They Need us Now

TheyNeedUsNow is a somewhat* rapid response to the trail of tears left in the wake of the great Madoff Ripoff. Hats off to the folks who pulled this together - whom I can't identify from a quick scan of the site (unsolicited RECOMMENDATION to the site builders: Fix this and identify yourselves so users won't worry about who you are).

Because it is a list of links to websites and paypal donate buttons, I don't think you can get ripped off using this site (Unless of course it is stealing your login info....oy vey). The site also includes a running list of stories on the Madoff case, you can find more information on ripped-off entities here, and my twitter feed contains a lot of news as it happened.

It is a great idea, I hope it is legit. It was also put together fast - the Madoff scandal only came to light @ 10 days ago. Of course, two books on the debacle have already been commissioned so "rapid*" is in the eyes of the beholder.

9 comments:

Bob McInnis said...

While I appreciate the good works of these organizations, I am concerned about their ability to steward resources entrusted to them. Before we (I) sink good money after good money into any of these charities, I would want to understand how they were induced into a ponzi scheme and what culpability they should accept. In some cases, I expect, heads of FD and higher will/should be seeking employment elsewhere.
To draw focus away from other well managed and diligent organizations who were more prudent is an even greater catastrophe.

Lucy Bernholz said...

I am sure there is plenty of blame to go around in the Madoff scandal. We can already hear the calls for increased financial oversight for charities.

However, without having any connection to the people behind TheyNeedUsNow, and having only spent a little time looking through the site, it appears to me that there is some connection to the JEHT Foundation. This foundation closed up shop when the family behind it lost money in Madoff investments. The nonprofits listed on the TNUN website appear to me to be nonprofits that had been funded by JEHT.

If this is the case, then accusing these nonprofits of bad financial management strikes me as holding the person who gets e. coli accountable for the bad sanitation practices of the farmer who grew the tomato on the sick person's sandwich. The farmer may have screwed up, along with the food safety system, distributors and perhaps even the sandwich shop, but the person who got sick did nothing wrong except eat a bad tomato. To hold nonprofits accountable because one of their funders lost money through their investment decisions seems a little farfetched to me.

Now, my understanding of the TNUN site may be wrong - I haven't spent any real time investigating this. However, if my hunch above is right, then there may be some silver lining to losing an entire foundation to this scandal. If the JEHT Foundation - or its former staffers - are trying to direct attention to the causes they supported, and will do so by sharing more information - grantmaking strategies, due diligence reports, outcome reports, etc. than that would be a silver lining.

I still think whoever is behind the site should make it easier to identify themselves, so as to ease concerns of users. I also applaud the mindset of whoever it is who said, "Enough hand wringing, let's try to do something positive" in the midst of a debacle that may well have cost that same person his or her job.

There is plenty of blame and shame to go around in the Madoff case. Worst yet, it is probably not the only such scandal that will come to light in the near future. That said, I think we need to be clear that some of the cast of characters will be crooks, some will be greedy, some will have made bad decisions, and some will have just gotten ripped off.

Bob McInnis said...

Thanks for the reply Lucy. My real hope is that we can begin discussing financial stability, accountability, transparency by and for the sector, foundations and other stakeholders. Maybe a wider conversation will take place at the Chronicle of Philanthropy "Give and Take" where I note that they have picked up your post.http://philanthropy.com/giveandtake/article/839/should-donors-aid-nonprofit-victims-of-ponzi-scheme

Archana said...

Do you know if anyone is writing or thinking about how JEHT and others got away with investing so narrowly with Madoff? Doesn't the tax code (section 4944) prohibit just these sorts of "jeopardizing investments"? It seems that the IRS may not have done a good job of regulating these foundations' investments in order to protect the public good...

David E said...

Also on the TNUN site I see organizations listed such as the ACLU. If they were actually affected in the sense of losing some donors (I've certainly not heard that they had any endowment $ at stake, and there's nothing on the ACLU's website about it), TNUN should be making the level/type of effect clear. Or at least doing some level of due diligence to be sure that an organization on the list actually was affected. There's a pretty major difference between the ACLU losing some donors and a small organization having a huge chunk of its endowment wiped out.

I suspect on balance that TNUN is probably created by somebody who's trying to be helpful but not really thinking this through.

David Ezer said...

Also on the TNUN site I see organizations listed such as the ACLU. If they were actually affected in the sense of losing some donors (I've certainly not heard that they had any endowment $ at stake, and there's nothing on the ACLU's website about it), TNUN should be making the level/type of effect clear. Or at least doing some level of due diligence to be sure that an organization on the list actually was affected. There's a pretty major difference between the ACLU losing some donors and a small organization having a huge chunk of its endowment wiped out.

I suspect on balance that TNUN is probably created by somebody who's trying to be helpful but not really thinking this through.

David Ezer said...

The site's not maknig a distinction between an organization that lost some donors and an organization that had huge chunks of its endowmnet wiped out. For example, the ACLU is listed -- I'd not heard that they had had any $ at risk, nor does the ACLU say anything like that on their own site, but it's also not even necessarily true that the ACLU lost some donors. Or if it did, how many, and what percentage of total donations did those donors' donations represent?

There's likely no due diligence going on here, and any organization that requests addition to the list can get on it, whether or not they really were affected.

Unfortunately, my guess is that someone put this up in a well-meaning way but isn't thinking it through or managing it properly. I'd stay away until it's clearer.

Matt Stempeck said...

Hi everyone,
My name's Matt Stempeck and I put together They Need Us Now. I attributed it to myself at the bottom of every page on the site, although your feedback about the need for an "About" page is well-taken, and I'll be putting one up. I didn't want to put too much spotlight on myself, as I really just did the site as a volunteer effort. I'm not affiliated with any of these organizations in any way other than that I appreciate the hard, important work they do. Maybe I should have realized that people might be skeptical of anything involving donations, but every single donation link on the site goes straight to the individual non-profit's donation page. I have nothing to do with any financial transactions. I just saw a devastating news story and wanted to at least do something, knowing full well that even Obama-level small donations wouldn't make up for all the grant money lost. But there's also something to be said for rallying to help these groups any way possible, and drawing attention to their terribly unfortunate situation is one way to do so.

@Bob McInnis: Every group on this list has been left reeling not because they made poor financial decisions, but because they relied on well established philanthropic foundations that made poor financial decisions. I agree it's a terrible waste, which is why I made the site (to do something about it), but to blame the non-profits who have lost multi-year grants representing, in many cases, all of their funding seems a bit harsh. And even though we can all judge the foundations for their investments in perfect hindsight, the entire Madoff story is an interesting look into human nature. In many cases, these people personally knew and trusted others who had invested with Madoff for DECADES and seen consistently strong results the entire time. Throw in an air of exclusivity, and I'm sure many of us in the same position would make the same mistakes. But regardless, the non-profits on this list didn't do anything wrong. I agree with you, though, that this should and must lead to a deeper debate about financial accountability and stability.

@David Ezer: The majority of the organizations currently on the list are indeed grant recipients of the JEHT Foundation, as this was the first news I saw of the Madoff scheme affecting non-profits, and the JEHT Foundation website has very detailed information about which organizations were being actively funded (and had that funding rescinded). I only included the organizations actively being funded by JEHT grants. I've since expanded the list to include other organizations as I come across them in the news or they are submitted on the site. I request independent documentation of any submission. So, for example, when someone alerted me to the fact that the ACLU had been hard hit, they included a reference from an ACLU letter to donors published on the Examiner website: http://www.examiner.com/x-536-Civil-Liberties-Examiner~y2008m12d23-ACLU-hit-by-Madoff-Ponzi-scheme

$850,000 evaporating overnight is not "a few donors", even to a large organization like the ACLU.

In conclusion, thanks for the feedback, and feel free to help out however you see fit. This is very much a volunteer effort done by people with day jobs, and I've found a couple others willing to put some time in but could always use more assistance making this site better. For example, the suggestion to include information about how large a grant each group lost would be helpful, but is going to be extremely time consuming to actually accomplish. Shoot me an email if you'd like to help out.

Happy New Year all,
Matt

Anonymous said...

Archana's concern is misplaced. JEHT was not endowed. Rather, the foundation's donor wrote a check annually that was completely paid out in grants. Her money was invested with madoff.