provided financing and insurance to fossil fuel projects without assessing whether the projects contributed to global warming or impacted the U.S. environment, as they were legally required to do.

And, as recently as last month, the International Energy Agency warned that the world has so many existing fossil fuel projects that it cannot afford to build any more and still achieve international climate goals. Fatih Birol, the executive director of the Paris-based group, told the Guardian: “We have no room to build anything that emits CO2 emissions.”

Really? Tell that to the millions of people who burn wood inside their homes to cook their dinner.

It should go without saying that wind and solar farms should be the technology of choice to power the developing world. But it seems unlikely that they can do it alone. Battery storage remains expensive, and a sophisticated electricity grid is needed to manage intermittent sources of power. Despite rapidly falling costs, wind and solar produced just 7 percent of the world’s electricity in 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. They produce even less of the energy needed for industry, transport, heating and cooling. Those percentages will grow rapidly–thank goodness–but major energy transitions take decades.

“The scale of the energy poverty problem is so great that we shouldn’t ex ante take any options off the table,” Moss says.

Consider Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, which is awash in natural gas. It just built a 461mw natural-gas plant, with help from OPIC, but it needs many more. With more than half the population of the United States, Nigeria can generate less than one percent as much electricity, Moss has written. That’s stunning. “The specter of a Nigeria that cannot come close to meeting its growing population’s demands for jobs and modern lifestyles—all underpinned by high volumes of energy—should be alarming,” he says. To its credit, the MacArthur Foundation has a grant-making program to support anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria, including in the energy sector.

The Energy for Growth Hub’s network of academics intends to bring its knowledge to  development institutions, as well as governments in poor countries. “We’re trying to influence decision-makers in a few capitals,” Moss says. The organization has fellows in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, India and a Thailand-based expert who focuses on Bangladesh. Its principal funders are the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pritzker Innovation Fund, and the Spitzer Charitable Trust.

Moss, by the way, has made things happen before from his perch at the Center for Global Development. Just this week, Devex reported on a rare bipartisan reform success in DC that took root at the think tank, in a story headlined  How policy wonks, politicos and a conservative Republican remade US AID.

He also has an interesting side gig as an author of political thrillers. His fourth and latest book, called The Shadow List, sends a state department crisis manager and his CIA agent wife into the heart of a corruption scandal in Nigeria. He enjoys writing novels, he told me, because “works a different part of your brain,” although writing fiction about Washington has become harder than ever. “Reality is too crazy,” he says. That’s for sure.

This special report was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Journalism.

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p1040385Eric Reynolds was despondent. He had poured his heart and soul, his best ideas and a chunk of his life savings into Nau, the radically sustainable, greener-than-green apparel company that he founded in 2003. The global apparel industry had caused all manner of environmental and social problems, he thought. Nau was designed to fix them.

Instead, after Reynolds recruited managers from Patagonia and Nike to help launch Nau, a clique of senior executives, along with an investor, forced him out.

“I was wounded, quite profoundly,” he says.

What now, he wondered.

Some middle-aged CEOs would have sought consulting gigs or board seats, or tried painting or golf. Not Reynolds. A world-class alpinist, he had dropped out of college to co-found Marmot, the outdoor gear company, with Dave Huntley, a climbing buddy. “Dave was the genius,” he says. “I barely knew what an invoice was.” Later, Reynolds ran a startup called Sweetwater that made water purification devices. Business was interesting to him only insofar as it helped to solve problems, the bigger the better.

So it happened that, after some soul-searching, Reynolds put his Boulder, Colorado, home on the market, sold his $80,000 wine collection and moved to a small city in Rwanda, a small east African nation he’d visited a couple of times as a volunteer helping a village of genocide survivors. He started a company to distribute cookstoves and renewable fuel that, if all goes well, will serve the world’s poorest people, curb deforestation in the global south and, most importantly, save many millions of lives–and, not incidentally, do so while earning investors a profit. Only then will his company, known as Inyenyeri, be able to grow to a meaningful scale.

Scale, Reynolds says, means reaching 100 million households before he dies.

Today, Inyenyeri serves between 5,000 and 6,000 homes.

Which tells you that operating a cookstove company in rural Rwanda has, so far, been a tough slog, tougher than Reynolds had imagined. “This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life so far,” he says. It’s harder than it might otherwise be because Reynolds runs his company with a commitment to excellence and customer service that is unusual for the sector, which for the most part has fallen short of its promise.

The good news is that Inyenyeri has been made headway lately. Its supporters include Sustainable Energy for All, a UN-backed initiative; the IKEA, Mulago and Osprey Foundations; a few impact investors and, importantly, the government of Rwanda, with which it recently signed an agreement calling for the company and the government to support a rollout of stoves across the nation.

“It’s a breakthrough,” Reynolds says.

Lanky and balding, with wispy gray hair and a ready smile that belies his intensity, Reynolds recently turned 66. He has a Rwandan wife and two children and, like most entrepreneurs, an unshakeable belief that he can overcome whatever obstacles lie ahead.

“I came here and burned the boats on the beach,” he told me, when we met last spring in Rwanda. “This is going to work.”

SMOKE: THE KILLER IN THE KITCHEN

Copy+of+3+Stone+Fire+PictureIt’s hard to get your head around the fact that about three billion poor people, most in Africa, south Asia and Latin America, still burn wood, charcoal or dung in smoky, open fires to cook their food and heat their homes. Three billion! Millions die annually from lung and heart ailments caused by the pollutants produced by cookingaccording to World Health Organization (WHO). Dubbed “the killer in the kitchen,” household air pollution is thought to be the world’s leading environmental cause of death and disability.

So-called clean cookstoves have been touted as a solution, notably by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a coalition launched by Hillary Clinton in 2010. Clinton declared that cookstoves “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines,” which have saved millions of lives. Clean cookstoves can “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment, the global alliance says.

But mostly they have not. There are many reasons why. Low-cost cookstoves deteriorate or break. They are commonly used alongside an open fire, instead of replacing it, all but negating their health benefits. It’s almost impossible to design a stove that can adapt to all kinds of wood–wet or dry, twigs, branches, or logs–as well as other fuels, like dung, crop residues and charcoal, that are burned by the poor, and burn all of them cleanly. Continue reading

The giving season is almost upon us, and so millions of Americans soon will turn to Charity Navigator or GuideStar for help in vetting nonprofits. Unfortunately, neither is entirely up to the job. 


That once again became clear to me when I began looking into a charity called Alley Cat Allies that, by coincidence, is headquartered just a few miles from my home in Bethesda, MD. Alley Cat Allies is, to be blunt, a mess. Even so, it has been given the best possible scores by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar.


This is a big problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that deserves more attention from foundations (Hewlett, Gates, Raikes) that are trying to improve the practice of philanthropy and the performance of nonprofit groups. 


The Chronicle of Philanthropy just published my story about Alley Cat Allies, a group that has been around for decades and advocates for feral cats. Alley Cat Allies is not a mom-and-pop charity; it brought in nearly $10m last year. 


The story is behind a paywall, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that Alley Cat Allies has engaged in a variety of questionable dealings in recent years. It used charitable donations to acquire two residential property in Arlington, VA, including the home next door to the home of its executive director, Becky Robinson. (I’m told this helped resolve a dispute with the neighbor over Robinson’s backyard full of cats, but could not confirm this.) Amazingly, in neither case did Robinson inform the full board that Alley Cat Allies was buying the properties. (One board member learned about the real estate dealing from me!) The board chair, a woman named Donna Wilcox, for years has been a full-time, paid employee of Alley Cat Allies, which is crazy. How can a paid staff member evaluate or provide oversight of her boss? (Wilcox left her job days ago, she wrote on Facebook.) The board, which includes some well-credentialed folk, including a PhD economist with the FDIC, has not met this year.  Top executives get generous pay. The organization pursued a costly copyright lawsuit against a former freelance photographer and his wife, for what appears to me to be no good reason. Employees say it’s an awful place to work. Etc.


And yet….those stellar rankings.


I write this not to critique Michael Thatcher, CEO of Charity Navigator, or Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, who are doing the best they can with limited resources. I like and admire both of them. But they don’t have anywhere near enough money or staff to independently examine hundreds or thousands of nonprofits. They might have uncovered the governance problems at Alley Cat Allies by closely reading its Form 990, but they could not have known that the charity was buying the house next door to its executive director. To their credit, neither claim to be watchdogs, although they are often portrayed or perceived that way.


What can the charitable sector do to better evaluate nonprofits? That’s hard to say. Maybe community foundations could come up with lists of best local nonprofits. Maybe other funders could focus on niches that they care about, by evaluating the education nonprofits that try to help poor kids get through college, or the climate-change advocacy groups, and then recommend the best of them, explaining why. (Animal Charity Evaluators does this for animal welfare groups, but, of course, that didn’t stop donors from sending money to Alley Cat Allies.) Independent evaluations collected by others could then be distributed on broad-based platforms such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for Feedback Labs or the broader feedback movement, to reward well-run nonprofits that listen to those they are trying to serve.


Meantime, what’s a donor to do? By all means, consult Charity Navigator and GuideStar. They will spotlight problems with a nonprofit after those problems become public, and they will help you, as a donor, avoid fake charities that spend most of their budgets on fundraising. But do a little of your own digging, too. Research a charity with as much seriousness as you’d research a car, a vacation or, for some, a restaurant. Or give to a nonprofit that you know well and trust. Or turn to organizations like GiveWell or the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which identify a small number of effective charities.


Do keep giving if you can. Thankfully, charities like Alley Cat Allies are the exception and not the rule.


sleepoversfb-900_1274-88a172This is an image from the Facebook feed of a man named Macintosh Johnson. Pictured is Katie Meyler, the founder of a charity called More Than Me that operates schools for poor, vulnerable girls in Liberia, like the girls in the photo. Macintosh Johnson and Katie Meyler were lovers. They ran More Than Me together until 2014 when Johnson was arrested and charged with raping at least 10 girls–likely, there were more–who studied at the MTM Academy, More Than Me’s flagship school. Two years later, after a jury trial in which he was neither convicted nor acquitted of the rapes, Johnson died in prison of AIDS.

All of this is according to ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization, which on Oct. 11 published a long (13,000 words) and absolutely devastating investigative story and a  45-minute documentary, both called Unprotected, about More Than Me. Here’s the trailer for the film, which argues, persuasively, that More Than Me missed opportunities to prevent the rapes and didn’t respond adequately after they became known. The school, for example, failed to test all of Johnson’s potential victims after learning that he had AIDS. This is a heartbreaking story.

Last week, Meyler, who is 36, took a leave of absence from More Than Me. Skip Borghese, the charity’s board chair, has resigned. In a statement, More Than Me said it was “deeply profoundly sorry” and acknowledged that it had failed the rape victims. But Meyler has insisted that her only mistake was to hire Macintosh Johnson. On the very day the ProPublica story appeared, she paid to be interviewed on a Liberian radio station where she defended herself and More Than Me’s work.

Here’s the thing, though: Katie Meyler didn’t build More Than Me on her own. She had lots of help. She has been financed by foundations and U.S. government agencies that, arguably, should have known better, especially once the rapes came to light; she won a popularity contest funded by JPMorgan Chase that awarded More Than Me a $1m prize to build MTM Academy; she was repeatedly lauded by credulous reporters; and she benefited from the persistent appeal of what has been called the white savior complex, a mindset that regards people in Africa, especially children, as helpless victims awaiting rescued by western do-gooders. Continue reading

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Dylan Matthews

Can journalism supported by a traditional foundation ask tough questions about what foundations are doing right–and doing wrong?

Future Perfect intends to try. It’s off to a promising start.

Launched this week by Vox, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Future Perfect plans to “carve out a space, away the regular news cycle, to cover and think about crucially important issues that are currently undercovered,” writes Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who with senior policy editor Elbert Ventura will oversee the site.

Global poverty. Malaria. Communicable diseases. Farm animal suffering. Existential risks to humanity, including runaway artificial intelligence. Organ donations.

That list may sound familiar. Those are causes that the effective altruism movement has identified as important and neglected. Future Perfect is “deeply inspired” by the ideas of effective altruism, according to Matthews. He has done more than any other reporter to bring the movement into the mainstream.

He writes:

Effective altruism has hit on a really fundamental, important insight: Relatively few people and organizations conduct themselves as though they’re actively trying to do as much good as possible. To some degree, that’s okay (not everyone has to act with that goal in mind), but it leaves a lot of obvious, high-impact ideas on the table, ideas that begin to come into focus if you start looking at the world through this lens.

Put another way, effective altruism argues that all of us can and should make value judgments about which nonprofits do the most good. Simply giving from the heart is not OK.

Importantly, effective altruists also pays close attention to costs. Nonprofits talk all the time about the good that they do, but rarely are they explicit about the costs. And, of course, costs matter a lot. It’s all well and good, say, to want to educate girls in Africa, but if one school spends twice as much as another per student, that’s an important data point for donors.

Future Perfect will live on the web and in a weekly podcast hosted by Matthews, who has been with Vox since its launch. In the first episode of the pod, he interviews Alexander Berger of the Open Philanthropy Project about effective altruism, and explains why he gave a kidney to a total stranger two years ago. (For more about effective altruism and Open Philanthropy, the giving arm of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, you read my long story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Among other things, Future Perfect will report on big philanthropy. Matthews writes:

We’re also going to be interrogating the decisions that big foundations (like the Gates Foundation, Open Philanthropy, and even our sponsors at the Rockefeller Foundation) are making. We’re trying to figure out the best ways to do good, and that means critically scrutinizing what existing institutions are trying.

This is welcome news. Foundations–arguable the least accountable institutions in America–deserve more scrutiny, for better or worse. Future Perfect has already spotlighted some success stories, and warned about a possible flop.

Here, for example, is a deeply-reported, nuanced story  by Matthews about programs that, at a reasonable cost, help extremely poor people “graduate” from poverty. It explains how they work, what we know, and what we don’t know about programs run by such NGOS as BRAC, Trickle Up and Village Enterprise. [See my 2017 blogpost, Village Enterprise: Alleviating poverty, delivering results.]

Equally impressive is Kelsey Piper’s thoughtful critique of Jeff Bezos’ $2bn gift to charity. Instead of jeering or cheering, Piper did some reporting about Bezos’s plans. (Always a good approach.) His promise to spend $1bn on preschools for children may not be the best idea, she notes pointedly, because “this has been tried before — and we really don’t know whether it works.” What’s more, she writes, Bezos isn’t starting small, with pilot programs to learn how to improve early childhood learning; he seems to be going ahead full bore, despite the fact that “starting at scale is a great way to waste a lot of money, and even do damage if your intervention turns out to be a bad idea.”

By phone, Matthews told me: “Keeping a critical eye on philanthropy — writing about philanthropic failures and successes — is going to be important going forward…We’re not here to be cheerleaders.”

Matthews hasn’t pulled his punches before. See, for example, his 2015 story, For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Harvard money. It begins: “There is a special plaque in philanthropist hell for John Paulson.” (This, from a 2012 Harvard grad, no less.) He has also written skeptically about elements of the effective altruism movement, including its focus on long-term risks, its lack of diversity and smugness.

Could the Rockefeller Foundation funding imperil critical reporting on philanthropy? The foundation gave Vox a $380,000 grant for 14 months to get Future Perfect up and running. Vox and the foundation were annoyingly vague about how this came to pass; it’s not clear to me whether Vox went to Rockefeller to ask for money, or whether the foundation approached Vox. Foundation support for journalism has been a godsend in recent years, but there’s always the risk that funding can distort coverage. You have to wonder, for example, about The Guardian’s reporting on factory farms, since it is backed by a grant from Open Philanthropy, which strongly opposes factory farming. (As do I, incidentally. But I want my journalism to be independent, and to challenge my priors.)

In any event, Matthews says that Future Perfect is a project that Vox believes in, and that it will persist, with or without more grant money from Rockefeller. “This is core to Vox’s mission,” he said.

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LastChanceForAnimals-inviteLast Chance for Animals says that it is dedicated to ending the exploitation of animals.

The exploitation of women? Not so much, it seems.

Otherwise, why would the Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group honor Erika Brunson with an “Albert Schweitzer Award” at its annual benefit gala?

Those who have paid attention to the #metoo problem in the animal rights movement will remember Brunson. An 80-something interior designer whose clients are said to include members of the Saudi Arabian royal family, Fortune 500 CEOs and celebrities, Brunson served on the board of the Humane Society of the US where she steadfastly and unapologetically stood by Wayne Pacelle, its former CEO, even as he faced multiple, credible allegations of sexual harassment.

When Rachel Perman, who oversees charitable giving at Tofurky, asked HSUS’s board to investigate the complaints against Pacelle, Brunson responded to her in an email saying: “Are you out of your mind? Don’t you have anything better to do in life, than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?”

Subsequently, Brunson told POLITICO: “This country is crazy. … It’s like this lynch-burning hysteria.” ** She suggested that women needed to “get tougher, don’t go around whining, saying you’ve been sexually harassed.”

Later, Brunson defended the HSUS board’s decision to keep Pacelle on the job in an interview with The New York Times. “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?” she was quoted as saying. “Women should be able to take care of themselves.”

Say this about Brunson: She’s consistent.

Brunson is a longtime donor to animal advocacy groups. Money talks. Maybe Last Chance for Animals hopes that she’ll bring some of her Saudi clients to the gala, where tables sell for as much as $50,000.

But honoring her with an award, at this moment, sends a terrible message to the women as well as men in the movement.

Emails and phone messages left with Last Chance for Animals were not returned. The group was founded in 1984 by Chris DeRose, an actor, who remains its chief executive. It’s a small organization, with less than $2m in annual revenues, according to its latest IRS tax return. Past supporters include Pamela Anderson, Ben Stiller, Courtney Cox and Kathy Freston, according to Look to the Stars.

** Lynch-burning hysteria?