Philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs is gearing up to invest $3.5 billion into climate-focused initiatives in the next 10 years. But if the donation patterns of her foundation continue, the public might never know where that money is going.
A spokesperson with Powell Jobs’ company, Emerson Collective, said the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs will spend the funds through her charitable organization, Waverley Street Foundation. Its board includes Powell Jobs' family members, including her son, Reed Jobs.
The announcement came late last month as donors pledged billions towards conservation and other climate efforts in tandem with the United Nations General Assembly. Millions more were committed last week in the lead-up to the U.N.‘s Climate Change Conference, set to be held in Glasgow, Scotland at the end of this month.
Foundations are required to list contributions they make in a 990 form they file annually with the IRS. But where Waverley Street, formerly called Emerson Collective Foundation, has directed most of its gifts thus far remains a mystery.
Between 2017 and 2019, the foundation funneled $185 million into a donor-advised fund, which is comparable to a charitable investment account. Donor-advised funds, or DAFs, for short, allow donors anonymity -- something Powell Jobs has long prized in her work. The foundation's 990 for 2019, the latest year with publicly available information, lists its only direct gift as a $50,000 donation to a California-based environmental nonprofit. It's unclear where the other millions have landed, or even if they've gone out the door.
The website Inside Philanthropy first reported on Waverley's DAF contributions.
Critics have been calling for DAF reforms because the accounts aren’t required to make donations to working charities in any given year, but allow donors to take immediate tax deductions. (Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the DAF sponsor where Powell Jobs parked her contributions, says if a donor hasn't recommended any grants after two years of donating funds, it will distribute the contributions through its own community fund.)
A spokesperson with Emerson Collective has confirmed reports to The Associated Press that Waverley Street, which as of 2019 had $1.8 billion in assets, will sunset its work after 10 years. However, the spokesperson declined to say if the foundation will continue to put its money in a DAF, which could allow it to retain advisory privileges over its contributions well after 10 years. The spokesperson also declined to say if the foundation has distributed the $185 million it has already deposited in a DAF.
It’s legal for private foundations to donate to DAFs in order to meet their required 5% annual minimum payout rate. However, that could change if a Senate bill aiming to speed up donations from DAFs - and bar private foundations from meeting their payout rates by donating to these funds - is enacted. The Ford Foundation, which recently elected Powell Jobs as a member of its board, has been backing similar DAF reform proposals.
Ray Madoff, a Boston College Law professor who's been pushing Congress to act on reforms, argues the problem with DAFs goes well beyond Powell Jobs — the foundations of Google co-founder Larry Page and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for example, have made such donations in the past.
“Private foundations are subject to rules so that the public is supposed to be able to see what is happening with this money,” Madoff said. “And when Congress allows people to avoid these rules by putting the money into this closed box of the donor-advised fund, they are subverting the purpose of the disclosure rules.”
Powell Jobs, whose fortune tops $16 billion, according to Forbes, does much of her philanthropic work through Emerson Collective, a limited liability company, or LLC, that focuses on education, immigration reform, environmental causes and owns a majority stake in The Atlantic magazine.
Because it's set up as an LLC, Emerson doesn't have reporting requirements — similar to Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures. Wealthy philanthropists use LLCs because they offer them flexibility to contribute to political campaigns, invest in companies and make charitable donations using one organization. However, transparency watchdogs aren’t fans, arguing they allow donors to exert influence over a wide array of institutions with little public knowledge.
Emerson was in the headlines this month for its prior investments in entities like Ozy Media -- which recently shut down after reports in the New York Times raised questions about its claims of millions of viewers and readers. Emerson's grants also drew some scrutiny last year when a report by The Colorado Sun revealed the company used the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to secretly passthrough a donation to Colorado Governor Jared Polis that allowed him to hire a special adviser on immigrants and refugees.
“Individuals who can be very influential are getting a lot more control over the messaging, and what they share about their grant-making simply by making this choice (of using LLCs)," said Sarah Reckhow, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in education and philanthropy. “And it makes it a lot harder for folks who are independently watching what’s going on."
Since 2000, Reckhow had tracked which organizations and school districts were receiving funding from the largest K-12 donors to detect how funders could be influencing policy changes. She collected data every five years, but halted her research in 2015 as LLCs - like Zuckerberg's CZI and Emerson - became more prominent donors.
“Without having them represented in the data that I was trying to collect and analyze, it would be an extremely incomplete picture of what’s going on,” Reckhow said.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative now publicly lists its grants, but Emerson Collective does not. Though, some outside observers believe Powell Jobs' quest for anonymity might be beneficial in her climate-focused work.
"In general, I always try to counsel donors to be open and transparent about what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it, but there are times where that may not make sense," said Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
“Sometimes you have to be realistic about the fact that there are organized interests (including political actors and those supported by the fossil fuel industry) that are opposing you and your philanthropic strategy. And therefore, you might not want to hand them your playbook," he said.
The spokesperson for Emerson Collective has said the $3.5 billion Powell Jobs will invest will go towards “initiatives and ideas to help underserved communities most impacted by climate change.” The efforts, they said, “will focus on housing, transportation, food security and health.”
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