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Guest post by Salty Current: A real transparency problem

Originally a comment on Asking a question.

Others have already said much that I would have about the content and attitude of this missive, but I found this remark the most concerning:

The Global Secular Council “launched” only its website and social media at the behest of many involved, mainly donors,

As I mentioned previously, many of these organizations seem to have a real transparency problem concerning donations and finances. It was a big issue at RDF, Rogers’ recent firing appears to have something to do with embezzlement at SCA, I can’t get anyone from the Harvard Humanists to give any information about donors,* and the course of the JREF looks at this point to be determined by one guy.

To the extent that an organization or sub-organization is dominated by one or a handful of donors with outsized influence, it tends to reflect their politics, priorities, and personal animosities and agendas rather than those of the community. Now this new project appears, founded and advised by the “Bella & Stella Foundation.” Who is this? Is it a vanity project of one or more of the “Experts,” several of whom are also on the SCA’s advisory board? Do the donors, important enough to push through the GSC’s launch, have their own political goals?

This changes the whole situation for people who are questioning or criticizing an organization’s actions, because they’re (reasonably) expecting the organization to be responsive to its supporters and to the community it claims to represent, when it largely won’t be because it’s beholden to a small number of individuals. People will tend to attribute to incompetence what’s really an intentional course of action.

* I’m not asking them to name people, just to say whether the large bulk of donations come from small donations or one or a handful of individual rich people or organizations.

 

Comments

  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Hear hear, SC.

    Groups that claim to represent a community should at least be sufficiently transparent to be accountable to that community.

    No accountability?

    No justice.

  2. says

    It really is a little sad.

    Speaking mostly as fly on the wall (full disclosure: I donate to various secular causes, a tiny bit, here and there, but my meatspace involvement is pretty lean), with fair acknowledgement I’m complaining about stuff I haven’t done much concrete, personally to fix, this caveat now out ahead of this…

    … I figure one of the central problems of religion, and so what I’d think should be one of the central impetuses of a secularist organization–is its essential authoritarianism, and the kinds of communities and relationships seem implicitly (and it only stops at implicitly, in my experience, if you’re lucky) encouraged by so much of the tradition. The god at the head of it all, a hierarchy below this, everyone else ultimately a servant, a subject, a follower. Actual religious organizations have various actual characters in this regard, but it’s one of the things I always figured was very key, here: the rituals built around that, the traditions built around that, the themes within the various canons are so much about that kind of power dynamic. It just doesn’t seem to work to me very well to be especially religious and much participant in democratic societies in general, but okay, granted, that’s a more radical view of it than some have. But certainly actively involving religions in government, recognizing religious principles as at all authoritative in government, that’s part of the problem, in the more general view, I always figured. The authority, in short. Authority in modern governments, so much as we have it, is a much more negotiated thing, something rather more qualified in scope, and granted provisionally, generally temporarily. Here is your office, here are your powers. Misuse them, and we’ll be having another conversation about those, and shortly.

    So to me, again, that’s a big part of what secularism is about. Recognizing that essential incompatibility. That’s the reason one of the words you do see paired with ‘secular’ is so frequently ‘democracy’. That was one of the central bones picked in the enlightenment, and central to the enlightenment revolutions.

    So if you say you’re doing secularism, and you’re styling yourself ‘thought leaders’, and accountability is at all muddled, if the essential relationship, even, is more of leader and follower than representative or perhaps spokesperson and citizen/client, I figure, yeah, you’ve got this very, very wrong. Maybe there’s a place for a private secularist’s ‘think tank’ pet project, which is kinda what this thing looks like. But let’s be clear who set it up, who pays for it, who the speak for when they speak, and, honestly, enough with the ‘global’ already, when it so clearly isn’t. And any of us want to say, listen, we sure as hell wouldn’t have voted for these people, had that been the mechanism, and would not choose them to speak for us (and I wouldn’t chose Shermer at gunpoint, at this point), and do not feel they speak for us in any way, yeah, you’re going to have to get used to hearing that.

  3. Menyambal says

    To further #2, the people who were talking about thought leaders have also mentioned “loyal followers” of bloggers. It really does feel like some folks are in an hierarchical mindset, with themselves at the top.

  4. clamboy says

    Out of curiosity, I tried multiple online tools to try to find information about “The Bella & Stella Foundation.” So far I have had no success. They appear to have no web presence, they are not listed as a nonprofit with the IRS, and no results come up when using the most popular charitable foundation look-up sites.

    It is certain that other readers here have better research skills. Perhaps someone else will have more luck. After all, if one is being asked to contribute to an organization, it is reasonable to take some due diligence in finding out who are the larger supporters of said organization.

  5. says

    Oh well they’re being playful. Surely that’s an appropriate way for an organization to manage such things as funding and donations. It worked well for the parent organization the SCA.

    Wait…

  6. Donnie says

    Well, “The Stella & Bella Foundation” appears as a Secular Angel ($10,000/yr) in 2013 & 2014. There appears to be a lot of Secular Angels that dropped their year-on-year contribution between 2013 & 2014.

    - Coincidence?
    - Results of the embezzlement?
    - To busy to update their Secular Angel contribution?
    - Indulgences?

    This whole thing just smells, weird? I really like the whole Secular Coalition of American concept but this ‘Global’ thought leadership makes no sense. What does the SCA need for a Global presence? Strategic thinking people! Get your own house in order (ie., the US Congress) before reaching out an imposing your Global standards on other countries /snark?

    https://secular.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=3

  7. Al Dente says

    There was an interesting comment in the NY Times article on Edwina Rogers’ dismissal from SCA:

    It has also alarmed several top donors, according to interviews and leaked emails, whose contributions in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars keep the coalition and many of its member groups afloat.

    “I can be a good and generous friend, or I can be a very effective adversary,” wrote one major donor, Lloyd S. Rubin, in an email to board members and the heads of member organizations last week.

    Google found only one Lloyd S. Rubin, here’s one article which mentions him :

    One of the world’s largest offshore banking centers, Panama still attracts its share of pirates and flim-flam men. My all-time favorite for sheer verve and virtuosity was Lloyd S. Rubin, a Jackie Gleason look-alike widely admired here as the king of the upfront-fee scam. For years, Mr. Rubin lured hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs to Panama where he relieved them of millions of dollars by charging exorbitant fees in exchange for promises to provide investment funds that never materialized.

    In 1991, I wrote about Mr. Rubin in The Wall Street Journal. The following year, a notice appeared in local newspapers announcing Mr. Rubin’s untimely death in Thailand. Three years later, Mr. Rubin rose from the dead. He surfaced in Ecuador, with an alias, Carlos Campbell De Cordoba, a name I felt almost turned him into a long-lost cousin. He was returned to the U.S. where he pled guilty in Georgia to fraud charges to do with his Panama scheme, and spent some time in prison. (Mr. Rubin now runs an art gallery here [Panama City].)

  8. Maureen Brian says

    OMG! I had not seen that donation form before. The whole thing reeks of hierarchy, of America knows best and the only one with any claim at all to be “global” (if a weak claim) is at the bottom of the heap – Tom Paine.

    If that form is the work of one person then you could get a psychologist to do a “suitability for this task” report on the basis of it. Every discomfort so far expressed is proved to be justified.

  9. says

    is now funding major secular organizations?

    Phrased that a bit wrong, how about: “is a major donor to secular organizations, with apparently the influence such that the Secular Coalition’s board and the leaders of all its member organizations listen to him”?

    Sarcastic silver lining: It takes a crook to catch a crook?

    Let me say I’m fine with accepting money (legally) from folks, even those who have been convicted of fraud, who want to further the shared cause. But goddamn this looks bad, “joke like” if you will.

  10. says

    Should exercise caution in assuming that it’s the same Lloyd S. Rubin… however (as Prof. Irwin Corey, The World’s Foremost Authority, used to say)… looking around I see that there’s a multi-million dollar charitable foundation in Panama, the Art Appreciation Foundation, donors Jack and Bessie Rubin. It seems to have a lot of art (“over 3,700 original works of art”), gives out some millions of dollars annually, and among other things puts out “Art Knowledge News”, edited by a Lloyd S. Rubin.

    The Lloyd S. Rubin in the story mentioned in #7 above faked his death in Thailand in the early 90s, and of course had a Panama connection. It could be coincidence, with two Lloyd S. Rubins in Panama, but it’s certainly suspicious.

  11. Karen Owens says

    I’m not saying this is ideal, just telling it like it is in 2 points. So don’t shoot the messenger. Point 1: Nobody should attack these GSC people as being ‘self-promoting’ or ‘self-appointed’ till the backers & their motives are known. The idea for the GSC may not be the idea of any of the people on the council & some of the people may not be ‘self-promoting’ or ‘self-appointed’ at all, but rather recruited by big donors who want to back one or more of these particular people & only them & their choices of who they can work well with, under a banner of secularism, global in particular. The Freehought / Secular etc. movement is so far behind religions in raising money that when rare big donors come along, as long as they are otherwise ethical, we have to accept that their big donations come with a few conditions such as who will run the org. When I worked for CODESH in the 90s, we knew that some donors gave big because of their confidence in Paul Kurtz at the head. He didn’t remain at the head because he was a dictator as some people accused. He was the draw for big donors. I was with the Dawkins Foundation from its inception. Our 2 biggest donors approached Richard, one with the offer to back him before we had even named the org & incorporated. They were investing in Richard & stated that they would not be giving the money if anyone else were to head the org. In the beginning, RDF was supposed to be the Dawkins Harris Foundation. That couldn’t happen for obvious personal reasons. But in discussions, Sam too revealed that he had people who wanted to back him in particular. Big donors get behind people they feel will be most effective. You may not be fond of some of the people on GSC, but many people find them charismatic etc., including big donors. What if some rich donor was smitten with Ophelia & her books, articles, blog, speeches etc. & approached her with an offer of $1mil to head an Atheistic Feminist org & asked her to pick a dozen people with whom she could work well to comprise the board. I suppose people would unjustly be shouting ‘self-promoting’, ‘self-appointed’ the instant the org was announced. The only difference is that Ophelia would probably explain the circumstances from the start. Either the GSC is really ‘self-promoting’ & ‘self-appointed’ or they neglected to include a good PR person to explain the provenance of their org. Until we know, we shouldn’t cry foul. I’ll wait for the flak from this post before I get to Point 2, the need for secrecy with donors’ actual names.

  12. says

    @Karen Owens

    What if some rich donor was smitten with Ophelia & her books, articles, blog, speeches etc. & approached her with an offer of $1mil to head an Atheistic Feminist org & asked her to pick a dozen people with whom she could work well to comprise the board.

    Well, I imagine she would pick people who were atheists and feminists. This is the whole point of the original criticism. The “Global” council isn’t global–not in terms of ethnicity, nationality, geography, gender, sexual orientation, or age. Also, it’s supposed to be a think tank on policy, but there are few if any policy experts. There’s not enough diversity of experience or expertise to be effective at their purported aim (this criticism doesn’t apply if their actual aim is to do photo shoots and solicit money from fans of celebrity).

    Moreover, no matter how much donors and the potential public are fond of someone, I doubt very much that Ophelia would pick a rapist to be on her new board. Or an incompetent or hostile person to handle social media and outreach. Or a person who can barely write to do the org’s PR. Even for a million bucks.

  13. says

    I take Karen’s point though. It’s the money with StarX or it’s no money; those are the choices.

    I knew that about Paul Kurtz. He was a draw for big donors.

    I take Karen’s point, but I am so sick of the celebrity system…

    Sigh. I have no solution.

  14. says

    Point 1: Nobody should attack these GSC people as being ‘self-promoting’ or ‘self-appointed’ till the backers & their motives are known.

    Speaking for myself, I didn’t refer to those folks as “some really super-duper World class expert self-promoters” because of this particular group, but because they have a history of being some really super-duper World class expert self-promoters. People like that often get donations tossed their way, whether they’re Mother Teresas or secular self-promoters.

  15. Karen Owens says

    @Ibis3 (#17)
    Yes, legit criticisms: lack of ‘global’ makeup etc.. Obviously certain stars brought their local friends on board & it’s legit to bring people you work well with, but these stars have plenty of international friends they could have chosen. (Richard may say he went one step further & brought in the ‘interplanetary’ personality: Carolyn Porco :-). GSC has certainly started out as a PR blunder. But I’m sure many people in the movement dismiss a rape charge as word against word. GSC will have to cut Edwina loose. That’s awkward. Even someone who is not in the know (I’m not) about her firing from SCA can deduce that she did something seriously wrong not to have been given the opportunity to ‘resign’ or even clean out her desk. GSC should disclose or replace their tweeter. They should describe the general process of how council members were chosen – if by suggestion of big donors etc., even if they can’t disclose the actual names of big donors, which brings me to point 2 from the previous post. Big donors are often in big business(es) & not open about their personal Atheism, let alone about their financial support of Atheism. They have RELIGIOUS partners, colleagues, investors, employees, customers, families. Just imagine, e.g., an Atheist donor whose business relies heavily on some enterprise run by the Koch Brothers. Donating to an Atheist org could be disastrous for many relationships. Donating to a secular org will have less of a stigma since liberal religious people support secularism. RDF’s biggest donor (6 figures annually) gave on condition of absolute secrecy. His Atheist connection was a far more important reason for secrecy than the super-rich typically demand for secrecy (they don’t want to be pestered by every other similar org for donations). A personal story: I proposed using nicknames for our big donors in Emails in case they got accidentally forwarded etc.. Our biggest donor wanted his real name to be on a need-to-know basis. Richard of course knew & so did I because I handled the money transfer. But once a year I had to turn the books over to an accountant to do taxes. The donation was given through a trust so even the accountant didn’t have to know his name. Schedule B to a non-profit’s tax return has to list the names of any donor over $5K for the IRS but the names don’t have to be disclosed to the public. After I left RDF, a new accountant accidentally filled out the Schedule B to the RDF tax return with the donor’s real name instead of the trust name, RDF Trustee Andy Thompson didn’t notice when he signed it, & somebody from RDF posted it on the Internet. They eventually caught it & filed a different Schedule B with the IRS, with the personal name changed to the trust. I don’t think the donor knows to this day that his secrecy was blown all over the Internet or he would surely have refrained from making future donations to RDF. I can’t stress enough the desire of some of these donors for secrecy so don’t think it’s necessarily because an Atheist org is being evasive.

  16. Karen Owens says

    Chigau (#21)
    Sorry for the stream of consciousness. New to this kind of posting. Thanks.

  17. says

    Thanks Karen. I hope these big donors realize that if these orgs they fund don’t do well (in our eyes, but also to a non-atheist audience), their reason for needing to remain anonymous will never change. The only recourse that we, those of us with smaller voices in the movement, seem to have is to raise our concerns and hope that they listen.

  18. says

    Karen Owens, I find your comments fascinating. They not only reveal some information about the history of RDF that I didn’t know, but capture a view of things that I think does pervade the organizations in the community. I’m not OK with anonymous (or named, for that matter) individuals strongly influencing the direction of organizations behind the scenes to advance their interests or agenda, on the basis of money or anything else.* Transparency is a value of this movement. I don’t want secular organizations to resemble our corrupt government. And it’s not at all fair to people who take jobs at an organization, who donate smaller amounts, who support the organization in other ways, and who criticize or question the organization expecting it to be responsive to the community rather than to a handful of rich people or celebrities.

    Nor do I think the clubby, nepotistic, incestuous, secretive atmosphere you describe is a positive thing. It gives off the appearance of elitism and corruption, and, as we’ve seen, tends in practice to provide fertile soil for embezzlement and misuse of funds. Its relationship to advancing the goals of an organization is also questionable, to say the least. There are reasons “bringing your friends on board” is not generally considered legit in contexts involving money and influence.

    Regarding donors and anonymity: I believe individuals have a right to donate anonymously to organizations they support. I don’t believe they have a right to do so and then, or to do so in order to, influence the agenda of the organization from behind the scenes (and this includes funding offshoot projects with their distinctive stamp). Established organizations should reject donations that come with those expectations, as they’re contrary to their mission and public presentation. At the very least, they should be open publicly about the structure of their donations and their relation to influence within the organization (which doesn’t require naming anyone).

    The Bella & Stella Foundation is especially dubious in that it appears to be behind this particular project, which doesn’t make much sense other than as a vehicle for a set of people and which has already appeared to take a political line (please read Ophelia’s previous posts about it and the comments). My “Who is that?” was rhetorical – although I am curious about who’s behind it, what I’m trying to point out is that having some shadowy fake foundation as the “founder and adviser” of a project alters the situation fundamentally, for people donating to, supporting, working for or with, or questioning or criticizing it. In fact, it might not be worthwhile to deal with it at all. Whether or not you’re accepting of backroom influence and clubbiness, whether or not you think “that’s just the way things are,” I think we can agree that people in the community have a right to know about and use evidence of those practices in deciding whether to support or be involved with an organization.

    Many people in the community have been critical of the influence of Templeton in academia (and also, incidentally, of their incestuous boardmember/grant recipient shenanigans). It seems a number of these people have some difficulty turning that critical perspective back on themselves or their own community.

    * And that’s true regardless of whether it’s an individual who allegedly bilked “about $10 million from some 200 victims” or just someone with the same name. By the way, it’s interesting that Rubin isn’t listed by name among the big SCA donors but is listed in the $25-40,000 bracket in the 2013 American Humanist Association annual report.

  19. says

    There’s another issue with clubbiness, which has been touched upon previously. Related to its tendency to perpetuate existing hierarchies (look at the composition of the GSC “Experts” and “Communicators”) is its epistemic corruption. It tends to exclude or dismiss outside and critical perspectives regardless of their usefulness to understanding. There’s a large literature, for example, about the history of secularism in Iran, in the context of imperialism, oil politics, the Cold War, and so on. I’m interested in learning more about this history and it would undoubtedly be useful knowledge for those seeking to promote secularism there. A team of researchers compiling bibliographies and summaries about the political history and contemporary challenges of secularism in various countries (including the US) would be extremely useful, as would blog posts or other publicly oriented works of scholars or translations of historical or contemporary writings about secularism. The scholarly work on the subject seems to be of little interest to many in the GSC, and some of them even appear hostile to engaging with it and determined to maintain an imperialistic perspective. They say they want to collect research on global secularism, but the organization doesn’t include or discuss regional scholars, including experts on secularism, or their research.

  20. Karen Owens says

    Just to ease everyone’s mind about RDF in particular, our 2 biggest donors made 2 requests: that Richard lead the org & take an active part. The top donor made 2 more requests: that we shield his identity because of his religious business connections & that money not be wasted on huge salaries for anyone at RDF. Our donors clearly had the best interest of the movement at heart. They exerted no negative influence when I was there. There were other things wrong at RDF when I was there & most certainly after I left, but there was no wrongdoing on the part of donors when I was there.

    Of course some people will object to anyone rallying round a charismatic figure like Richard, but Richard had just published the God Delusion in 2006 to whopping success & our biggest donor gave his first donation afterward. It can be fairly said that immediately after publication, Richard was one of, if not the biggest draw for the movement for the next couple of years. Richard had made the general request for money for the movement, not necessarily for himself, in his 2000 TED talk. He followed through with his part by writing the God Delusion. I’m proud to have had a big part in editing.

    But you’re right, Salty Current, there’s plenty of potential & temptation for abuse if big donors call the shots & it may happen in other orgs in our movement the way it does in our larger society. On the one hand it’s disturbing to think that an ex-con who has already compromised his ethics might be backing our movements. On the other hand, some ex-cons can completely reform. There should have been a link to more info on the Bella & Stella Foundation on the GSC webpage. When I couldn’t find more info on my own, I was left to wonder if it was a joke – GSC mascots – a joke which is out of place unless it’s immediately revealed.

    There are times when I’ve been guilty of lack of transparency about RDF but in my view it was for the good of the movement, a choice between the least of several evils. I respect the right of others to disagree. Things are not always black & white. Directly because of our big donor’s request not to waste money on salaries, a certain unauthorized but powerful party decided to funnel more well-deserved compensation to Josh Timonen, without the unanimous knowledge or approval of all Trustees, by handing over the merchandise store to him, profits & all. He didn’t ‘steal’ anything. He accepted what was given to him. I had the direct knowledge & only surviving Email that shows that the motive for the handover was so as not to upset our big donor by giving Josh a big salary. I was long gone from RDF when Richard & RDF filed the suit & Josh filed the countersuit but I still didn’t want to cause the name of the big donor to come out in the public court record because he would have ceased to donate. I didn’t want to let that happen in this cash-poor movement. I’m certain the donor is unaware that his identity was briefly compromised by RDF’s Internet tax return faux pas after I left.

    The righteous goal was to win the case for Timonen. Luckily Josh had enough evidence to do that & RDF lacked evidence otherwise, without my revealing any more than I had to, including the real motive & the name of the donor. I thought about having the donor’s name blocked out. The judge could have accepted that or not. It wasn’t worth all the risks. And there was nothing illegal about withholding superfluous info in a declaration. It would have been illegal for me to lie by omission if asked a direct question. Josh won the case without the extra info & the donor kept his money flowing into the movement. It doesn’t matter to me if anyone wants to chastise me for lack of full transparency. I’m not running for a position in any org & likely never will.

    The miracle in all this is that the big donor, who was so worried about wasting money, never realized the huge waste of money that went into the lawsuit. Richard allowed himself to be talked into this frivolous lawsuit. No doubt the donor was told that Richard & RDF lost the suit because of poor legal representation & ‘lost’ (read non-existent) evidence.

  21. Karen Owens says

    P.S. Lest you think the donor has been financially duped, let me say that Richard puts plenty of his own money into RDF to pay for indiscretions.

  22. says

    Karen – I have a practice of turning comments into guest posts for various reasons – brilliant arguments or jokes that I want more people to see, information that I want more people to see, a new angle that I want more people to see; that kind of thing. Is it ok with you if I do that with your comment @ 27? It certainly is informative!

  23. says

    Karen, once again your (educational :)) descriptions of the internal politics at RDF – alongside all of the other messes we’ve become aware of in various ways over the past few years – really don’t help to make any case that behind-the-scenes influence, a lack of transparency, and a highly personalistic/nepotistic style in hiring and management are good approaches. It’s hardly a model of the great benefits of secretive and clubby practices. “Directly because of our big donor’s request not to waste money on salaries, a certain unauthorized but powerful party decided to funnel more…compensation to Josh Timonen, without the unanimous knowledge or approval of all Trustees, by handing over the merchandise store to him, profits & all.” – !

    But you’re right, Salty Current, there’s plenty of potential & temptation for abuse if big donors call the shots & it may happen in other orgs in our movement the way it does in our larger society. On the one hand it’s disturbing to think that an ex-con who has already compromised his ethics might be backing our movements. On the other hand, some ex-cons can completely reform.

    You seem to be kind of getting my point and at the same time missing it completely.

    There should have been a link to more info on the Bella & Stella Foundation on the GSC webpage. When I couldn’t find more info on my own, I was left to wonder if it was a joke – GSC mascots – a joke which is out of place unless it’s immediately revealed.

    It’s not a joke and not a matter of “neglecting” to give more information. It’s an attempt to cloak a lack of transparency, and likely a political agenda, behind an insultingly cloying facade.

    There are times when I’ve been guilty of lack of transparency about RDF but in my view it was for the good of the movement, a choice between the least of several evils. I respect the right of others to disagree. Things are not always black & white.

    But that’s just the thing. No one can disagree with any decisions if they don’t know about them or on what basis they’re being made. We can only disagree with the principle of secret behind-the-scenes influence of this sort, regardless of its content, and with the principle of clubbiness itself. These erode trust, contribute to mismanagement and self-enrichment, alienate organizations from the people they purport to represent, tend to perpetuate the status quo, and are contrary to the ethical and epistemic values of the movement.

  24. says

    I agree with all that.

    I can see why it happened; I can see the force of what Karen’s saying – that some big donors don’t want to be public because of the stigma on atheism, and the movement has way less money than the opposition.

    But the consequences have – unsurprisingly – turned out to be terrible. There are people in power in atheist/secularist organizations who absolutely should not be there, and wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all this secrecy.

  25. Karen Owens says

    Salty Current,
    You’re taking, & advocating that everyone take, the high road. We can only applaud you for that kind of idealism, which most of us started out with. Since we were on the subject of donors, I hope I didn’t give a misimpression. The “unauthorized but powerful party” who exerted influence in RDF was not a donor – far from it. But there are other, even more destructive, ways to influence besides with money.

    I’ll echo Ophelia’s observation that there are people in this movement who don’t belong in power & I’ll emphasize that it’s more than one person. I feel very free to say that because I’m not looking to oust anyone from their job so that I can take it, whereas others who say the same thing would be accused of ambition. But I’ll have to say the following carefully so as not to betray trusts: Person A, who is in power in one of our orgs, got into a conversation with Person B, who is not in that org & not authorized to hear internal org business. They discussed some serious arguable reasons why Person C, who is also in power in said org, should not be. Person B asked Person A if other persons in the org knew these reasons. Person A responded “They know but they JUST DON’T CARE”. Why? Because the benefits outweigh the costs! I’m hoping & predicting that it won’t always be so.

  26. says

    Karen – that “unauthorized but powerful party” who exerted influence in RDF still has a lot of power and influence in the atheist movement, right? Official power, I mean, not just unofficial networks?

    I think I know what party you mean, and if I’m right, that party has a lot of official power in the atheist movement. That party is an anti-feminist.

  27. says

    Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t really see SC’s critique as excessive idealism. I see it more as increasingly necessary sense.

    And adding to SC’s, saying what I figure is obvious, but maybe better say it anyway:

    It seems pretty clear to me that having such general opacity in the financial and administrative backend of any organization is likely asking for huge trouble, and trouble of the character we’ve already seen. SC’s pointed it out well enough, I guess. Just reinforcing that: is anyone really surprised? Volunteer organizations, but money enough to steal on the table, people hiring friends, it’s all pretty much the perfect recipe for perfectly ugly messes.

    I appreciate the donors have their anxieties, and I expect that’s unavoidable. Just want to spit at the next clueless wonder who says oh, there’s no bigotry against unbelievers anymore; on the contrary, the stigma is still very real, lots of places, the pressure to be silent very real, and so yes, it can fall pretty heavily on anyone public, anyone vocal, anyone facilitating visibility. And yes, I get it makes things that much more difficult, and it seems kinda unfair: this is a problem created at least in part by that pressure, like it’s the (nearly) dead hand of religions’ social power reaching out to strangle its would-be gravediggers this one more way. But it should still be obvious: things can’t continue to be run in such fashion. Messes have followed, messes will follow.

    And as the larger position, here: we know–or sure as hell should know–the general risks of running things behind a veil of secrecy. I will make no apology for taking the obvious, vivid contemporary example: given a powerful enough institution, it winds up with bodies in cisterns. And sure, these organizations are probably nowhere near the level where this becomes a practical concern, but still, do you really want even to begin in this direction? And do we really want to emulate this? So, what, we wind up with a sensible cosmology, but a priesthood every bit as corrupt, every bit as arbitrary? No gratuitous sarcasm intended, unbelievers occasionally take flak for the fact that they don’t run so many orphanages, but seriously, if this is the nature of the organizations we’ve come up with so far, I get to thinking: it’s a good thing we don’t. For all that what religions have done to muck it up seems to leave a pretty low bar, here, I’m not at all as confident as I’d like to be that we’d do so much better.

  28. Karen Owens says

    I’m leaving. I’m late. Back at 11PM EST to talk more on this thread if not too tired but I’d also like to say one thing later to Ophelia which needs to stay private. Ophelia, as owner of this blog, can you see the Email address I gave? If you’re so inclined, you can use it to Email me your address. If you’d rather keep your privacy, I’ll understand.

  29. says

    You’re taking, & advocating that everyone take, the high road.

    Well, I’m not taking any organizational road personally, since I’m not part of any nonprofit organization at the moment. But I’m certainly advocating that organizations follow minimal standards with regard to decision-making, accountability, and transparency, which is very much in their own best interest in any case. At the very least, I’m arguing that we should all be aware when organizations we might be involved with appear to be engaging in practices that are contrary to basic nonprofit standards and to the values of the movement. I’ve volunteered at social justice nonprofits operating on a shoestring that adhered to the highest standards. We’re talking about large national organizations with big budgets here.

    We can only applaud you for that kind of idealism, which most of us started out with.

    Look, I’m not a young person just starting out in this big bad world. I might even be older than you. And I’m not asking to be applauded for making arguments in some fucking blog comments, which is easy enough to do.

    But there’s a difference between having high standards you fail to reach all the time and an acceptance, which seems to be distressingly widespread in the community, of a sort of culture of corruption. My father worked in public agencies. At one point, he was brought in to one partially due to his incorruptible reputation to get things in order after his predecessor had embezzled a lot of money. Others in the agency, who, again, had brought him in to address corruption, kept fighting to do corrupt(ing) things, and were so immersed in the culture that they often didn’t see the problem. One guy, for example, didn’t understand why he couldn’t award a construction contract to his brother if his brother had submitted the lowest bid. They seriously couldn’t think of any problems or potential problems with this arrangement.

    He didn’t stay long, since fighting the culture of corruption took too much time and energy from his central responsibilities and the culture seemed too deeply embedded to change. But it always stuck with me. People don’t generally think of themselves as corrupt, and think that if their aims aren’t nefarious it’s probably fine to engage in secretive and unaccountable decision-making, make policies that benefit their cron…friends and families, handpick employees based on connections or personal relationships,… But it’s not about any particular individual person being out to do bad things, and it’s not that these practices lead to terrible outcomes in every single case. It’s that this is a fundamentally corrupting way of operating which is at odds with the responsibilities an organization has to its staff, volunteers, and supporters and to itself and which often does open the door to nefarious backroom deals and terrible outcomes..

    Since we were on the subject of donors, I hope I didn’t give a misimpression. The “unauthorized but powerful party” who exerted influence in RDF was not a donor – far from it. But there are other, even more destructive, ways to influence besides with money.

    I didn’t think it was a donor, and I’ve already acknowledged this second part. I’ll let Ophelia carry on with the specific aspects.

    :)

  30. says

    And as the larger position, here: we know–or sure as hell should know–the general risks of running things behind a veil of secrecy. I will make no apology for taking the obvious, vivid contemporary example: given a powerful enough institution, it winds up with bodies in cisterns. And sure, these organizations are probably nowhere near the level where this becomes a practical concern, but still, do you really want even to begin in this direction? And do we really want to emulate this? So, what, we wind up with a sensible cosmology, but a priesthood every bit as corrupt, every bit as arbitrary? No gratuitous sarcasm intended, unbelievers occasionally take flak for the fact that they don’t run so many orphanages, but seriously, if this is the nature of the organizations we’ve come up with so far, I get to thinking: it’s a good thing we don’t. For all that what religions have done to muck it up seems to leave a pretty low bar, here, I’m not at all as confident as I’d like to be that we’d do so much better.

    Well said.

  31. clamboy says

    Perhaps this discussion is over, but I would ask one thing:

    If one wishes to support an organization anonymously, then why not be honest and ask that organization to say “Anonymous”?!? Why make up a name and call it a “foundation”? It is very much like, say, corporate interests with a stake in weakening environmental regulations setting up dummy non-profits with names like “The League of Responsible Stewards.”

  32. Karen Owens says

    Clamboy (#39)
    I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean ‘Why form a foundation at all?’ Because people who give big sums of money to the Freethought/Secular cause want to be able to deduct their donations on their income taxes. They couldn’t do that if they gave the money to an individual or to a for-profit enterprise. They can deduct it if they give it to a non-profit such as a foundation.

    Or do you mean why not list the donor as ‘anonymous’ on the foundation’s Schedule B? A foundation can’t report a big donation (over $5K) to the IRS as ‘anonymous’ unless it truly is. That would be deliberately lying to the IRS. It’s possible for a foundation to get a big, untraceable cash donation, but highly unlikely since, as I said, donors want to take the charitable deduction under their own names on their own tax returns. The IRS allows big donors the right to be ‘anonymous’ to the public or to give to a trust which in turn gives to the foundation, allowing the individual’s identity to be concealed. And I think we all understand why many donors who are Atheists need to remain anonymous to the public.

    I don’t understand the analogy of Freethought/Secular orgs to disingenuous environmental ‘protection’ orgs that are really environmental ‘destruction’ orgs. Every Freethought/Secular org so far has done some good for the movement it represents. Some orgs are a little too generous to the people who run them, with excessive salaries, expenses, & perks. No person or org has been exposed as blatantly corrupt. However Heather Dalgleish thinks she has uncovered misuse of funds at the Dawkins Foundation.

  33. Silentbob says

    This is fascinating. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between Woodward & Bernstein and Deep Throat. ;-)

  34. clamboy says

    Karen Owens –

    Thank you very much for your reply, that helps clarify certain issues for me, a lay person in this realm.

    What I am struggling with is the apparent near non-existence (from the limited online research mentioned in my earlier comment – the IRS, charitable foundation watchdogs, and the like) of the entity known as “The Bella & Stella Foundation.” If this is a front foundation established to protect the identity of a well-heeled donor, I can understand that, I guess. But it is not at all improper to inquire into this so-called foundation, insomuch as its money might grant the anonymous backer a greater cachet with an organization than smaller donors.

    The comparison with with, as you say, disingenuous anti-environmental groups might be odious, and perhaps unfair. But I still think an inquiry into the bona fides of this “foundation” is worthwhile.

  35. Karen Owens says

    Clamboy (#42)
    Why form the Bella & Stella Foundation to give anonymously – why not just give anonymously as an individual? Because the Bella & Stella Foundation was likely created to RECEIVE donations as well as give them. An anonymous individual could give donations but not receive them.

    We’re all wondering who runs B&S Foundation & what it does. Some of us don’t have time to go searching places like GuideStar. Even if B&S gave seed funding for GSC, I don’t think GSC is legally obligated to tell the public who B&S is. Transparency isn’t required. That’s the dilemma. The IRS protects the identity of donors to non-profits. GSC putting B&S on the website as ‘founder’ gives the appearance of transparency but doesn’t follow through. GSC raised curiosity about B&S & left it unsatisfied. It seems the cutesy description of B&S is supposed to distract us from the real answers & make us go away smiling. GSC should have either left B&S off the website entirely or given a real description of who runs it & for what purpose.

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