Nonprofits need donors, but at what reputational cost?
Outcry has been building over donations from the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, which has been inextricably linked to the opioid crisis in the U.S. The family now faces a lawsuit brought by more than 600 cities, counties and Native American tribes.
Like other suits that have been filed, this one alleges the Sackler family made a fortune by using deceptive marketing to sell addictive and potentially deadly painkillers.
“Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic,” the suit says, then naming the eight defendants.
“Because they controlled their own privately held drug company, the Sackler Defendants had the power to decide how addictive narcotics were sold. They got more patients on opioids, at higher doses, for longer, than ever before. They paid themselves billions of dollars. They are responsible for addiction, overdose, and death that damaged millions of lives. They should be held accountable now.”
The Sackler name reaches far beyond the pharmaceutical industry. Sackler money has helped fund prestigious art museums and galleries, including the Guggenheim in New York and the Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery in the U.K.
These museums now face a choice: Disavow a major benefactor, or face public scorn. Many organizations are choosing to return the money, among other measures.
On Friday, the Guggenheim also made a stunning announcement, as reported by the Hyperallergic.com online arts magazine. It would not, it said, accept future Sackler philanthropy.
A statement read: “The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum received a total of $7m in gifts from members of the Mortimer D Sackler family initiated in 1995 and paid out through 2006 to establish and support the Sackler Center for Arts Education, which serves approximately 300,000 youth, adults, and families each year.
“An additional $2m was received between 1999 and 2015 to support the museum. No contributions from the Sackler family have been received since 2015. No additional gifts are planned, and the Guggenheim does not plan to accept any gifts.”
Museums in the U.K. also have chosen to refuse further gifts.
The Tate on Thursday said in a statement: “The Sackler family has given generously to Tate in the past, as they have to a large number of UK arts institutions. We do not intend to remove references to this historic philanthropy. However, in the present circumstances we do not think it right to seek or accept further donations from the Sacklers.”
The National Portrait Gallery became the first organization to actively turn down money from the Sackler family.
In a decision hailed as “a powerful acknowledgment” that some sources of income could not be justified, a spokesperson for the gallery said it had “jointly agreed” that it would “not proceed at this time” with a £1m donation from the family, whose US pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma LP makes the highly-addictive opioid prescription painkiller OxyContin.
…But while both parties insisted that the decision was mutual, it will be seen as a major blow to the family’s status as leading philanthropists and evidence that a campaign against the Sacklers, led by the American artist Nan Goldin, has been effective.
Goldin, an art photographer who has spoken about becoming addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed the drug, told the Guardian on Tuesday that she was “so happy” with the “important” decision taken by the National Portrait Gallery.
Museums have faced increasing pressure from their constituents to reject the money, including protests at the Guggenheim led by Goldin. Protests had also been planned at other institutions.
Though it can be difficult to return donations, advisors have urged other nonprofit organizations to join the art museums in refusing Sackler money.
“This is blood money and should be returned,” said David Callahan, author and the founder of the website Inside Philanthropy, adding: “It’s not easy to give back money or get rid of a name, but not taking any new money, that would seem to be an easier call for institutions and pretty obviously a smart decision at this point.”
But he predicted many institutions “are probably just hoping the furor will blow over”.
Yale University is home to the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, funded by a founder of Purdue Pharma and his widow. It also has two professorships endowed by the Sacklers. In a statement, it noted the “devastating effects” of the opioid crisis.
The university also said “Yale is a leader in research and educational efforts to combat this epidemic” and added: “We are aware of the ongoing efforts to determine potential contributing factors in the current opioid epidemic, including through legal processes, and will continue to monitor the outcomes of those efforts.”
Sackler gifts, the statement said, had “helped advance the university’s mission in a number of academic disciplines”.
As organizations began to turn away from the Sackler Trust, the family decided to halt future donations.
In a statement, Dame Theresa Sackler, chair of The Sackler Trust, said: “I am deeply saddened by the addiction crisis in America and support the actions Purdue Pharma is taking to help tackle the situation, whilst still rejecting the false allegations made against the company and several members of the Sackler family.
“The Trustees of the Sackler Trust have taken the difficult decision to temporarily pause all new philanthropic giving, while still honouring existing commitments.”
Meanwhile, the family and Purdue Pharma continue to fight allegations that they are responsible for the opioid crisis that has killed thousands in the U.S.
A spokesperson for the families of Drs. Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, the late founders of the company, issued this statement:
“These baseless allegations place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis, and we deny them. The company our fathers and grandfathers founded manufactures an FDA-approved medicine that has always represented a tiny portion of the opioid market — never more than four percent of nationwide opioid prescriptions and currently less than two percent — while providing life-changing relief for the millions of pain patients who need it.
“While we have always acted properly, we remain committed to making a meaningful contribution to solutions that save lives by preventing diversion and abuse of prescription medicines and treating those who are suffering from addiction.”
In a statement, Purdue Pharma says it hasn’t received credit for its work to reduce opioid addiction.
This complaint is part of a continuing effort by contingency fee counsel to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis in the United States, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” according to a statement from Purdue spokesman Bob Josephson.
The statement says the lawsuit is inaccurate and misleading. For example, the company says, the suit doesn’t mention that Purdue’s opioid pain medicines represent less than 2% of total opioid prescriptions.
The suit also doesn’t give Purdue Pharma credit for its work in trying to reduce opioid addiction, the statement said.
“Purdue Pharma and the individual former directors vigorously denies the allegations in the complaint and will continue to defend themselves against these misleading allegations. In the meantime, Purdue continues to fight for balance in the public discourse so that society can simultaneously help pain patients in need and create real solutions to the complex problem of addiction.”
On social media, some see Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family as villains:
The executives of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are mass murderers and should be held accountable.
— Matthew Heimbach (@HeimbachMatthew) March 20, 2019
Others have a more complex view:
I wish people were as outraged about unscientific, unregulated, superstitious, absurd "treatment" as they are about Purdue Pharma. Focusing all of your attention on big pharma is the epitome of misdirection.
— Bill Kinkle, BS, RN, EMT-P (@billkinkle) March 19, 2019
Moreover, chronic pain patients are at the losing end of this outrage through heavily regulated prescriptions and a high degree of stigma/discrimination.
— Bill Kinkle, BS, RN, EMT-P (@billkinkle) March 19, 2019
One takeaway stands: Communicators who wish to avoid a hot-button issue should learn where donations come from and weigh their monetary value against the attendant risk.