Tuesday, December 30, 2008

MoveOn takes on Madoff

MoveOn.org has joined forces with The Open Society Institute and Atlantic Philanthropies to raise funds for several organizations that were ripped off by Bernard Madoff. Here is the full text of the MoveOn letter announcing this effort, MoveOn's website is here:

"Dear MoveOn member,
You've probably heard about how Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff scammed investors out of at least $50 billion.

But you may not have heard that his victims included the foundations that support some really important progressive organizations. Groups that fight for human rights, fair elections and racial justice are getting hit hard—just in time for the holidays. We've worked side-by-side with many of them.

If these groups can't replace the funding that came from investment accounts that Madoff stole, they may be forced to start cutting important projects or, in some cases, even lay off staff.

Can you pitch in $25 or $50 for each of the four organizations we're highlighting below? Our friends at Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Institute will each match every dollar that comes in until January 1! So, for the next three days, your donation of $25 or $50 means $75 or $150 for groups affected by Madoff. If a few thousand of us give together, it can make an enormous difference—and help repair some of the damage Madoff has done. Click here to contribute:


Your end-of-the-year gift will be tax-deductible as if you had made the gift directly to the designated charities; we will forward 100% of your contribution to the organizations you select.

Many organizations have been hit by this crisis. We're highlighting the four that MoveOn has worked closely with over the last few years. Here's a bit about each of the groups:

The Brennan Center for Justice is a nonpartisan institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Their work ranges from voting rights to redistricting reform to checking presidential power in the fight against terrorism. MoveOn has worked with the Brennan Center closely in the fight for fair elections. Chip in to help them out here.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, they give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Its rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. MoveOn has worked with Human Rights Watch on campaigns to preserve the constitution and protect human rights in America and abroad. Chip in to help them out here.

Advancement Project is a policy, communications and legal action group committed to racial justice founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers in 1998. They have pursued critical litigation to protect voters and also support grassroots movements for universal opportunity and just democracy in the areas of education and immigrants' rights. MoveOn has worked with Advancement Project to stop vote suppression, especially among minority folks. Chip in to help them out here.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a nonprofit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. MoveOn has worked with CCR to hold President Bush accountable for his unconstitutional acts, from illegal wiretaps to Guantanamo. Chip in to help them out here.

2008 has been an extraordinary year. Together, MoveOn's 5 million members have done so much—and we have a new president and new hope to show for it. But we wouldn't be where we are as a country without a strong movement of interconnected progressive organizations. Let's come together one last time to keep that movement going strong.

Thanks for all you do.
–Eli, Carrie, Ilyse and the entire MoveOn.org Civic Action team"

I also want to draw your attention again to TheyNeedUsNow. The creator of the site is a volunteer, and his comment on this post is a response to some of the discussion about the site that has emerged since I first noted it in the post. Please read it.

I thank him for identifying himself even more explicitly and I continue to applaud his efforts. I also apologize for not being able to identify him myself. I had noted his name on the bottom of the site pages (as he reminds us in his comments) and with a colleague was trying to connect to him through LinkedIn. My own misunderstanding led me to believe he was the webmaster and not necessarily the content creator, something I had hoped to clarify if I had been able to connect with him. He answers those questions and more in his comments.

I applaud these efforts (MoveOn, TNUN, Atlantic, OSI and the Jewish funders and networks that have come together) at supporting nonprofits who were ripped off by Madoff. Here's how I put it earlier:
"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."
Yes, there were crooks in our midst - and new laws and regulations may make sense, as would enforcing those that exist and doing the due diligence we all talk about so much. But perhaps we should also think about the differences between what is criminal, what is stupid, and what is bad luck - I tend to think these are questions for each of us as well as philosophers, ministers and rabbis, not just for regulators. I also think Madoff is just one exposed charlatan, with many others also laid bare in recent months and, sadly, more to come. There is plenty of time and room for finger-pointing. I prefer to note and stand with those who are trying to take positive action.

ADDITION: I just found this article from Fortune, about how the redemption patterns of foundation investors may have unintentionally helped Madoff keep his scheme going for longer than "normal" Ponzi schemes. This is only one of many questions being asked about investors' practices and how they played into this whole debacle. See comments here for some others.


Bob McInnis said...

Lucy, I think you are stretching your analogy of the ecoli victim having no responsibility for the actions of the supply chain and these charities who may see funding reduced by donors who were victims themselves. Every charity chooses how to pursue funds, who to apply to for grants, what expectations they put on funding window, how many foundations and what percentage of total revenue they represent ...

I find it hard to accept that willful blindness, unbridled exuberance, or potential mismanagement should be justified by painting all these poor charities as non complicit victims.

Lucy Bernholz said...


It takes a far wiser person than I am to know where all fault lies in this debacle - and in the many similar ones I fear are still to be uncovered. With those in mind, and without getting personal, I feel I would have to be absolutely sure of my own practices before assuming "willful blindness, unbridled exuberance, or potential mismanagement" on the part of others.

In which case, I would ask myself, have I checked into the investment due diligence and conflict-of-interest practice of everyone with whom I work? Ruled out any "faith-in-a-friend" decisions I might ever have made? Am I 100% sure that the financial controls, reporting practices, and investment decision making that I rely on are absolutely protected from this scandal or any others that may come to light in the future? And can I say the same of my donors, customers, vendors and partners?

Some of what we now see and claim as greed and folly was massively culturally-sanctioned, "maximize return" behavior a mere four weeks ago. That is not to excuse it, but to claim a moment for collective reflection without reactionary blaming.

I am no more willing to claim innocence for all then I am to ascribe guilt or malfeasance to all. To do the latter could cause the same "crisis of community currency" and freeze charitable giving in much the same way as the collapse of trust and good practice has frozen credit markets. Would that be better?

I think those who are trying "to light candles rather than curse the darkness," however, are on the right course. I hope that they are seeking to support organizations whose due diligence practices, independent investment committee behavior, and financial controls they have reviewed and can attest to.

Anonymous said...

Very well-put, Lucy. Thanks for following this story. It's great that MoveOn is getting involved, although they are only directing their huge email list at a small handful of the affected groups. But them doing so will certainly have a positive impact.

My apologies for not being able to connect sooner! I'm not great at keeping up on my LinkedIn profile. Anyway, my email is stempeck @ (Google's email). Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Lucy -- Great post; terrific coverage of efforts to step up to the plate in a sector that remains in need of reforms. Thanks for writing and following it all.