When #MeToo infamy taints your benefactor

April 3, 2018 GMT

The Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation has helped pay for art and dance classes for thousands of children and opened galleries giving young artists of color, such as Kehinde Wiley, who would later paint the official portrait of Barack Obama, a place to showcase their work.

But for the first time ever, the foundation is having trouble raising money because its famous co-founder, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, has been accused by several women of rape, allegations that he has denied. The charity’s officials say they may have to end operations in New York, where most of their work is focused, if their fortunes do not improve.

“It is a shame that there are those who can’t separate accusations against the co-founder from both the good work that the organization does and from the children who need us,” said Richard Slomovitz, the foundation’s treasurer.

The Kevin Spacey Foundation mentored and trained young performers until several young actors accused Spacey of sexual misconduct. At the end of February, the charity announced it was shutting down after trustees deemed it “no longer viable.”

Just two weeks later, Cornell University’s architecture school turned away a gift from its famed alumnus Richard Meier, which would have endowed a professor’s position, following a report that he had sexually harassed several female employees.

The #MeToo movement has brought down many powerful men and exposed the human pain they caused. Now the collateral damage is becoming clear, as philanthropic efforts that relied on these figures’ celebrity have been derailed or forced to retool.

Since October, when revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein unleashed accusations against other men, organizations have rapidly distanced and denounced their now-unsavory benefactors, in an effort to keep the rest of their donors from fleeing.

Though the money might be sorely needed, “The downside to accepting the dollars is potentially alienating other donors,” said Melanie Ulle, a veteran philanthropy consultant.

“If we accept these dollars for this scholarship, is that going to offend donors for these other scholarships?”

In October, the University of Southern California’s film school turned down a $5 million pledge from Weinstein to fund an endowment for female filmmakers. Two months later, the school removed director Bryan Singer’s name from its Division of Cinema and Media Studies after Singer was accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy a decade ago. Singer has denied the accusation. According to a statement from the university, he requested his name be taken off “until the allegations against him are resolved.”

But the university has not responded to questions about whether it would return the $5 million that Singer, a Southern Cal alumnus who directed several “X-Men” movies, gave in 2013 when the division was named for him.

— (The New York Times)

Institutions have wrestled with similar decisions in the past. Some colleges have, for example, rejected tobacco money. And two years before #MeToo became a phenomenon, Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta, discontinued the professorship endowed by a $20 million donation from Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, and gave the related money to a foundation created by Camille Cosby.

Bill Cosby, who has been accused by several women of sexual assault, is facing a retrial in Pennsylvania this month on a charge of aggravated indecent assault against one woman; he has denied any wrongdoing and said the sexual contact was consensual, and his first trial ended in a hung jury.

But unlike other institutions, Rush Philanthropic is closely identified with a man now accused of wrongdoing. Officials at Simmons’ charity are worried that the drop-off in donations could spell the end of its New York programming, though it will continue to do work in Philadelphia.

One of the many young people who have benefited from the group’s money is Shalisa Chang of Brooklyn, who attended a high school arts program backed by the foundation, earned one of its college scholarships and is now a full-time visual artist at age 24.

“Rush has just been a huge support system in everything that I’ve ever done,” Chang said.

The #MeToo fallout has deprived other organizations of star power. The Fistula Foundation, which pays for treatment of obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury that women suffer mostly in developing countries, has received support on multiple occasions from comedian Louis C.K. In 2016, he won $50,000 for the nonprofit on “Jeopardy!”; and last year, he surprised its officials when he wore a shirt emblazoned with the charity’s name on “Saturday Night Live.”

The group raised $9.7 million in 2016, according to its most recent publicly available tax returns — triple the amount it collected in 2011, the year Louis C.K. first spoke about them.

Now, Louis C.K. is no longer a public advocate for the Fistula Foundation, after he admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct in the fall.

“We’re going to have fewer happy surprises,” said Kate Grant, the charity’s chief executive. She said that donations haven’t been affected so far, and that recently another comedian, Chris Rock, made a substantial contribution, in part because of Louis C.K.’s lobbying.

On the other hand, the #MeToo movement has spawned meaningful philanthropy of its own. Time’s Up, the initiative backed by hundreds of Hollywood figures to fight sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the workplace, has raised $21 million for its legal defense fund on a GoFundMe page.

“Certainly, in terms of dollars and cents, it has been a net gain,” said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy.