Money Matters: Giving and Receiving

Photo by lucas Favre

Imagine you receive hundreds of millions of dollars tomorrow. What would you do with it? Suppose you decide to generate desirable outcomes. How should others judge your choice?

First, we should note that to have hundreds of millions of dollars and the gargantuan influence that accompanies such wealth should not happen in the first place. Though central, this is generally ignored. But suppose you inherited the bonanza in our rotten society. It is a fait accompli. We should note the social inequity and judge society for that. But you’ve got the piles of money. Now what?

Second, suppose you say “I want to do good things with my piles of cash.” Well, it likely means that you have certain values, beliefs, and understandings and in accord with those you want to abet certain outcomes. Next, you decide to seek recipients you expect would do good things of the sort you desire to aid. So far I might prefer if you felt that you alone shouldn’t wield such great influence so you set up a team with folks from realms you admire to disperse the funds, but I wouldn’t castigate you for choosing to give it out yourself, including choosing who to give it to. This much holds, I think, for the simple act of choosing to give to advance what one believes in whether you are the right-wing Koch brothers with disgusting politics and aims, or, as in the controversy now playing out due to a New York Times cover story, you are leftist Neville Roy Singham with a mixed bag of politics and aims.

Third, what if you instead decide to seek still more power or income for yourself, and you disperse your funds in pursuit of such personal gains? Your donations advance various causes, but just to cover your real intentions. You give to the Chicago symphony, but you don’t care about music. You give to a California literacy program or a New York food bank, but you don’t care about illiteracy or hunger. Behind your false facade, you seek only credibility, tax breaks, and perhaps a building with your name on it. Now we should abhor you shouldn’t we, like we abhor the methods of the murderous Sackler family of Purdue Pharma ignominy?

Another factor is your method. Do you donate to recipients who of their own independent preferences desire to do things you respect and admire? Or do you find recipients from whom you believe you can elicit actions you favor regardless of their independent preferences? For the latter, for example, do you use the carrot of giving funds and the stick of terminating funds to coerce support for your aims? Do you threaten to end future grants that you have gotten a recipient to depend on to coerce what you want from them? In that case too, we should abhor your choices like we abhor the methods of the NRA and other lobbies and rich electoral donors who fund candidates to coerce desired behavior regardless of the candidates’ own views.

Another factor always at a play is do we think the values, politics, and agenda that you favor are themselves desirable or heinous? Do we think your donations will generate good or do harm? This is in the eye of the beholder and undoubtedly I and you would find most really big donor agendas to be fed by warped personalities and mindsets formed by societies’ most despicable institutions, and only a very few even somewhat good.

All that said, how might we apply such observations to any particular situation? For example, how might we judge Neville Roy Singham, recently highlighted in a New York Times front page investigative report? The report tells us Singham ardently supports China and tries to disperse funds to increase China’s visibility and influence. So? Everything I have been able to glean, which is not too much, suggests that Singham’s views are sincere. He is not seeking wealth or power. He is not carrying out orders given by others. I would say the politics behind his priorities are flawed and his financial assets are so great as to raise concerns about the effects his funds may have on what does or doesn’t happen on the left. But to attack Singham because he gives to what he likes and in particular to do so regarding Singham but not regarding banks, foundations, lobbies, corporations, Koch, Sackler, and the U.S. government who all also give to what they like is hypocritical bias, whether it’s done by the likes of Marco Rubio or by liberals.

I have no way to know for sure, but I suspect the recent New York Times article about Singham and where his money goes was for its authors just a piece of investigative journalism about a valid subject. For the Times itself, however, I am confident that publishing the article so prominently but never similarly sponsoring and featuring countless other articles that could be undertaken to expose the motives and structures behind massive mainstream money matters, not to mention military matters, including the media’s silence about such matters, was politically done to undercut progressives and not to reveal important truths. No surprise there, but perhaps possible evidence of more things to come, a matter for considerable concern.

I should acknowledge that I have just enough personal history with rich donors to speak anecdotally a bit about such issues. For example, second hand and many years back I heard about a rich progressive donor who financed anti war activism and later No Nukes activism but who made a condition for receiving her funds being silent on Palestinian rights and Israeli violations of those rights. Or, also many years back and second hand, I heard about a rich donor who financed a periodical and then shut it down by withholding expected funds due to not liking some content. Or, first hand but also years back, I have myself experienced a rich donor who made big promises, extracted endless time and uncharacteristic behavior from me, but then finally gave nothing. Or, also first hand, I have experienced rich donors who bemoaned and expected fealty for giving what were actually trivial sums compared to their means. And, to be out front and accountable, about two years ago, when I was soliciting new staff to re-conceive and maintain a new ZNet, a good friend of mine who had some contact with Singham offered to make a pitch to him to help the new project. The pitch was made and in response, Singham told my friend that though Z had been a big help to him as he first became radical decades before, since then his views had developed and ZNet wasn’t an institution he would want to support. Singham’s priority was to support media that would use his help to be positive about China, my friend told me, and Singham knew the old ZNet wasn’t a China fan and predicted the new ZNet wouldn’t be either. I should note that had my friend called and instead said that Singham had some doubts for those same reasons but he nonetheless wanted to give ZNet a million dollars, I would have advised the new staff to take it, but also to not reconstruct their views or operations with the expectation of getting more funds later. For that matter, in earlier years Z had accepted donations—sadly, alway very modest—from a few wealthy individuals, and to make a long story short, I had spent a lot of time soliciting two potential huge donors for very large support, but despite their promises, when the dust settled Z got nothing from what were certainly two of the most time consuming, demeaning, and fruitless pursuits of my life. So, regarding funding, questions arise for progressive recipients? What is okay to accept? What is okay to do? What is unwise or not okay or even seriously wrong to do?

Imagine you are in some progressive organization, perhaps an alternative media group, an activist campaign, an organizing team, or a political party. Along comes someone with huge sums who offers you what in your situation is a really large donation. Should you take it?

Again, there is nothing wrong per se, in our upside down world, with accepting rich donor support for doing what you wish to do. Problems arise if what you wish to do is no good or positively bad, of course; or if to get support you distort your own preferred agenda or you augment it with actions you would not have otherwise done or even with actions that you despise; or if you let your work become dependent on a big donor who thereby gains power over you; or, for that matter, if you jump through endless hoops perhaps in the process distorting your personal habits and beliefs, only to fruitlessly gain nothing. Despite these possible problems, to honestly critique compromises that progressives make to get funds from a big donor, one might want to first note that it isn’t only to get funds from a big donor that one might compromise but also, for example, to sell stuff or to induce small donor donations. In all fund raising, that is, issues that can arise include, for example, the slippery slope of dependency that causes a growing need to comply with donors’ wishes followed by growing duplicity or self delusion to rationalize the situation. A donor gives a large sum. No strings. The recipient changes yearly wages and regular expenses to do more good in expectation of more donations to come. Later the donor wants different behavior so strings appear, albeit subtly. The choice becomes to comply with new donor desires so as to keep budgeted money coming, or to not comply, lose further donations, and then fail due to having reorganized in ways that require continued large donations.

Then there are also the optics and their implications. Is a donor so compromised in fact or even just in other’s biased perceptions that receiving such a source’s donations will undercut your credibility so much as to induce losses that outweigh whatever gains the donations financed? Not to mention do you misrepresent your views or needs or flat out lie to get donations from large or even small donors? Money matters are complicated.

While the mechanics of receiving donations, the possible dangers of becoming dependent, the dangers of losing credibility, and the possible warping of one’s values and behaviors all require careful reckoning, as with assessing the acts of donors, with recipients too an additional key factor is how much good will recipient’s actions achieve? Will it be enough to justify the recipient doing some unwanted or bad things to get funds with which to do good things?

Over decades of personally working on various projects I have actually had considerable first hand experience as a fund raiser and recipient of user donations, plus some fruitless solicitations such as the two mentioned earlier, and a few albeit modest successes with large donors. But I also had a quite unusual experience that perhaps has some relevance here.

When Hugo Chavez was alive and well, and Venezuela was pursuing what I felt and still feel were very desirable changes, I made a pitch for Venezuela to aid the international left as a whole. I proposed that Caracas host a set of yearly radical research and activism prizes with pomp, circumstance, and financial rewards similar to those of the Swedish Nobel prizes. I urged that such a Bolivar Prize could provide needed income and visibility to good projects based all around the world. At the same time, even more ambitious, I proposed that Venezuela publish Bolivarian editions of excellent books by very trustworthy and admirable left authors. This was partly to provide quality works in massive quantities to the Venezuelan population via a kind of Venezuelan domestic left book club and state subsidized publisher, which Chavez had already done with a couple of books. But the proposed innovation was that the state publisher would provide the authors of the chosen books New York Publishing House level advances commensurate to the millions of units to be printed and distributed. The authors would understand their advance was meant to aid left causes via the hope that the authors would donate their funds to achieve such ends. The peculiar details were conceived to make millions of dollars of transfers un-prosecutable. Note that this would have been a foreign government providing funds to a state publisher to affect political developments by way of admired authors worldwide (sort of like the U.S. doling out fortunes and, except in the Venezuelan case, without control and for good and not evil). Diverse authors would hopefully choose recipients to give major funds in legitimate ways that would in turn foster good results. All this would happen even though the funds had initially come from a foreign government. And, by the by, I was not just hypothetically considering this, I dreamed it up and proposed doing it, albeit unsuccessfully. The point of the story is that assessing money matters is often non trivial, involves many variables, and is highly context specific. To donate or to accept donations, the devil or the angel is largely in the contextual details as well as the social purpose. For those reasons, one overarching need regarding judging any kind of money matters is to provide sufficient transparency to allow reasoned assessment and warranted accountability.

So what does all this say about the current controversy regarding Singham and his recipients? First, we know—or we should know—that the New York Times publishes all the news (it deems) fit to print and that what it deems fit to print is whatever harms its enemies, enriches its allies, garners audience sufficient to attract advertisers, and doesn’t repel or otherwise anger advertisers. How do I say this? The New York Times is a despicable institution that routinely whitewashes horror into history and manipulates resistance into perfidy. Second, we know—or we should know—that the situation the recent Times article highlighted will predictably provide fodder for a time for right-wingers around the world to China bash and to hypocritically use to castigate some or perhaps even all progressives. Beyond that, regrettably, the situation may also cause some people of good will to rush to judgements about Singham and his recipients way short of knowing and thinking through details. And finally, we can hope and more important we can try to facilitate that the situation will also cause some serious thought about ways to ensure that progressive donations flow in worthy manners to worthy recipients to enact worthy actions.

Michael Albert is the co-founder of ZNet and Z Magazine.