Good Intentions Up In Smoke
Some donations are more helpful than others. A British charity that apparently wanted to aid Albanian farmers has instead landed some of them in the hoosegow. The Partnership for Growth supplied poor Albanians with a supply of plants to grow as “cash crops” on their impoverished farms. They were cash crops, all right: Albanian police have been busy uprooting all 400,000 of the marijuana plants. Meanwhile, the Partnership for Growth regrets the mix-up and says that it is very sorry that its beneficiaries are now in trouble with the law: “There has been a total misunderstanding. Partnership for Growth is absolutely devastated that innocent farmers have been arrested and the crops destroyed.” After reviewing the matter, the nonprofit insists that the plants were industrial hemp, but chemical tests by Albanian police indicate otherwise.
An item in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the assets of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation dropped from a high of $18 billion last year to $7.8 billion. At a time when fortunes are made and lost with startling rapidity, it is still worth noting that the sum they lost last year—$10 billion—is equal to more than 50 percent of all foundation giving in America in 1999.
An Unwelcome “Gift” That Keeps Giving…
We all know that the world of giving is getting more and more sophisticated. And we also know that pyramid schemes are foolish—and illegal. Or at least we’re supposed to know that. But there’s a burgeoning wave of pyramid schemes cascading across the country under the banner of “The Gift of Giving.” The idea is that you pool a large sum of money from people below you on the list and then recoup your investment (ostensibly, many times over) when it’s your “turn.” The latest incarnation of the classic scam now passes under the guise of “charity” or “gift” giving. “They say it’s not a pyramid scheme—it’s a ‘gifting’ concept. But when you try it out on paper, a pyramid is what it is,” El Dorado County District Attorney Gary L. Lacy told the Sacramento Bee. “It’s sweeping in like a wave right now, and I’m just trying to keep people from getting sucked under . . . This is just a con game, preying on people’s belief that they can make money quickly.”
Joan Ryan, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is another person who learned a painful lesson about charity gone awry: “Last summer, I unwittingly set in motion a fraud scheme that eventually stretched from San Francisco to Uganda to Tokyo and so far has netted more than $100,000 for a band of African criminals.” She had urged her readers to donate money to the beleaguered Samburu people of Kenya, but the checks sent by big-hearted readers never reached their intended beneficiaries. “They were intercepted, probably in the Nairobi post office, then shipped to Uganda. There, they were bleached and rewritten for $3,000 or $540 or $9,890 and made payable to a variety of businesses, most in Uganda. Later, readers discovered forgeries of their signatures on letters authorizing money to be transferred by wire from their California banks to accounts in Japan.” Despite the fact that bank insurance covered most of the fraud, many readers were “plunged into temporary financial crises because their accounts had been wiped out,” and others had to close their accounts. Chastened by the experience (and the “inch-thick” folder of hate mail and reader complaints), Ryan still wants to help the Samburu people. But this time she’s telling readers to send checks to an American foundation that has expertise in this area.
Who Was That Mysterious Metaphysician?
Dozens of philosophy scholars at prestigious universities have been receiving packets in the mail, containing a trim book on neoclassical metaphysics and a letter from the A. M. Monius Institute offering them $12,000 to read and review the book. Amazingly, the offers turned out to be legitimate. But the identity of the author—and what on earth the secretive A. M. Monius Institute is—remained shrouded in mystery. An editor at Lingua Franca magazine took up the hunt and investigated such disparate suspects as actress Sigourney Weaver, naturalist Diane Fosse, and the distinguished chairman of the Princeton philosophy department. Finally, she unearthed the identity of the philosopher/philanthropist: a frustrated former philosophy student who concluded that the best way to get certain ideas read by the academic establishment was to pay them to do so.
Arguing with Success
When philanthropist Ann Rubenstein Tisch founded the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem four years ago, she didn’t expect that her most vociferous critics would be feminists and civil libertarians. Turns out they objected to the fact that the public school would be single-sex. But now that the school is achieving remarkable successes (all 32 graduates this year are going on to four-year colleges), she gets the last laugh. “The idea that each of our graduates has been accepted by a four-year college not only met my expectations but went way beyond,” she told the New York Times. Yet the critics haven’t given up. “It would be a terrible mistake to attribute its success not to these characteristics but to the fact that it excludes boys,” said Donna Lieberman, interim executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. And according to the Times, “Nancy Millar, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, suggested that saving a few girls was distracting from the larger task of improving public education throughout the city.” Calling her critics “social anorexics,” Rubenstein Tisch exasperatedly explains, “You’re only helping 320 kids in Harlem. Therefore if you go with their logic, you shouldn’t help any. I just think it’s a distorted sense of social responsibility to talk like that. It wouldn’t be so ‘only’ if it was your child. And by the way, I think that 320 children in East Harlem is nothing to sneeze at.”
Not the New Money You Expected
Only a few years ago, policy wonks were drooling over the prospect of a new wave of tech-generated philanthropic wealth pouring into Washington, D.C. Well, there’s a new wave of wealth headed toward certain policy outfits, but it isn’t from newly-rich tech donors—it’s from newly super-rich trial lawyers. UPI describes this new money as a “nightmare” for conservative nonprofits, since trial lawyers have become the single largest soft money donors to the Democratic Party. A legal observer notes, “We are certainly seeing personal injury lawyers seeking political power to an extent not seen before. The millions, and in some cases billions, in fees won in the tobacco settlement are being reinvested in the political process and personal campaigns for office.”
An Outrage Averted
A federal appeals court has ruled that the United Way of America does not have to pay its disgraced former president, William Aramony, the $2 million in retirement compensation that a lower court had previously awarded to him. Aramony, who is currently serving a jail sentence for defrauding the charity, will receive a settlement of about $7,000 instead. According to the Washington Post, Aramony “was fired amid allegations that he looted United Way funds to enrich himself.”
It is not terribly uncommon for politicians to donate the royalties from their books to charity. One unexpected example of this type of largesse is Adolf Hitler. It may not have been Hitler’s intention, but proceeds from the sale of the English language version of his book Mein Kampf have been flowing into the coffers of the German Welfare Council, a British charity, for decades. All told, more than £500,000 have gone to the nonprofit group. But now they say they want to give the tainted money back. Jewish charities have refused to profit from sales of the book (which is banned in many countries). Random House, the book’s U.K. publisher, says that it will distribute the royalties to “appropriate” charities, but will make sure to tell them whence the proceeds came.
Good Times at In These Times
In These Times is a magazine that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “started out socialist and became progressive.” Its circulation may have plummeted in recent years, but boosters point out that it’s not how many readers you have, it’s who they are. “Folk singer Pete Seeger still reads it and sends in quirky handwritten notes with banjo doodles. Matt Groening, creator of ‘The Simpsons,’ reads it, as do author-intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich, and the 20,000 or so public-affairs junkies who think In These Times is the finest, most unfettered source of news analysis America’s got.” But with readership declining and outright donations becoming its chief revenue source, the magazine was in danger of folding—until Bob Burnett came along. Burnett, a Silicon Valley millionaire who co-founded Cisco Systems, took over the magazine last fall, and sees his ownership as an “opportunity to help rebuild the progressive movement, something I believe to be of vital importance.” Burnett is planning to implement what he calls “Secret Plan X” to restore the magazine to a position of wider influence. No word yet on the details, but the stated goal of the plan is to make the magazine “the vehicle that changes left-wing politics forever.”
Who says this isn’t a great time for giving to the arts? In the Washington area anyway, arts institutions haven’t seen anything like this since the robber barons of the 19th century poured money into museums and libraries. Over just the past two years, cultural institutions in the nation’s capital have been showered with gifts. According to the Washington Post, “the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress have pulled in more than $400 million in big-ticket gifts. That is almost four times the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.” One ominous sign, though: a large chunk of that money came from tech and Internet moguls.