In Refugee Crisis, States Hinder Nonprofits

Nonprofits are now mixed up in the dispute over Syrian refugees. As leaders representing well over half of the 50 U.S. states have announced their opposition to accepting Syrians displaced in their country’s intractable conflict, organizations have begun receiving official requests to desist from settling Syrians. These letters amount to state interference with nonprofits’ operations.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rhetoric in the United States concerning the asylum of stateless refugees has reached a fever pitch, with political leaders and pundits voicing concerns that some refugees could be affiliated with ISIS – the terrorist organization responsible for the carnage in France. Donald Trump – the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race – has referred to the acceptance of refugees as a “Trojan Horse” for terrorist cells entering the United States.

The process through which Syrians can gain entry into the United States takes between 18 months and three years, and involves intensive screening from multiple government agencies.

The protest of state governors is largely toothless, as elected officials possess little power to actually bar refugees approved by the federal government from entering the United States. They can, however, make the situation more difficult, redirecting funding from state-level refugee agencies. They can also bully nonprofit organizations working to help the settlement for approved refugees as painless as possible.

Greg Abbott – Governor of Texas and vocal opponent of accepting Syrian refugees – sent letters to nonprofits in his state that work with refugees asking that they refrain from working with Syrians. While the letters contained no actual legal power to stop nonprofits’ work, several groups capitulated to the demands.

Syria’s refugee crisis is a big test for nonprofits, as articulated by Rick Cohen in The Nonprofit Quarterly.


If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.

Whether or not nonprofits stand up to state pressure, the current situation by itself taints the United States’ self-avowed openness to accepting deserving immigrants into the nation’s storied cultural melting pot. Passionate nonprofit professionals committed to the social good need to stand up in the face of fear and anti-democratic bullying and pursue their missions with clear eyes and a sense of human decency.

Pressure Mounts for Gates Foundation to Divest

Sometimes, the altruistic mission behind a foundation is contradicted by its investments.

The world’s largest foundations command immense financial resources. The Gates Foundation – funded by both the foundation’s name sake Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – holds a $42 billion endowment. The England-based Wellcome Trust possesses an endowment of over $27 billion.

The considerable resources behind these foundations are indispensable for world philanthropy. From promoting agricultural advancements in underdeveloped regions to combatting malaria, The Gates Foundation has taken a leading role in the fight for global health. The Gates Foundation’s funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) is so integral for the UN agency that it – somewhat controversially – affords the foundation the power to make certain programmatic decisions.

In order to keep endowments funded and foundation staff capable of bankrolling these important projects, foundations manage trusts that contain valuable investments. But what’s profitable doesn’t always correspond to what is most socially just.

The Gates Foundation, for example, possesses $1.4 billion in fossil fuel investments. While Gates is outspoken on climate change (you can read his passion and concern for global wellbeing with regard to the environment on his blog), this sizable investment appears to contribute to global health issues that The Gates Foundation spends money to mitigate. Spending resources on both sides of the equation, this complicated relationship between social justice work and financial investment appears self-defeating.

Many institutions have begun practicing divestment – cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry in recognition of the urgency of addressing climate change. An ongoing campaign is trying to convince The Gates Foundation – the largest charitable entity in the world – to do the same.

In an unprecedented step for a major news publication, The Guardian’s editorial board launched a campaign this year that looks to encourage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust (the two largest health charities in the world) to divest from dirty energy. Launched in conjunction with the environmentalist nonprofit group, the campaign has so far been unsuccessful. Bill Gates has rejected the campaigns premises in a series of interviews, including one with The Atlantic in which he declared that divestment is a “false solution.”

He remarked:

If you If you think divestment alone is a solution, I worry you’re taking whatever desire people have to solve this problem and kind of using up their idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon – because only a few people in society are the owners of the equity of coal or oil companies  As long as there’s no carbon tax and that stuff is legal, everybody should be able to drive around.

By Gates’ own thinking, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases – the United States and China – have only until 2050 until they can no longer contribute anymore carbon to the atmosphere. In order to limit the adverse effects of climate change. Gates believes in a carbon tax designed to generate funding for a government-led research and development program for next-generation renewable energy technology. He has pledged $2 billion of his own funds to supplement the hypothetical program.

Other institutions, however, are heeding the call to align their investments with their philanthropic, pro-social missions. More than 400 organizations around the globe have divested over $2.6 trillion collectively. Including Stanford University and the Church of England, these institutions may not represent a lion’s share of the world’s wealth, but they have contributed to the larger conversation.

Perhaps once enough organizations with smaller endowments move away from these investments – and display the financial feasibility of doing so – larger institutions will follow. Corporate Knights, a Canadian research company, released a report arguing that the Gates Foundation would have $1.9 billion more to spend through its endowment annually if it fully divests from fossil fuels. The long-term costs of ignoring climate change are too great for nonprofits, social benefit corporations, and social impact investors to overlook the dangers of investing in dirty energy.

How to Help Paris Attack Victims

As Paris reels from yesterday’s deadly attacks that claimed the lives of at least 127 people, there are a number of ways that you can help. Below you’ll find a number of organizations that are either based in Paris or provide emergency and/or basic needs assistance in France.

Secours populaire française
This relief organization fights poverty and strives for inclusion within France. Individuals can also contribute their time and skills to the organization.

Médecins Sans Frontières
Also known as Doctors without Borders, this Paris-based organization provides emergency medical care to vulnerable populations around the globe. While there has been no announcement that the organization will work on the ground in Paris, this NGO is highly vetted and renowned, symbolizing  international goodwill.

The French Red Cross
This organization was active while the tragic events in Paris were still unfolding, providing resources and personnel to the hundreds of people impacted by the attacks.

The Secours Catholique-Caritas France
This Catholic organization provides assistance to needy families in France, as well as emergency relief services during disastrous events such as last night’s attacks.

When Success Fails: Maryland Cuts Drug Treatment Program

(A view of Baltimore’s City Hall and downtown area)

Innovative programs that support nonprofits are often nixed before any meaningful results come in, thus spoiling the opportunity to acquire data on new systems designed to address society’s most pressing issues. Recent news out of Maryland, however, shows that even a program’s success does not always guarantee its longevity.

On Halloween weekend, Maryland discontinued a program that diverted funding earmarked for the state’s correctional facilities to nonprofits that helped counsel drug addicts. The program – called The Public Safety Compact – took savings from lower incarceration rates and supported nonprofit organizations that helped find former addicts jobs, as well as provide ongoing support that kept them sober.

One individual from the program, Baye Parker, remarked on the discontinuation: “For me, it’s baffling because it’s great government. I don’t understand why you would try to break something that’s working.”

The cancellation of the program effectively shelved the release of 60 inmates set to become the next class of beneficiaries. The program was designed to benefit nonviolent inmates, and has helped secure the early release of over 500 individuals who successfully completed the program.

On both federal and state levels, lawmakers and leaders are searching for more ways to lower the burden of the United States’ massive incarceration system. The country currently imprisons more if its citizens than any other country on earth, and spends upwards of $60 billion dollars in doing so.

Criminal justice reform has begun to receive some bipartisan support, but the scale of the problem is immense and will require a multi-faceted approach.

Dr. Leana Wen – the Baltimore City Health Commissioner – condemned the end of the program. She told reporters that her department is “deeply concerned about and disappointed by the state’s decision to end the Public Safety Compact program.”

She continued to discuss the importance of this type of program, one that marries government and nonprofits working hard to make a difference:

In our city, eight out of 10 who are in jail use illegal substances; four out of 10 have a diagnosed mental illness. We need to be doing more to support this population, not less. We need to expand medical treatment, not incarceration. We need to recognize and treat drug addiction as a disease.

The program is believed to have significantly cut recidivism rates for graduates, who returned to prison around a rate of 9 percent. The state average is over 40 percent. The program was nixed when state officials realized that the way the program is structured breaches Maryland’s procurement guidelines.

Instead of taking this route, state officials ought to have exercised  greater creativity. The program not only empowered nonprofits to improve the lives of those afflicted with drug addiction, but also lowered the state’s incarceration levels and saved tax payer dollars. The United States needs to create a culture that fosters this philanthropic inventiveness, not one that stifles it with bureaucratic technicalities.

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