Sackler, Altria, MacArthur: Ethical Quicksand in Big Philanthropy

Is our collective conscience bothered before we accept the gift or after the public outcry?

Watch your step!

Nonprofit knickers are twisting everywhere these days. Let’s start with the Sackler family. Just in case you were in an opioid-induced coma over the last few months, the Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin. The family is, as the Washington Post put it:

…mired in legal action, investigations and looming congressional inquiries about their role in marketing a drug blamed for a significant early role in an epidemic of overdose deaths that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans since 1997.

Mortimer D. Sackler, along with his brothers Raymond and Arthur, bought Purdue Pharma in 1952. Mortimer was a board member of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for over 20 years. He and the Sackler family have been huge donors over the years — totaling $9 million or so between 1995 and 2015. However, on March 22 of this year, the Guggenheim made the decision no longer to accept financial gifts from Sackler.

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The timing is unusual. It is not as though Purdue Pharma suddenly became corrupt last month. In fact, according to The New York Times:

In 2007, Purdue’s parent company pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud or mislead.

The key information here is not the gifts, but the timeline:

  • 2007 — guilty plea
  • 2015 — final gift from Mortimer D. Sackler
  • 2019 — Guggenheim chooses to deny gifts from the Sacklers

One is left to wonder about the ethical turpitude of the Guggenheim, a famous and large nonprofit arts organization, between 2007 and 2015, when an indisputably blameworthy Sackler family member continued to sit on its board and assisted in governing its direction and policies.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, 47,600 people died from opioid overdose in 2017, and 42,252 died in 2016. The total opioid-related overdose deaths since 2013? It exceeds 200,000.

One can see why the Guggenheim — along with the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Galleries in London — is refusing philanthropy from the leading purveyor of the most popular opioid maker on the planet. But does the gap in time that it took for those large nonprofits to make that decision show a lack of courage? A wish for the problem to blow over? A lengthy and circumspect discussion on the subject?

Or did they wait until photographer Nan Goldin and other artists protested, as they did back in February? When did the Guggenheim, or any other large nonprofit art organization now or seemingly soon on the verge of spurning the Sacklers, ever previously call into question their governing and financial relationship with a pharmaceutical serial-killer?

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And then there’s Altria. That is the Groucho-glasses-and-nose name that America’s largest cigarette maker, Phillip Morris USA, chose in an attempt to disengage its tainted reputation from Big Tobacco. The invented moniker begins with the same first three letters as altruism — undoubtedly no coincidence. Over time, marketers of products that are associated with evil or death will always find ham-handed ways to shore up their image.

And it worked! You no longer read much about controversial donations to nonprofits from Big Tobacco. In Phillip Morris’ — er, Altria’s — hometown of Richmond, VA (the state ranks third in tobacco-farming), the company donated $10 million in February 2014 to restore and rename the state’s largest theater. There was little to no uproar at the time.

What’s next? The Penthouse Forum?

The question is this: shouldn’t there have been an uproar? How many thousands of people have died over the years, over the decades, because Phillip Morr — er, Altria — inserted highly addictive additives to their cigarettes so they’d burn out more quickly, causing the smoker to light up another one? How many thousands — hundreds of thousands — died due to carcinogens in the cigarettes?

And wait a minute — wait, please, just for a minute. How many liquor companies give generously to the arts? How many people are addicted to alcohol?

Let’s not forget pornography’s subjugation of women, causing generations of deluded men to rationalize cruel, derogatory and criminal actions. Will there be protests before naming-rights contributions create the Larry Flynt Stage at the MindGeek Theater, or will they happen after the fact? Or will protests happen at all?

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And now we come to the story of John D. MacArthur. You have likely seen, read, heard or been a recipient of a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. You can read all about MacArthur’s success story on the foundation’s website. When he died in 1978, he was the third richest man in America.

How did this insurance mogul make his money? This tidbit might offer a clue:

Surviving the Depression… was likely due to John MacArthur’s penchant for scamming customers, vendors and investigators. He routinely discarded claims (‘Heck, if someone really had a claim, he figured he would hear from him again’) and misaddressed checks to keep money in the company coffers a bit longer.

What about the time MacArthur received positive press for hiring a diverse workforce? In actuality, according to his biography, the ceilings in his company’s building were unusually low, so he hired, uh, little people at lower-than-low wages to be his custodians rather than spend money to bring the building up to code. It appears the only reason he created his foundation was to escape all estate taxes — roughly a $6 billion tax dodge.

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So let’s ask the question a different way. Is accepting money from a liar, a thief and an insurance scammer a problem?

The list of bad people could go on and on. Earlier this year, I referenced the not-so-good works of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. There was little public outrage over that. In an old column back in my 137 Words days, I talked about the rejected philanthropy of noted get-off-my-lawn racist Donald Sterling. Again, only a few rumblings of dissent. Need we discuss UCLA’s Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy, named for the family of the ex-con and junk bond misanthrope who gave $10 million to (yep, you guessed it!) UCLA?

Alternatively, is there a prevailing notion within nonprofit boardrooms to the effect of “Well, if we don’t take that money, someone else will” — an idea that eschews ethics entirely?

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When I was the managing director for a major theater company in Alabama, a donor once asked me why we did programming for African American people — only he didn’t use the phrase “African American people.” He added, “They’re uneducated, they’re unsophisticated, they don’t like us, they don’t come, and when you do plays for them, it’s like you’re rubbing our nose in it.” This was an annual $100,000 donor. He had given the company unrestricted support for several years — which meant that the company could, and did, use his money to support works by and for African Americans.

The baldness of the donor’s statement completely threw me. I didn’t know whether to punch him, yell and scream at him, or just get up and walk out of the room. It was my Kobayashi Maru and I will never forgive the people who put me, and the organization, in a position where that point of view was considered acceptable.

I understand the logic of “We’ll take everyone’s money” and the logic of “We won’t take any ethically impure money.” Those are pure. What I question is the efficacy of cherry-picking the ethics of the donors to your arts organization. Do you choose to receive or not to receive donations from particular corners of the philanthropic universe because of the nonprofit’s core belief or your own personal core beliefs? Is your collective conscience bothered before you choose to accept the gift or after there’s a public outcry about it?

Why you get up every morning is directly tied to your belief system. The question arises, then, that only you can answer: Are you working for a nonprofit that believes as you do, or are they convenient in their protestations when a horrible person or family wants to make a sizable donation?