The Whitney, M.I.T., the Museum of Natural History, Sloan Kettering, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shed at Hudson Yards—these are just a few of the places under fire for their financial ties to individuals now deemed problematic.
Yet, having spent the better part of two decades managing a series of public-spirited institutions—including the 92nd Street Y, the International Rescue Committee, the Robin Hood Foundation, and Lincoln Center—I can’t help but feel that many of these protests are misdirected.
Concerns about global warming, OxyContin-marketing abuse, or support for the re-election of President Donald Trump are better expressed where it matters. At the ballot box. With elected legislators. In the courts. Or with culpable commercial enterprises. Such activism dilutes energy and resources away from the very power centers that can directly address illegal and antisocial activities. It addresses symptoms, not causes. It also inflicts damage on these vital organizations and those they serve. While a nonprofit may be inadvertently enmeshed in these contentious issues and personalities, an activist campaign against it is a marginal, unproductive exercise. Some might call it nothing more than empty symbolism.
Most Americans do not enjoy the luxury of engaging in armchair dissent. For them, life is a struggle. Self-proclaimed do-gooders who would erect high barriers to the acceptance of donations or invent political litmus tests for membership on nonprofit boards of directors tend to have one thing in common: they are never personally adversely affected by the decisions they seek to have adopted.
Most Americans do not enjoy the luxury of engaging in armchair dissent.
Nonprofits are fragile creatures. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of American households now receive any tax deduction at all for their charitable donations, in part a result of the continuing increases in the standard deduction. The rising cost of tuition, room, and board for university students, and for tickets to a concert or even a museum, is increasingly reaching unaffordable levels. There is even a new tax that will be imposed on some university-endowment income. All of these changes and more have forced charities to depend increasingly on the generosity of their trustees and other very wealthy benefactors for their survival.
The spreading protests—some legitimate, others wildly off base—could pose threats to vital services and to the health of the third sector in between the public and the private, which is treasured by most Americans. More of them volunteer their services and even donate to this large and sprawling realm of the economy than vote in local, state, and federal elections combined. Let us not jeopardize nonprofits or those they serve for the sake of ideological zeal and purity.
The spreading protests—some legitimate, others wildly off base—could pose threats to vital services.
During my tenure as executive director of the 92nd Street Y, no one benefiting from its services ever asked which donors had made possible a first-rate concert, poetry reading, or social service for children and senior adults.
As president of the International Rescue Committee—one of the world’s largest and most consequential nonprofits serving displaced people—I never encountered a refugee who cared about the identity of the benefactor financing clean water, medicines, and bed nets to ward off malaria.
At Lincoln Center, where I served as president for 13 years, dance lovers flocked to a remodeled and refurbished David H. Koch Theater, formerly known as the New York State Theater. You could count on one hand those who protested the renaming. David Koch’s views on fossil fuels, gun control, and prison reform were important matters, to be sure. But they were not related to the family’s arts philanthropy.
Does the 10-year-old in the South Bronx sitting during a cold winter in the warm and inviting space of a library harbor concern about how Andrew Carnegie treated his workers more than a century ago? To judge the conduct of the man whose fortune and generosity built what the writer Eric Klingenberg rightly calls “palaces for the people” seems pretty peculiar.
Now, there are egregious cases so antithetical to the very purpose and values of an institution that the necessity of insisting on a trustee’s resignation, or declining to accept an offer of a donation, is clear and compelling. Surely, Jeffrey Epstein and his enablers, the blameworthy members of the Sackler family, and those associated with the sale of assault weapons fall into that category. If you are outspoken in rejecting the science of climate change, how can you possibly serve as a trustee of a nonprofit devoted to its mitigation?
David Koch’s views on fossil fuels, gun control, and prison reform were important matters.
These cases seem unambiguous. There are still others like them, I am certain. But we should not allow ourselves to travel from such a short list down a slippery slope. That journey would have us failing to respect diverse points of view, rejecting those who work in unpopular professions, and unnecessarily eliminating large groups of potential trustees and donors.
Protesters beware. Do no harm to innocent victims, individual or institutional, as you properly condemn reprehensible conduct.
Reynold Levy is the author of five books, including the forthcoming Start Now: Because That Meaningful Job Is Out There, Just Waiting for You