You Cannot Be Serious.


Sackler Donations Are Back… And No, That’s Not Good News

I get that this is a 43-year-old reference. But it still holds true. (“McEnroe with umpire” by Levg is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.)

On September 18, 1926, H.L. Mencken wrote the following in The Sun, Baltimore’s daily newspaper:

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

— H. L. Mencken

As we go further into the election cycle and you ask the heavens why things are happening the way in which they are happening, why the wrong person wins and the right person loses (if there even is a “right” person), why the cyclical 80- to 90-year cycle of marching to the drumbeat of anti-democratic, autocratic leadership has again taken the day leading to, well, who knows?… As all this happens, remember Mencken’s words, and apply them to all your neighbors. He was, at best, a sourpuss, an elitist, and a bit of a run-of-the-mill racist and antisemite, but he wasn’t entirely wrong on that particular point. Or this one:

Mencken with quote

In a real sense, as we move forward in history (repeating the errors and successes of the past), it has become obvious that democracy has evolved into the oxymoronic act of gathering the masses and supporting the most powerful autocrat. Oh, and every once in a while, voting. Voting is celebrated as some wild celebration of the founding fathers, when in practice, except for some very specific leaders, the masses keep voting for kings, despots, criminals, rapists, and murderers—if not corporeally, then reputationally.

A whole passel of American nonprofit arts organizations are run by such people as Mencken described, on both sides of the educational DMZ. The irony is that while the elite portion of the populace is most often represented on the artistic, executive, and board leadership of the organization, the rest—including employees, audiences, and donors—lay in the much larger and more bamboozle-prone “great masses of the plain people.”

And so it goes, which is why it was unsurprising (but ultimately, depressing) to see the recent New York Times article by Alex Marshall, “Institutions Are (Quietly) Taking Sackler Money.”

Those Darn Sacklers1
That wacky family is back with a new season of zany hijinks, shenanigans, and murder!

You remember the Sackler Family, don’t you? We reported back in April 2019 in an article entitled “Sackler, Altria, MacArthur: Ethical Quicksand in Big Philanthropy,” that the family, owners of Purdue Pharma (the makers of OxyContin, an opioid allegedly responsible for allegedly killing over a half million alleged Americans in just a few, short, alleged years… allegedly), was heavily involved in arts-washing their allegedly good name by donating millions of dollars to arts organizations across America.

The issue raised was less about the egregious nature of the product, the greed of the family members, the toxicity of the donations, or the Sacklers themselves. Like honey badgers, the Ebola virus, and kudzu, toxic donors like the Sacklers are who they are and they do what they do. No, the main issue was the timeline of the ultimate rejection of gifts, at least by New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

From that article:

“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.”

The Sacklers became the poster children for toxic donors among nonprofits and charities all over the world. I mean, no one would ever again take money from these alleged killers who never even apologized for their bad acts, would they?

“According to the Sackler Trust’s latest accounts, which were published this month, the nonprofit committed around 5.2 million pounds, or $6.6 million, in 2022, comprising 66 grants to institutions. That was almost four times more than the pledges it made the year before….
But the latest accounts don’t say who the 2022 beneficiaries were, or where they are based. Instead, the document groups the donations by area of activity, with scientific organizations receiving the most money. A note says that listing names would “expose the recipients to serious prejudice and impair the furtherance of their charitable activities.”
Through a trust spokeswoman, the Sackler family declined to comment.”
— Alex Marshall, The New York Times

Oh, the places you’ll go when the money spigot is turned off. But not to worry. The only morality your organization would ever have to deal with is your value set.

Mencken’s “great masses of the plain people” won’t care. After all, they are incapable of filtering out toxicity in their own lives. That’s what makes them the “great masses of the plain people.” You might even offer to them in a sound bite that if a Sackler (or any donor to your organization who wants a room named after them) were to offer any of your would-be critics a million bucks, would they say no?

Or, better put: if a Sackler offers you a million dollars to kill someone, do you take the money because, heck, someone will and it might as well be you?

It comes down to two choices and only two.

Price is right or do the right thing

No accusations here. Although, as a nonprofit arts leader, you have to ask yourself…

“Do I believe that all that’s important is that my organization’s art survives, no matter what? At least this year (or until I find another job)? Would I harm another nonprofit just to keep mine alive? Could I justify taking blood money by subjugating my personal moral code (if I have one) to meet some sort of financial goal?” And does the toxicity of your donors matter less because no one else will probably notice?


double photo for website

Alan’s new book, SCENE CHANGE: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact, is selling out everywhere, including the UK and Australia (even Germany). It’s also available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon. Some bookstores are reporting that they’re out of stock, and while the fact that hundreds of people want to improve their communities using arts as a means to an end (as opposed to the end, in and of itself), it’s going to take thousands to break through. So keep trying and go to your local independent (or large conglomerate, if you have to) bookstore and if you don’t see it, order it, and tell them there are dozens behind you. The publisher, Changemakers Books, is pretty good at reacting to sales surges like these. Just give them the ISBN: 978-1-80341-446-1. They’ll know what to do.

If you want to buy copies for your whole board, your arts administration students, or any other large gathering, first check out this website: bulkbookstore.com. If they’re out, fill in the form and they’ll get back to you quickly (minimum order 25 copies – but they’ll sell you 1,000 if you want) with a huge stair-step discount.

Or, if all else fails, contact Alan directly at alan@501c3.guru.


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