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!


Decolonizing Wealth Against the Odds

Edgar Villanueva
Photo by Naomi Ishisaka

New Orleans       There was something strange about talking to Edgar Villanueva about his experiences as a foundation executive at institutions large and larger.  He has written a book called Decolonizing Wealth reminiscent of a prisoner detailing his experience behind the walls.   The velvet chains that bind both grant makers, like Villanueva, and grant seekers, like most of the rest of the nonprofit world, often come with a strict Mafia-like code of omerta or silence where no one on either side wants to be seen too clearly as identifying with the prison guards protecting the money for the rich and handing out their privilege and resources, but neither do they want to upset the system which feeds both grantees and grantors.  All of which makes the philanthropic world controlled by the wealthy almost impossible to change, much less reform.

As I told Villanueva when interviewing him for Wade’s World on our radio outlets, the metaphor of colonialism and its abuses were commonly used by those of us who had spent any amount of time trying to raise money from foundations and the rich.  To hear a foundation executive embrace the same terms flipped the script in a surprising way. What’s more, my prison and Villanueva’s colonialism metaphors turn out to be a kinder and gentler description than what Villanueva uses in his book where foundations are pictured more readily – and accurately – as plantations and Villanueva and his colleagues on their staff become the “house slaves.”  The chapter titles include “Arriving at the Plantation, ““House Slaves,” “Field Hands,” and “Overseers,” leaving little doubt about Villanueva’s analysis of his experience, and, frankly, that of most of the rest of us who have ever knocked on their doors or been supplicants for foundation favors while trying to maintain self-respect for ourselves and our organizations.

Villanueva brings his heritage in the South and as a member of the Lumbee Tribe to the task, while continually confronting whether his experience and that of some of his colleagues is still just tokenism.  His program emerges as he answers his own question:

What does decolonized leadership look like?  Compassionate, empathetic, vulnerable leaders?  Servant leaders?  Leaders who listen?  Yes, and it’s not about the individual.  We have to shift our obsession with the individual leaders to focus on organizational design, which tends to be taken for granted and invisible in most our institutions.

I asked Villanueva whether there was a snowball’s chance that foundations or philanthropists would really change.  He answered largely that he had been surprised by the favorable reaction to his argument so far, the positive response from colleagues, and his invitation to address foundation boards and bring the argument to them directly.

We can hope Villanueva is right, but reading his book and talking to him, you know that he is putting a smiling face on his own real doubts.  He is clear about the decades of discussions about diversity and how little that has yielded.  Speaking truth to power is rarely an effective program to create real change, much less any transfer of power.  Dealing with the rich adds another degree of difficulty to the task in the absence of incentives for them to change and any real protest from the victims of colonial oppression, the grant seekers and their constituencies, much less any real effort at public or regulatory accountability since the same rich also populate the political donor class.

Villanueva’s voice is a clear one that needs to be heard in the wilderness.  Most of us know that wilderness life is hard and unforgiving.  He’s still trying to survive in the same plantation he describes.  It is worth watching to see if he makes it.