No American family today has developed a larger gap between its dueling public personae than the Sacklers. On the one hand, they have cultivated a reputation as leading philanthropists and cultural benefactors. Their name graces a gallery at the Smithsonian and wings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Royal Academy. They’ve funded more than a dozen endowments or academic centers at universities and hospitals around the world, including research centers and facilities at Yale, Harvard, Tufts, Columbia, Cambridge and Oxford.
On the other hand, through a string of recent journalistic exposés and court proceedings, the Sacklers have emerged as the embodiment of corporate avarice, relentlessly pursuing profit at the cost of human life. They are the founding family behind (and have long constituted the majority of the board of) Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the prime accelerant of the opioid epidemic. Since its introduction in 1996, the drug has generated some $35 billion in revenue for Purdue and an estimated $4 billion for the Sacklers. Last June, a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general alleged that members of the family knowingly and aggressively pushed the devastatingly addictive painkiller onto doctors and patients, without telling them of the risks. They failed to alert authorities to widespread reports of abuse and even sought to shift blame for the opioid crisis onto addicts. “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Richard Sackler, then president of Purdue, wrote in a February 2001 email made public in the Massachusetts lawsuit. “They are the culprits and the problem.” That same month, after learning that a federal prosecutor reported 59 deaths from OxyContin in a single state, Sackler wrote to Purdue executives: “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.”
Activists have called on institutions that have received Sackler largesse to strip the family’s name from their buildings. A petition demanding that Harvard cut ties with the family has gathered more than 14,000 signatures. The mayor of Somerville, Mass., voiced support for this remedy on Tufts’s campus as well: “I think there needs to be a serious discussion about removing the Sackler name.” But as of now, no major institution has done so. (The most prominent institution to recently break ties with the Sacklers wasn’t a philanthropic entity but a financial one — a hedge fund they invested in.) It’s easy to understand this inaction as a sort of moral failure, and in the future, institutions should reckon with the message they would convey by accepting a Sackler donation. But it’s possible that some good can come from keeping the Sackler name on the walls of the institutions the family has already funded. Preserving their public philanthropic presence can provide a civic opportunity — if we know how to take advantage of it.
Institutional leaders often defend themselves with a utilitarian calculus. A spokeswoman from the University of Connecticut, one of the largest beneficiaries of Sackler philanthropy, called the allegations in the Massachusetts case “deeply disturbing” but said returning the money “would not undo the damage of the opioid crisis or punish the family or the company they are associated with.” Questioned about Sackler gifts to Yale, university president Peter Salovey equivocated. “There’s no doubt that we have an opioid addiction crisis in this country,” he said. “It is also clear that generosity from the Sackler family has funded issues core to Yale’s mission.”
Other institutions have sheltered in the complexity of the Sackler family tree to explain their inaction: Three Sackler brothers founded Purdue, and each established his own foundation, as did many of their children. Because Arthur Sackler died nine years before Purdue introduced OxyContin (though he did pioneer the company’s aggressive marketing tactics), philanthropy derived from his fortune can be considered less problematic. As the Met’s president explained in a January statement, “The [Sackler] family is a large extended group and their support of The Met began decades before the opioid crisis.” Yet that statement also contained perhaps the clearest gesture toward significant remedial action: The museum was “engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies” and would “have more to report in due course.” We shall see.
To be fair, there are real obstacles. Unwinding “naming” gifts would involve considerable legal hurdles. It would probably require either the consent of the donor or the authorization of some judicial authority or the charity’s state oversight body. The charity would need to show that the presence of the name makes it impossible or seriously impracticable to achieve the purposes for which it was established — which could be an “uphill battle,” says Brigit Kavanagh, an expert on nonprofit law. Simply returning the Sacklers’ money would be even more difficult. Under state nonprofit and charity law and under federal tax law, explains Kavanagh, such gifts must be irrevocably dedicated to charitable uses and not used for private benefit. A nonprofit couldn’t simply give funds “back” to the original donor after an irrevocable gift exchange: That might be considered utilizing them for an individual’s personal benefit.
The vicissitudes of contemporary high-stakes fundraising are also a powerful motivator. Institutions that rely most heavily on large donations — hospitals, museums and higher education — have seen that dependency grow more pronounced over the past several decades. University fundraisers used to talk about the “80/20 rule”: Eighty percent of a philanthropic campaign’s goals would come from 20 percent of donors. Now they speak about the “90/10 rule”; some analysts have suggested that the ratio in many schools is more like 98-to-2. Faced with enormous pressure to reel in mega-gifts, it’s easy to overlook the ultimate source of those gifts — especially since rough handling of a major donor could scare off future givers.
Still, we can’t pin all the blame on fundraisers and board chairs. As Anand Giridharadas chronicles in his book “Winners Take All,” for significant swaths of society, “after-the-fact benevolence” has come to justify “anything-goes capitalism.” We have embraced a moral system in which corporate benefactors contribute to social ills by “operational daylight” and then promote the good they do by “philanthropic moonlight,” as Giridharadas put it. Too often, the imperative for corporate social responsibility kicks in only after the profits have been made. The realms of capitalist accumulation and charitable redistribution are kept conceptually segregated.
There are moments in history when the contradictions between those two realms are too great to be ignored. During the first Gilded Age, for example, when an emerging corps of “robber barons” channeled industrial fortunes toward educational, religious and cultural institutions, “tainted money” emerged as one of the period’s most contentious moral issues. Workers, for instance, debated whether it was appropriate to patronize the libraries that Andrew Carnegie, whose fortune derived in part from ruthlessly breaking the unions at his steel mills, had constructed across the country. And in 1905, a gift of $100,000 from John D. Rockefeller to a Congregationalist missionary society sparked a widespread and contentious public debate about whether acceptance of the gift constituted an endorsement of the Standard Oil magnate’s ruthlessly monopolistic business practices. It’s not surprising that in this second Gilded Age, similar issues are arising once again.
But nonprofit trustees, hospital CEOs and museum presidents don’t have to be the only ones who confront them. The broader public could, as well. America is in the throes of a debate about the place of large-scale giving within a democracy, and the Sackler controversy could push us to revise the way we engage with these gifts.
When we think about the philanthropy that supports the institutions we patronize, if we do at all, we assume that it legitimizes private wealth and burnishes the moral status of benefactors. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. If bad actors can sometimes hide behind their philanthropy, the institutions they fund can help call them out. They can, for instance, serve as sites of protest, becoming pressure points for benefactors who clearly care about their public stature — perhaps more vulnerable ones than private residences or business headquarters. The photographer Nan Goldin, herself in recovery from an OxyContin addiction, has led demonstrations at Sackler-funded institutions to compel them to stop accepting the family’s donations and to persuade Purdue to direct half of its future profits to address the opioid crisis. In February, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, home of the Sackler Center for Arts Education, Goldin (whose work is in the museum’s collection) led a group of activists inside. They dropped a flurry of faux prescriptions from the museum’s spiral ramp, hung banners over its side proclaiming “Shame on Sackler” and staged a “die-in” on the lobby floor. As Goldin appreciates, when trying to push corporate leaders to do the right thing, it’s worth being able to take a shot at the solar plexus of their self-regard.
In fact, the institutions that have benefited from mega-philanthropy often provide citizens’ most intimate encounters with the concentrated fortunes that mark our age: We’re not invited to a billionaire’s $25 million villa, but we can visit the museum or hospital funded with an equivalent amount. Doing so at least offers us a chance to reflect on whether those benefactors and their business methods represent our values. The monuments to large-scale philanthropy that crowd our civic landscape are open, if rarely accepted, invitations to form a more engaged ethic of philanthropic receivership, one that roots gifts in the political domains and regulatory regimes that birthed them. After all, fortunes are a product not merely of entrepreneurship but also of the policies that citizens collectively craft.
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