Tough Choices for Charities and Schools as #MeToo Taints Their Benefactors


The #MeToo movement has brought down many powerful men and exposed the human pain they caused. Now the collateral damage is becoming clear, as philanthropic efforts that relied on these figures’ celebrity have been derailed or forced to retool.

Since October, when revelations about the producer Harvey Weinstein unleashed accusations against other men, organizations have rapidly distanced and denounced their now-unsavory benefactors, in an effort to keep the rest of their donors from fleeing.

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The comedian Louis C.K. as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 2017, before he admitted to sexual misconduct. On the show, he brought exposure to a charity that pays for treatment of fistula, a childbirth injury.

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Will Heath/NBC, via Getty Images

Though the money might be sorely needed, “The downside to accepting the dollars is potentially alienating other donors,” said Melanie Ulle, a veteran philanthropy consultant.

“If we accept these dollars for this scholarship, is that going to offend donors for these other scholarships?”

In October, the University of Southern California’s film school turned down a $5 million pledge from Mr. Weinstein to fund an endowment for female filmmakers. Two months later, the school removed the director Bryan Singer’s name from its Division of Cinema and Media Studies after Mr. Singer was accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy a decade ago. Mr. Singer has denied the accusation. According to a statement from the university, he requested his name be taken off “until the allegations against him are resolved.”

But the university has not responded to questions about whether it would return the $5 million that Mr. Singer, a U.S.C. alumnus who directed several “X-Men” movies, gave in 2013 when the division was named for him.

Institutions have wrestled with similar decisions in the past. Some colleges have, for example, rejected tobacco money. And two years before #MeToo became a phenomenon, Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta, discontinued the professorship endowed by a $20 million donation from Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, and gave the related money to a foundation created by Ms. Cosby. Mr. Cosby, who has been accused by several women of sexual assault, is facing a retrial in Pennsylvania in April on a charge of aggravated indecent assault against one woman; he has denied any wrongdoing and said the sexual contact was consensual, and his first trial ended in a hung jury.

Cornell is not the only organization cutting ties with Mr. Meier, who said his recollections of the encounters with the women “may differ” from theirs, but apologized for “anyone who was offended by my behavior.” The J. Paul Getty Trust canceled a dinner that was supposed to honor Mr. Meier and celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Getty Center, the Los Angeles art museum, which he designed.

But unlike those institutions, Rush Philanthropic is closely identified with a man now accused of wrongdoing. Officials at Mr. Simmons’s charity are worried that the drop-off in donations could spell the end of its New York programming, though it will continue to do work in Philadelphia.

One of the many young people who have benefited from the group’s money is Shalisa Chang of Brooklyn, who attended a high school arts program backed by the foundation, earned one of its college scholarships and is now a full-time visual artist at age 24.

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The music mogul Russell Simmons at a luncheon for his Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation in 2016. The charity has lost donors since Mr. Simmons was accused of rape by several women.

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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

“Rush has just been a huge support system in everything that I’ve ever done,” Ms. Chang said.

The #MeToo fallout has deprived other organizations of star power. The Fistula Foundation, which pays for treatment of obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury that women suffer mostly in developing countries, has received support on multiple occasions from the comedian Louis C.K. In 2016, he won $50,000 for the nonprofit on “Jeopardy!”; and last year, he surprised its officials when he wore a shirt emblazoned with the charity’s name on “Saturday Night Live.”

The group raised $9.7 million in 2016, according to its most recent publicly available tax returns — triple the amount it collected in 2011, the year Louis C.K. first spoke about them.

Now, Louis C.K. is no longer a public advocate for the Fistula Foundation, after he admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct in the fall.

“We’re going to have fewer happy surprises,” said Kate Grant, the charity’s chief executive. She said that donations haven’t been affected so far, and that recently another comedian, Chris Rock, made a substantial contribution, in part because of Louis C.K.’s lobbying.

Sometimes, famous figures use charity for redemption. Michael R. Milken, the junk bond whiz of the 1980s, pleaded guilty in 1990 to six felony charges of securities fraud and conspiracy and was in prison for almost two years. Then he created a new public image as a high-profile philanthropist, donating tens of millions, particularly in the fight against prostate cancer.

And the #MeToo movement has spawned meaningful philanthropy of its own. Time’s Up, the initiative backed by hundreds of Hollywood figures to fight sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the workplace, has raised $21 million for its legal defense fund on a GoFundMe page.

“Certainly, in terms of dollars and cents, it has been a net gain,” said David Callahan, the editor of Inside Philanthropy.

But the situation is still fraught, especially for a place like Cornell. What was not mentioned in Cornell’s letter disavowing Mr. Meier’s gift was any decision on whether to return his past donations to the school, including a scholarship for graduate architecture students.

A spokesman for Cornell would not comment beyond the letter, which closed only with this: “We will swiftly explore what additional actions are appropriate with regard to endowments for professorships and scholarships previously donated to Cornell.”

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