The menace of philanthropists

I have reached such a level of cynicism that now when I hear someone described as a philanthropist, I immediately assume that they must be really awful people who have either got their money by practices that abuse and exploit people or that they are personally abusive to those immediately around them or most likely both, and they are now using their gifts to hide the ugly sources of their wealth or to buy silence. The burden of proof has shifted to them to show that they are not awful people.

From the investigative outfit ProPublica comes further evidence to support this view with their story about a wealthy philanthropist who behaved in the most unbelievably crass ways towards women who approached him for donations. His behavior was widely known within the institutions he gave money to but they kept quiet in order to keep getting his money.

Sheila Katz was a young executive at Hillel International, the Jewish college outreach organization, when she was sent to visit the philanthropist Michael H. Steinhardt, a New York billionaire. He had once been a major donor, and her goal was to persuade him to increase his support. But in their first encounter, he asked her repeatedly if she wanted to have sex with him, she said.

Deborah Mohile Goldberg worked for Birthright Israel, a nonprofit co-founded by Steinhardt, when he asked her if she and a female colleague would like to join him in a threesome, she said.

Natalie Goldfein, an officer at a small nonprofit that Steinhardt had helped establish, said he suggested in a meeting that they have babies together.

Steinhardt, 78, a retired hedge fund founder, is among an elite cadre of donors who bankroll some of the country’s most prestigious Jewish nonprofits. His foundations have given at least $127 million to charitable causes since 2003, public filings show.

But for more than two decades, that generosity has come at a price. Six women said in interviews with The New York Times and ProPublica, and one said in a lawsuit, that Steinhardt asked them to have sex with him, or made sexual requests of them, while they were relying on or seeking his support. He also regularly made comments to women about their bodies and their fertility, according to the seven women and 16 other people who said they were present when Steinhardt made such comments.

“Institutions in the Jewish world have long known about his behavior, and they have looked the other way,” said Katz, 35, a vice president at Hillel International. “No one was surprised when I shared that this happened.”

The crudeness of his comments are shocking. But his defenders (rich people always, always have defenders and enablers) say that he has a “unique sense of humour”. That is an interesting way to describe despicable behavior.

Meanwhile the Sackler family, that other set of sleazy philanthropists that made its money contributing to the opioid epidemic, are finally getting the kind of publicity that they long sought to avoid by putting their name to various buildings. A consortium of over 500 groups that includes cities and counties and Native American tribes are suing the family for the immense human tragedy they have caused that has required the spending of vast amounts of public money to treat.

The lawsuit represents communities in 26 states and eight tribes and accuses Sackler family members of knowingly breaking laws in order to enrich themselves to the tune of billions of dollars, while hundreds of thousands of Americans died.

“Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic,” the lawsuit, filed earlier this week in federal court in the southern district of New York, states.

The same eight members of the family had recently been added to a small number of lawsuits that are underway against a string of opioid-makers, including the Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company the Sacklers wholly own, Purdue Pharma, but they have not been sued as individuals on anything like this scale before.

Facing protests, institutions are now rejecting new gifts from the family because of the taint that comes with it.

Earlier this week Britain’s National Portrait Gallery decided not to take up the offer of a £1m Sackler family grant and, in the US, Columbia University and the University of Washington, which have both received Sackler donations in the past, have announced they are not now accepting gifts from the family.

There have also been big protests at the Guggenheim Museum in Washington.

US art photographer and activist Nan Goldin brought the Guggenheim Museum in New York to a standstill on Saturday night as thousands of fake prescriptions were dropped into the atrium to protest against the institution’s acceptance of donations from the family who owns the maker of OxyContin – the prescription painkiller at the root of America’s opioids crisis.

Tourists and locals gawped in confusion as Goldin and fellow demonstrators began chanting criticism of the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma. The activists handed out fake pill bottles as sheets of paper fluttered down inside the landmark building.

Other protesters unfurled banners from the higher floors, one reading: “Take down their name”, referring to the Sacklers’ links with the institution.

Now that the Sackler name is mud, I am not sure if the contracts that went with the naming rights allow for the names of donors to be stripped from buildings named after them. Maybe their names could be transferred to the prison buildings that they deserve to be sent to. The ‘Sackler wing’ of Attica prison has a nice ring to it.


  1. Steve Cameron says

    I’ve always thought that donating for “naming rights” — or any other kind of publicity, like when chain stores ask you to make a donation to a charity in their name — weren’t as much philanthropy as they were advertising.

  2. Matt G says

    I went to grad school at Cornell’s Grad School of Medical Sciences, which its name to Weill after receiving a $200 million from Sanford Weill. A week after the announcement, I saw Weill’s name in an article about shady business ethics.

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