Reporting on philanthropy in a time of identity politics

Marc Gunther
Sep 16 · 7 min read

Last June, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story about Luz Vega-Marquis, who has led the Marguerite Casey Foundation since 2001 . The headline was nuanced: Praised for Pathbreaking Grants, Marguerite Casey CEO Said to Foster a Culture of Fear by Staff Members. So, in my view, was the story. Vega-Marquis rightly has been acclaimed for her “longstanding commitment to provide unrestricted, multi-year funding to grassroots advocacy organizations, most led by women and people of color,” the story said. But she mistreated the people who worked for her; they described her as a “tyrant,” as “autocratic and capricious,” as someone who demanded absolute fealty, spread fear and presided over an “extremely toxic” workplace culture.

Be the change you wish to see in the world? Not Ms. Vega Marquis.

The story generated pushback, in part because there’s not much critical reporting (and even less investigative reporting) about the leaders of America’s foundations. They are accustomed to deferential treatment.

Luz Vega-Marquie

Some people who were unhappy with the story underscored Luz Vega Marquis’s pioneering role as one of the first Hispanics to lead a national foundation. In a letter to The Chronicle, Freeman Hrabowski, the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s board chair, wrote:

As a society, we must stand by the strong women-of-color leaders who are changing a field that clearly needs change.

On Twitter, Lori Villarosa, the founder and executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, wrote:

If The Chronicle is working to systematically expose a pattern of all of these behaviors, many of us can point you to many rather than starting with one of the very few Latina CEOs in the field. Who is calling out the unchecked egos by name elsewhere in the field?

There was more, in a similar vein. But the most consequential reaction came in the form of a phone call from a source, who asked to remain anonymous, pointing me towards a new story — this one about a foundation, called ZeroDivide, that collapsed in the spring of 2016, leaving unpaid debts, unanswered questions and a trail of hurt behind. ZeroDivide failed to file tax returns for 2015 and 2016. At least $600,000 in donations intended for other charities, including an organization for which it was a fiscal sponsor, disappeared without explanation. No one has been held accountable.

Tessie Guillermo

There was just one problem. Like the Marguerite Casey Foundation, ZeroDivide had been led by a high-profile woman of color. Tessie Guillermo, an Asian-American, was the longtime CEO of ZeroDivide and a director of the foundation for its entire life. In fact, Ms. Guillermo succeeded Ms. Vega Marquis as the head of ZeroDivide and she now serves on the board of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. (Social-justice philanthropy is a small world.) Ms. Guillermo is also a trustee of other national charities, including CommonSpirit Health, one of America’s biggest nonprofit hospital systems, where she chairs the board, and the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

“I’d rather not do another story pointing a finger at a woman of color,” I told my source, who, as it happens, is a woman of color.

“Then you’re part of the problem,” she snapped.

The problem, she explained, is the reluctance of many to find fault with leaders of color in philanthropy. Their flaws are ignored or forgiven.

There’s good reason for this. Philanthropy has failed to develop leaders who reflect the diversity of America, as The Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported (here, at length, and more recently, in a survey of the leadership of 100 big charities, where white men still dominate.). Why, it’s fair to ask, investigate the few people of color who have managed to climb to the top?

It didn’t help that my 2018 story for the Chronicle about the Silicon Valley Community Foundation led to the resignation of Emmett Carson, one of the most prominent African-American leaders in philanthropy. That story focused on the inappropriate conduct of Mari Ellen Loijens, a white woman who was the foundation’s top fundraiser — but Carson’s failure to protect the staff from her abuse cost him his job, as it should have.

A philanthropy insider, who advised me not to pursue the story of ZeroDivide, raised a troubling possibility: That the people who were calling me with story tips had done so because they were uncomfortable taking orders from strong women of color (or men, in the case of Emmett Carson). Behavior tolerated in white men can be recast as abusive or mean if the boss is a woman (see Amy Klobuchar) or a person of color, let alone a woman of color who has to deal with racism and sexism. White men who yell or intimidate are often seen as formidable leaders.

But the ZeroDivide story wasn’t about a bad boss. It was about a failure of accountability. A foundation shut down, abruptly and money disappeared. No one had the decency to apologize, explain or take responsibility.

By now, you’ve surely figured out that I did the story. It ran last week in The Chronicle. The headline: A foundation collapsed. Its money is gone. What happened is shrouded in mystery. I confess that I didn’t agonize much about whether to pursue it. I’ve been a reporter for 45 years. When I come across a newsworthy story, and I have access to a platform to tell it, all my instincts tell me to go forward. The ZeroDivide story is inarguably newsworthy.

But don’t we have far more pressing issues to deal with? Robert K. Ross, the president of the California Endowment, posed that question in a blogpost headlined A Letter to My Friend that criticized The Chronicle’s story about Luz Vega-Marquis:

At a moment in time when the leading media outlet in philanthropy decided to focus “investigative” attention to complaints from some former employees, we see: political indifference to climate change, migrant children held in cages by our government and literally dying at the border, the rights of women under full assault, resurgent white nationalism and racism, suppression of voting rights, suppression of LGBTQ and Trans civil rights, and a flagrant exacerbation of the already-outrageous wealth gap across our nation. While I fully honor and respect the ability of the press to act freely and hold us accountable as leaders, we can still raise questions about how they decide to utilize their ink. Don’t we have far more pressing issues to deal with?

Well, of course we do. But it’s not my job, nor the job of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, to cover those issues. We focus on philanthropy. An important part of our job is to hold those with power in philanthropy accountable so that they, in turn, can deal effectively with the big problems. Emmett Carson, Luz Vega Marquis and Tessie Guillermo all wielded power; they all still do. (Mr. Carson landed in a top job at the Lucas Museum in LA, Ms. Vega-Marquis will run Marguerite Casey through the end of 2020 and Ms. Guillermo has her board seats.)

There’s another reason why stories like these are worth telling: Those hurt by these leaders were people of color. Emmett Carson allowed women, including young women of color, to be abused by his chief fundraiser. People of color make up 60 percent of the staff at Marguerite Casey, the foundation says. In the case of ZeroDivide, money intended for programs to help underserved communities disappeared.

Should white men who lead foundations also be held accountable? The question answers itself. (If you have someone in mind, you can find me at marc.gunther@gmail.com.) During the first half of 2018, I spent more time on the #metoo problems of the animal welfare movement than on any other story; the perpetrators were white men.

In the end, though, I can’t approach my work through the lens of race. To be sure, it’s important for me to remember that for most of American history, power has been wielded almost exclusively by white men. Racism — , not just slavery, but Jim Crow laws, segregated housing and schools, the burdens of mass incarceration — is with us still. An important task of philanthropy is to remedy that wrongdoing.

My job is different. I’m white, straight, Ivy-educated and about as privileged as they come, so I need to be aware of the biases that I bring to my writing. I need to try to bring the voices of women and people of color to my reporting. I need to report on effective social-justice philanthropy, and I’ve tried to do that (here, here and here).

I also need hold those with power to account. I intend to do that without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or country of origin. That’s complicated in today’s America, but it’s worth a try. Be the change you want to see, right?

Marc Gunther

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reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits, animal welfare, global poverty and whatever else interests me

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