Toxic Gifts? Coming to Terms with Sackler Family Philanthropy

 photo:  Rob Crandall/shutterstock

photo:  Rob Crandall/shutterstock

Late last year, the New Yorker and Esquire published separate pieces revealing how the Sackler brothers—Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond—transformed Purdue Pharma, a privately held company based in Stamford, Connecticut, into a pharmaceutical giant through deceptive marketing techniques, and, in the case of Mortimer and Raymond, through the sale of Oxycontin.

In 2007, the company and three executives pled guilty to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about Oxycontin's risk of addiction and its potential for abuse.

Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaboration at Brandeis University, said the company bears "much of the blame for the epidemic because its multi-faced campaign... misinformed the medical community about the risks" of opioid prescriptions.

All three brothers were also incredibly generous philanthropists, making numerous large donations over decades, often with naming rights. That giving has yielded big dividends. As Christopher Glazek noted in his Esquire piece, "the family's leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling Oxycontin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and second have nothing to do with one another."

The controversy surfaces an increasingly common problem across modern philanthropy: How should organizations deal with toxic donors? Should recipients of Sackler millions scrub the name off their buildings? Return the money? Refuse money in the future? And how thoroughly should organizations vet donors in the future?

Most recipients of Sackler money, as we'll soon see, have been avoiding the issue. But in this increasingly politicized philanthropic climate, it's hard to evade questions about tainted money. 

A Pharmaceutical Empire

Let's start with the basics.

After Mortimer and Raymond purchased Purdue Pharma in 1952, they, along with brother Arthur, turned it into a pharmaceutical giant. According to Forbes, the Sacklers are now one of America’s richest families, with a collective net worth of $13 billion.

Arthur Sackler passed away in 1987, after which Mortimer and Raymond bought out his shares of Purdue Pharma from his estate. Oxycontin was introduced in 1995, and flourished under the marketing strategy pioneered by Arthur years earlier, which included aggressively selling to doctors and providing free trips to pain-management seminars.

For millions of patients, Oxycontin was nothing less than a life saver. Many others, however, became hopelessly addicted—the drug's sole active ingredient is oxycodone, a chemical cousin of heroin. Since its introduction, Oxycontin has reportedly generated some $35 billion in revenue for Purdue.

In 2007, after the guilty pleas of the Purdue Pharma executives, the company agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other payments, while the executives agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million.

Mortimer and Raymond personally were not accused of wrongdoing, nor was Richard Sackler, Raymond's son, who became Purdue Pharma president in 1999 and co-chairman in 2003.

We may never truly know if any of the three were directly complicit in Purdue Pharma's misdeeds. According to Glazek, writing in Esquire, because of a non-prosecution agreement negotiated during the 2007 settlement, most new criminal litigation against Purdue can only address activity that occurred after that date. 

Meanwhile, experts date the beginning of the opioid crisis at 1998-1999, a few years after Oxycontin hit the market.

Mortimer died in 2010; Raymond in 2017. 

Sackler Legacy

Arthur established the Sackler Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963. He went on to donate to the Smithsonian, the Royal Academy in London, Tufts, Princeton, and Harvard. Raymond and Mortimer's side of the family has supported the Dia Art Foundation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Sackler name also adorns buildings in places like the Sackler School of Medicine and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences at Yale.

When considering what parts of this philanthropic legacy are problematic, it's important to remember the timeline of Oxycontin's development. After a recent Inside Philanthropy piece alluded to the controversy around the family's giving, the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation provided the following statement:

Arthur M. Sackler passed away in 1987, eight years before Oxycontin existed. His brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, purchased his one-third option in Purdue Frederick from his estate a few months after his death. Oxycontin was never a part of Dr. Sackler’s body of work or his estate. None of his descendants have had any involvement with, nor ownership of, Purdue Pharma or benefitted from the sale of Oxycontin. Any suggestion that Arthur’s family is, in any way, linked to the very real opioid crisis in this country has absolutely no basis in fact.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Sackler, Arthur's daughter and founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, said in a statement to Hyperallergic, that none of Arthur's descendants "have ever owned a share of Purdue stock nor benefited in any way from it or the sale of Oxycontin. I stand with all angry voices against abuse of poor that harms or compromises any and all lives."

"The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me."

Sackler Philanthropy Today

So where is Sackler money going right now?

It's a difficult question to answer, since real-time information isn't available, nor are recipients publicly celebrating their windfalls. The best we can do is to look at recent gifts from the brothers' foundations. 

Let's start with the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, which granted more than $1.1 million in 2015 to various institutions, all art donations, according to the group’s 990 tax forms. It's a relatively light philanthropic footprint, as well as a tangential one: Since neither Arthur nor his heirs are directly linked to the sale of Oxycontin, I'd like to focus primarily on the ongoing giving of Mortimer and Raymond's heirs.

Last November, the Daily Caller reviewed tax forms from seven Sackler-affiliated foundations and identified 44 organizations that received funding from 2013 to 2015. It then contacted each organization and asked if it planned to return its donation. You can see the list of the 44 organizations, the grant amount, and the representative's response (if any) here

Based on information gleaned from this analysis and other sources, here's a short summary of recent gifts from Raymond and Mortimer's foundational entities, starting with the former.

In 2013, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation funded interdisciplinary research at the Tufts University's Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences to address "pressing health and biomedical problems." Founded in 1980 with funding from all three brothers, it received more than $2 million from "the family" between 2013 and 2015. 

The foundation gave more than $2.3 million in 2015. Of that, $2 million went to "program support" for the University of Nebraska Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, while the remaining $300,000 went to "medical research."

Meanwhile, The Progressive reported that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has to date received at least $14 million from the foundation, according to its 2016 annual financial report. This figure reportedly makes the Sacklers among the largest private donors to the scientific body that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relies on for independent scientific advice on issues like—you guessed it—opioid addiction. 

As for Raymond's brother, the Dr. Mortimer And Theresa Sackler Foundation donated $6 million to the New York Presbyterian Hospital in 2015, giving another $1 million to the Central Park Conservancy the same year. In 2016, the foundation gave the Dia Art Foundation in New York a "generous" gift, prompting it to create the Sackler Institute.

The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation donated more than $1.8 million in 2015. Charity: Water was the largest recipient, receiving $520,000. The Global Poverty Project was second, at $250,000.

Other organizations that have responded to inquiries about Sackler donations refer to the family's support in the present tense.

London's Victoria and Albert Museum received about $13.1 million from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation in 2012. Writing to the Times' Moynihan, spokeswoman Zoë Franklin said, "The Sackler family continue to be an important and valuable donor to the V&A and we are grateful for their ongoing support."

And in an exercise similar to that of the Daily Caller, the New York Times surveyed 21 cultural organizations listed on tax forms as having received significant sums from foundations affiliated with Mortimer and Raymond. Several, including the Guggenheim, which received $2.49 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation between 2003 and 2015, declined to comment; others, like the Brooklyn Museum, ignored questions.

None indicated that they would return donations or refuse them in the future.

Then there are various Sackler heirs and relatives who also are philanthropists. It's an extensive and diffused network, so I'd prefer to focus on the one individual closely tied to Oxycontin: Purdue Pharma's former president and co-chairman, Richard Sackler.

The Richard and Beth Sackler Foundation awarded nearly $271,000 in 2015. According to Esquire, since 2014, the foundation gave to three organizations classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (The family spokesperson said, “It was never Richard Sackler’s intention to donate to an anti-Muslim or hate group.”)

The foundation has also donated to True the Vote, the "voter-fraud watchdog" that was the original source for Donald Trump’s inaccurate claim that 3 million illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election, as well as the pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A Slippery Slope

All which brings me to the big questions: Should museums and universities return Sackler money and scrub the family name from their buildings? Should nonprofits refuse Sackler money going forward?

The first question partly involves a set of practical issues. Returning naming gifts isn't so easy, as we've discussed before, given legally binding agreements with donors. Even if institutions wanted to banish the Sackler name from their premises, doing so could prove difficult.

But the bigger, more interesting issue about Sackler money hinges on a kind of moral judgment that organizations, up until this point, have been reluctant to make. That's not surprising, since it requires wrestling with the varying degrees of nuance permeating the Sackler saga.  

For instance, while it might seem like the coast is clear to take money from Arthur Sackler's side of the family, the historical record offers grounds for pause. Arthur is said to have pioneered the kind of aggressive marketing of pharmaceuticals that broadly fueled the abuse of prescription drugs. The New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe argued that Arthur’s techniques were "sometimes blatantly deceptive." Radden was especially withering in describing Sackler's role in marketing the tranquilizers Librium and Valium. 

"By 1973, American doctors were writing more than a hundred million tranquilizer prescriptions a year, and countless patients became hooked," he wrote. "The Senate held hearings on what Edward Kennedy called 'a nightmare of dependence and addiction.'"

But writing in ArtNet, artist Natalie Frank offered a rebuttal, arguing that "the onus ought to fall on Roche, the maker of Valium, which had 'conducted no studies of its addictive potential.'" 

While neither Arthur, nor his heirs, benefited from the sale of Oxycontin specifically, can the man be separated from his marketing legacy? Politico's Sam Quinones suggests not: "Arthur’s marketing strategies were essential" to Oxycontin's success, he writes. Natalie Frank finds this line of reasoning to be unfair. "Tracing the marketing of Oxycontin and the current opioid crisis to Arthur Sackler's innovations in the field is akin to blaming Einstein for the use of the atomic bomb," she said.

Mortimer, Raymond and Richard, on the other hand, did benefit financially from the sale of Oxycontin, and their wealth has made its way to numerous grant recipients.

Yet, how much should this history, however damning, really matter? This is a question we've wrestled with in the past, looking at gifts from other toxic donors—most recently, Harvey Weinstein. Some experts, like Rob Reich of Stanford, believe that institutions should play it safe in these situations. "No single donor's philanthropy," he has said, "is as valuable as the legacy and reputation of a university or a nonprofit."

But there is a reasonable case to be made that the good that tainted money can do offsets the fact that it was made in a deplorable fashion or given by a deplorable individual. Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant in Seattle, makes a version of this point. "Historically, museum audiences have not shown evidence of being terribly concerned about sources of income for museums. Especially if there is no conflict between the mission of the museum and the philosophies or beliefs of the donor."

It's also important to stress again that returning toxic donations can be a messy affair.

Responding to queries regarding Yale's longstanding philanthropic relationship with the Sacklers, Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor told the Yale Daily News' Hailey Fuchs that once a fund or program is named, the university is contractually and ethically bound to the terms of a gift agreement and that renaming or altering the use of the fund or direction of the program would require donor consent.

"If the donor does not agree," Fuchs wrote, "relevant university management analyzes the circumstances and, if necessary, recommends to the trustees that the gift be returned or appeals to a court to alter the name, modify the purpose or determine the appropriate alternative institution."

Now What?

So what should organizations do now?

Writing in the Guardian, Allen Frances, a professor emeritus and former chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, argues that "the happiest solution to the Sackler dilemma would be for institutions to elicit and receive permission from the family members to remove their name, without any quid pro quo requirement for returned funding."

And, of course, organizations can refuse Sackler money moving forward, an approach articulated by the famed photographer Nan Goldin.

Goldin became addicted to Oxycontin, got clean, and subsequently formed an advocacy group and pressed the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma to fund addiction treatment and education.

"I'm not asking the museums to give the money back," Goldin told the Guardian, "but I don't want them to take any more from the Sacklers, and I want them to put out statements in solidarity with my campaign."

As for Goldin's suggestion that the Sackler family should fund addiction treatment, other critics have made the same suggestion, and as we've reported, there's a pressing need for more philanthropic dollars to combat opioid use. Yet, so far, such Sackler giving has not occurred. "When you consider the breadth of the family’s donations," Keefe notes, "one field is conspicuously lacking: addiction treatment, or any other measures that might serve to counter the opioid epidemic."

Meanwhile, Purdue Pharma is now taking Oxycontin into international markets with significantly less regulatory oversight. According to Keefe, "the Sackler family has only increased its efforts abroad, and is now pushing the drug, through a Purdue-related company called Mundipharma, into Asia, Latin America and the Middle East."

One final point.

The firestorm surrounding Sackler philanthropy started in late 2017, thanks to pieces in Esquire and the New Yorker. Yet, the Sacklers' relationship to Purdue Pharma shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to recipient institutions.

Remember: Purdue Pharma and three executives pled guilty to misleading doctors and the public about Oxycontin's addictiveness in 2007. That didn't stop museums, hospitals and universities from happily accepting donations tied to Raymond and Mortimer for the next decade while the opioid epidemic metasisized. 

In retrospect, organizations can, perhaps, get a pass for embracing a philosophy best described as blissful ignorance. Fundraisers have one job, which is to raise money. And given the pressures on leading nonprofits, such as finding the funds to complete massive and risky capital projects, it's not surprising that they're not inclined to put big gifts under a moral microscope. 

At the same time, the controversy over Sackler philanthropy underscores the risks of turning a blind eye to the origins of donated wealth. 

Donors and the institutions face greater scrutiny over gifts thanks to rising concerns about inequality, money in politics, corporate irresponsibility, and what some see as a drift toward plutocracy. And more than ever, social media provides critics with an effective platform to expose tainted gifts. 

In our current philanthropic climate, when a single college student can torpedo a historic donation, we may be reaching a tipping point in which the opportunity and reputational costs of accepting toxic donations outweigh any financial benefits.