Tag Archives: nonprofits

More Greenwashing by the Rich

New Orleans     Cases continue to mount, marching forward on an almost daily basis, where we watch the rich attempt to greenwash their wealth and reputations for their private interests and tax benefits and distort the privileges that are claimed by philanthropy.

Ghislaine Maxwell, sometime consort and alleged pimp for Jeffrey Epstein and perhaps an heir to a controversial British publishing fiasco owned by her father until irregularities cropped up after his death, headed a US foundation briefly as she tried to distance herself publicly from Epstein after he did time in 2008 for soliciting underage women for prostitution. The foundation TerraMar, whose name signaled an interest in land and sea, claimed to want to advance the health of the ocean, given Maxwell’s love of yachts. IRS filings indicate that the foundation made no grants during its first five years from 2013 to 2017 according to its 990s, as reviewed by The New York Times. One of her friends was quoted as saying it seemed in one case to be “reputation management,” and another seemed to indicate that the foundation was perhaps more about conserving Maxwell’s reputation as it was conserving the ocean. Of course she may have also been taking a page from his book, since he was a big donor to various scientific efforts and Harvard for his own reputational whitewashing campaign forcing some big whoops to apologize for hanging with him.

Admittedly, these are sordid examples of perverse philanthropy perhaps, but I wonder how different than the usual, and for many of these self-proclaimed philanthropists, how much is ever in the public interest?

Make no mistake. The Internal Revenue Services provides its most favorable ruling of a 501c3 public charity providing a tax exemption for donations for organizations operating in the public, rather than private interest, involving public health, education, and community benefits.

All of this greenwashing of the rich and elite has gotten more attention thanks to the infamous Sackler family that pulled billions out of Purdue Pharma, the notorious manufacturer and hawker of opioids that have killed thousands. Various world-class museums including the Louvre in Paris and the Tate in London, have pulled back from the family or taken their names off the door, so to speak, though few have returned any of the millions they received. Now a fellow was pushed off the board of the Whitney Museum because he made his pile partially by manufacturing tear gas used on protestors around the world. The notorious rightwing, anti-democratic Koch family has their names on many of these cultural institutions for their contributions and does so with impunity, so this is all more window washing, rather than a deep clean.

Now the rich are whining because a boycott was announced of SoulCycle and some other investments by billionaire Steven Ross a primary investor there, real estate mogul, and owner of the Miami Dolphins, because he was hosting a $250,000 a ticket fundraiser for Donald Trump at his place in the Hamptons. Some of their board buddies defend him and others of the tribe loudly for their interest in education, art, opera or whatever, claiming that politics is getting muddled into philanthropy.

Wow, what a specious argument! As the Times’ “Wealth Matters” columnist was forced to admit, “Their resources and connections can influence the decisions of institutions managed for the public good….” Well, yeah! And, it’s not “can,” but DO influence the decisions. Why mince words. The public good is not their private interest or, heaven forbid, that of their elite friends who are also enamored of the opera, arts, or wherever they are claiming social capital and a tax exemption for greenwashing their personal reputation and cleaning up the damage they do to the public in minting their money. You could count on Ross to threaten his football players when Kaepernick was kneeling, and he did. You can count on the Koch’s to do everything they can to damage the climate, if it pads their pockets, and to destroy democracy at every opportunity.

As the superrich club bemoans the lack of gratitude from hoi polloi, whether it’s donor-directed funds or their tax-exempt think tanks or their general buddy-buddy greenwashing efforts with their fellow rich elites, there’s no question that whether it’s the Whitney or some small nonprofit, when are they going to admit that they are the piper playing the tunes, and they expect all these people to dance. It’s all transactional for them, so why not stop pretending it has anything to do with benefiting the public.

Let the protests continue!

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Why is it so Hard to Talk about Organizational Structure?

Milwaukee       Amani United, like a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, is an embryonic organization attempting to emerge from its status as a project of a larger organization into a membership, resident-led organization that can spread its own wings and fly.  On this point everyone agrees, including the leadership core of Amani United and its parent organization, the Dominican Center.  Getting there is never easy, but it is easy to forget how important it is to get the structure right from the very beginning, and that was the task for hours of discussion on a harsh spring evening in Milwaukee as Amani leaders gathered to take on this task.

Ironically, structure is so important, but why is it so hard to talk about organizational structure?  I think there are a lot of reasons.  Organizational experience and participation continue to plummet whether in unions, voluntary associations, scouting, church, or even the NRA.  People just don’t have the cradle-to-grave kind of organizational attachments that were common fifty years ago.  But, it’s not just that.  The models are less transparent and less discussed.

Regular reports indicate that civic education is no longer a fundamental part of public education throughout the United States.  Fewer schools teach it at all as a mandatory subject.  People no longer know, even in a rudimentary way, how local, state, and federal governments work.  There’s also every indication that confusion is by design rather than accident.  Right now, in the standoff between Congress and the White House over information and transparency and the Trump administration’s refusal to respond to subpoenas, we can see a vivid example.  Politicians and governmental employees at all levels don’t want the public to know how it all works or see behind the screen of TV, tweets, and press releases.  Such concerted efforts to not make democracy work, make it harder even at the grassroots level for people of good will and intention who are trying to design a structure for their own organization to puzzle out exactly what their own democracy should be, making every choice hard and every decision difficult.

Trying to address this with the Amani United leaders, I devised a page-and-a-half “decision tree” or checklist of threshold structural questions with yes-or-no answers in some cases and little-more-none and similar multiple-choice selections when it came to accountability questions.  Where people came to consensus most quickly was on the need to hold leaders accountable, and this might be part of the reaction to current organizational and governmental practice.

The hardest questions revolved around confusion over exactly what a nonprofit association is and what it can do as a nonprofit versus a tax-exempt nonprofit.  Funders and others have so hopelessly blurred the lines that regular citizens simply don’t know the difference, forcing them to make kneejerk decisions that might hobble their futures without even understanding the choices they might be making.  The other Gordian knot is membership itself.  People are clear they want leaders accountable, but it becomes harder for people to easily sort out their conflicting desires to both be inclusive in their community and also be effective as an organization.  Can just anyone be a member?  Should there be classes of membership with different rights and obligations?  Should members pay dues and agree to the principles of the organization?  Can nonresidents be members of a community-defined organization like Amani United, and what should be done about property owners who may be absentee landlords.

Yes, these questions aren’t easy to answer in the best of circumstances, but once everything about organizational and civic activity is “throw the rock and hide the hand,” people are left clueless in trying to devise a more perfect union in their own organization.

What can I say?  It’s a process!

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