October 3, 2021
Earlier this month I wrote about the complicated nature of modern philanthropy. How good intentions may not be enough to correct a seriously unbalanced and unfair society even when that is a philanthropist’s objective.
That article was the outgrowth of an offer to interview the President and CEO of a foundation that wanted to share its story because it strongly believes that it is doing something very special and important. I have written often over the last six years about philanthropists who use the clout their resources give them with little accountability to the public they say they serve. But I have seldom had the opportunity to talk directly with them. This was an opportunity to talk with a woman who was leading her family’s foundation down the path that she strongly believes in.
I said yes. A few weeks later she and I shared a Zoom room and we spoke about the work of the foundation and her strategy for improving the lives of those who were struggling economically in her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a recorded Zoom room, I listened to her assessment of the problems being faced, her efforts to use her resources to make real positive economic change in the lives of people, and her overall philanthropic philosophy. I was interested in hearing how she listened to those who would be impacted by her philanthropy’s efforts and whether she saw a need for systemic change that would address the reasons why so many in her community were poor and the historic debts we owe to Native American and African American communities.
And then I sat down and wrote a piece that placed this effort in the context of the bigger picture. What I wrote recognized the sincere desire of this Foundation to make the difficult situation that many of her neighbors faced better and the commitment of its CEO to doing good things. I called out the positive impact that their work was having. But I also addressed the systemic issues of wealth inequality and racism and asked if philanthropy was as much a part of the problem as it was the answer.
I thought the piece was fair. It recognized the positive impact of the Foundation’s work. It made no accusations of dishonesty or unethical behavior. But it put them in a larger context of our nation’s growing wealth divide which left so many struggling.
I wrote, “is it not time for the philanthropic community to step forward and put their weight behind the effort to enact law and policy that brings structural change at the local, state, and federal levels? And is it not time for them to commit their resources to follow the impacted community’s direction on how they want the debts they are owed to be repaid? These are the nagging questions that plague modern philanthropy. Philanthropists and their Foundations say they want to do the right thing. They say that they want to make the world a better place. But they also want to remain in control of the process. They want to remain in control of where and how risks are taken and of whose lives are put at risk. To ask them to put their own comfort on the line, to put their own power and wealth on the line, maybe too much to ask. But is it really taking on the root causes of wealth inequality?”
As a courtesy, I sent my contact a first draft of the article so I could get their reactions before I posted the piece. And then the story got more interesting.
Criticism was not welcome. In a series of emails and phone calls, they pushed me not to publish. They wanted only positive things said about them. Just raising a question about their work was a step too far for them. Being powerful, they felt they were in control. They wanted only articles they wanted, and they were going to insist that I write to their specifications.
This is the attitude that seems to pervade too many philanthropists. Because they have wealth, they believe they have wisdom beyond others. Their having reached the status they have reached is proof that their ideas are the best ideas. And they will use their power to stifle, challenge and question.
Writing last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, Tim Schwab analyzed the impact of the Gates Foundations’ major charitable investments in the press on the coverage they the nation’s largest foundation received from the free press.. Philanthropists seem sensitive to criticism, a sensitivity that comes with power.
Schwab ends his reporting with concern beyond just one foundation, a concern that seems reflected in my experience trying to place philanthropy in perspective. “A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires–turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates has shown how seamlessly the most controversial industry captain can transform his public image from tech villain to benevolent philanthropist. Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth—not the most admired.”
For organizations struggling financially the implied threat that aggressive coverage will threaten their survival may be enough to silence criticism or, at least, soften it into meaninglessness. I felt a different pressure, one that was never voiced. Though I thought what I wrote was accurate and that I had quoted the Director accurately I feared a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) suit.
I feared the reality of such suits as described by a New York State Judge. I would “lack the financial resources and emotional stamina to play out the “game” face the difficult choice of defaulting despite meritorious defenses or being brought to their knees to settle…Persons who have been outspoken on issues of public importance targeted in such suits or who have witnessed such suits will often choose in the future to stay silent. Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.” Gordon v. Marrone, 590 N.Y.S. 2d 649, 656 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1992
In the back and forth with the Foundation no one ever mentioned a suit. But this worry was there. It was strong enough for me to recast the article before I published it. I removed every direct quote and used only information about the Foundation and its people that was publicly available.
The problem is bigger than one writer for a small blog site.