But many other large recipients have decided to return money from the Small Business Administration fund, called the Paycheck Protection Program, with executives acknowledging they have access to capital that many smaller, independent employers do not.
Aspen’s decision to accept the money has created a division among the organization’s many fellows and moderators who run its programs. Fellow and moderator Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, called the decision to keep the money a contradiction of the organization’s mission to foster service-oriented leadership for the public good.
Olojede said Aspen has many avenues of finding money from its network of wealthy trustees, fellows and philanthropists without having to take it from a government bailout fund during the coronavirus pandemic.
Aspen had an endowment of more than $115 million at the end of 2018, according to its most recently available tax filing.
The organization’s 72-person board of trustees includes Chairman James S. Crown, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families, and former Disney chairman Michael Eisner.
Other trustees include television journalist Katie Couric, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and shopping mall heiress and philanthropist Ann B. Friedman. The Washington Post has been a media partner on sports forums hosted by the Aspen Institute.
“The people and businesses — local bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, small foundries, little packaging businesses, your local grocers — that really need the money have none,” Olojede said. “And we have Depression-era unemployment. Mass deaths. And one of America’s most elite institutions thinks it is okay to take the money.”
“Those who purport to be values-based and public-spirited leaders cannot at the same time put self interest first, when there is so much human suffering and death,” he added.
Aspen Institute leaders, led by President and CEO Daniel R. Porterfield, held a call Monday with dozens of Aspen fellows to explain why they had decided to keep the money. The group’s many conferences and forums, the bread-and-butter of its operations, have been canceled. A 98-room conference center it owns in Aspen is closed and forecasting substantial losses. Overall, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization is projecting a loss of between $14 million and $17 million for 2020.
Aspen says it has already received board approval to tap into its endowment for $7.5 million but that about 80 percent of endowment funds are restricted and cannot be used for operating purposes. It has not laid off or furloughed any employees and plans to use the money to keep those workers employed, according to spokeswoman Amy DeMaria.
“We applied for PPP funds because we have suffered a significant hit to our budget, and are doing everything possible to keep our people employed — which is the purpose of the PPP program,” she said in a statement.
Another fellow and moderator, Tony Klemmer, said he was convinced on the call with Porterfield that the organization was doing all it could to find money to pay employees and that accepting the money was appropriate.
“My composite sense was that he made a good choice,” said Klemmer, who is founder and president of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education in Rhode Island. “The whole spirit behind that program is to help people keep jobs.”
Decisions about who should receive and accept the funds have been complicated by evolving and sometimes contradictory guidance from the Treasury Department and SBA. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza have heralded the program as a success. More than 4.2 million businesses and nonprofit organizations have received a total of more than $531 billion in funding for the program through May, according to recent data.
According to the rules set by the $2 trillion economic stimulus legislation, the Cares Act, applicants for small business funds “shall make a good-faith certification that the uncertainty of current economic conditions makes necessary the loan request to support the ongoing operations of the eligible recipient.”
SBA officials say they rely on the good faith of applicants to self-certify that they are in need of the funds because of uncertainty created by the coronavirus.
But the SBA has since advised recipients to return money if they can easily access funds from other sources. The agency said applicants should take into account “their current business activity and their ability to access other sources of liquidity.”
Businesses that may fall into this category have until Thursday to return the funds or risk having to repay the loans even if they rehired employees. The SBA has refused to release government records showing which businesses have received loans through the program, prompting a lawsuit from The Post and four other media organizations Tuesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, said Wednesday he has been working to get Carranza or another SBA official to appear at an oversight hearing to learn more about how the fund has been operating. So far he has not been successful.
“We are trying to get someone to come, like the administrator. We asked last week. They told us to give them a week. We asked again this week,” he said.
Founded in 1949, the Aspen Institute refers to itself a “non-partisan forum for values-based leadership and exchange of ideas” through many events around the world including an annual festival in Aspen. Canceling that event alone, DeMaria said, meant a loss of $5 million to $6 million.
She said that with the ongoing pandemic it is difficult to know when the organization would be able to resume its conferences. Nonprofit organizations may also see a drop in philanthropic donations that lag other economic indicators.
“As is the case with most other nonprofits, we know that our financial picture will worsen as the pandemic goes on,” she said.
But Olojede said that for an organization based on the idea of leading for the common good, it was “contrary to the stated purpose of this institute” to accept so much funding while small businesses with no access to capital continue to apply in hopes of receiving money.
“There is something seriously distressing about this institute taking this money, in the midst of a jobs crisis, and a public health crisis, where people are starving and small businesses cannot get the money that they need,” he said. “They have to return that money.”
Erica Werner contributed to this story.