Home > Uncategorized > Heinz Foundation Resignations In Wake of Controversy Over Corporate Conflicts – Similar Concerns Exist In NJ

Heinz Foundation Resignations In Wake of Controversy Over Corporate Conflicts – Similar Concerns Exist In NJ

Corporate Money and Corporate Partnerships Force Resignations

Will Heads Similarly Roll in NJ?

Or Will Government and Environmental Regulation Continue to Be Privatized and Outsourced?

I had a beer the other night with an environmental professional who is active on his local Sustainable NJ “Green Team” (SNJ).

When I told him that I had big problems with the SNJ model, he was very surprised and demanded that I defend those views, in detail. Long story short, by the end of the conversation, he shared some of my concerns (and I learned a few things about energy planning).

So, looking for a hook to hang this conversation on, I tweeted this story last week, and now feel the need to say a few words about it in hopes of sparking a discussion like the one I had over a few beers with my SNJ friend.

Last week, the not widely read Philanthopic News Digest reported a story with parallels and implications for NJ’s environmental scene – a scene I have harshly criticized as becoming increasingly corporate, entrepreneurial, craven, and revenue driven, to the huge detriment of the avowed mission of environmental advocacy groups as well as the public interest (e.g. see this and this and this).

In the typically murky, private, and discrete word of what I like to call the Green Mafia, there was a huge explosion of public controversy, transparency and  accountability, which actually led to positive change: (see story)

Heinz Endowments President to Step Down


Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt has informed the foundation’s staff and board that he has decided to step down, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Vagt’s decision to leave the Pittsburgh-based foundation follows the departure of its director of environmental programs, Caren Glotfelty, and communications director, Douglas Root, in August, leading to speculation that the shakeup is tied to endowments’ backing for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Glotfelty and Vagt spearheaded the creation of the center — a coalition of foundations, environmental groups, and gas developers — as a way to bring environmentalists and the gas industry together to establish new standards for extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale formation that lies under much of southwestern Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Basin. Vagt, who has headed the foundation since 2008, came under fire from environmentalists for not fully disclosing his ties to the energy industry, which include serving as a board member for and holding stock in a Texas pipeline company.

Could that happen here?

I wish the implications of this tale of disgrace could be explored here in NJ, where similar corporate partnerships, corporate relationships, corporate values, Foundation driven agendas, and conflicts of interest abound.

I’ve tried to cultivate that kind of discussion and accountability in various blog posts, having had my work undermined by NJ conservation groups that either share Heinz’s “corporate partnership” worldview, are reliant on corporate funding, engage in entrepreneurial based initiatives, or who are driven by Foundation funding that is grounded in corporate and private sector values.

In some ways, the dynamics I see operating in the NJ environmental community parallel radical right wing efforts to privatize and destroy the social safety net and government regulation.

For example, radical right wing market fundamentalists reflexively believe that privatization is inherently good and that private charity can replace things like governmental foods stamp programs. These same groups emphasize “choice” and vouchers and Charter schools as an alternative to the public school system. Some are actively pursuing the privatization of Social Security and  elimination and privatization of the US Postal Service.  These ideologues systematically advocate private alternatives to government programs in furtherance of that ideology.

Within a governmental framework, the right demands that the smallest, least effective, and local level of government is the only acceptable form – government small enough to be drown in the bathtub. So of course it makes sense for the right to favor State’s rights over national government and for State government obligations to be delegated to local government.  That’s where government is weakest and corporate interests can best control the game.

In general, the ideological component of these right wing privatization and localization efforts is transparent and fairly well recognized.

Similar to this attack on social program, there are right wing ideologues that feel that the private sector, individual consumer based market decisions, and voluntary “Corporate Stewardship” are superior to and can displace government public health and environmental regulation.

But, contrary to the perception of the right wing social program agenda, these right wing environmental advocacy efforts are rarely understood, linked to, or viewed as driven by radical right wing ideology or corporate interests.

For example, the Sustainable NJ program and Audubon “Stewardship” programs perfectly reflect this right wing ideological framework of privatization and emasculating localism.

That’s why corporations and passive state governments fund them. They are not threatening to corporate power and they serve to reduce activist threats while promoting corporate interests

The SNJ model is based on individual consumer market choices (buy more compact fluorescent lightbulbs! turn down the heat! Buy a hybrid Prius!) – a person is put in the role of a consumer acting through markets, not as a citizen activist acting democratically through government.

As a result, it is no surprise that the SNJ program elements are voluntary, private, local, and they displace State government regulation and even local government mandates.

So instead of focusing on how DEP State regulations or local Master Plan and zoning ordinances can promote “sustainability”, instead SNJ emphasizes literally a replacement of government by corporations and private consumer behavior – the entire SNJ model is an ideological form of privatization and outsurcing.

But nobody views it this way – instead it is perceived as all good and all upside.

So, in my humble view, NJ corporations have used funding of conservation groups in a very destructive way.

Corporate funding has co-opted good organizations and good people, shaping what issues groups work on; what tactics they use; what they are allowed to say and not say;  issues selected and groups that get funded; and the setting of priorities in media and public policy circles.

The NJ examples abound and they need to be called out in the same way that environmental groups called out the Heinz Foundation’s various problems with conflicts of interest, failure to disclose financial relationships, and a just flat out flawed model of advocacy (e.g. to negotiate with corporations, behind closed doors, on narrow technocratic issues, while withholding criticism of those same corporations).

There is a quiet behind the scenes war going on regarding the role of corporations in public policy – it’s time that debate surfaced and groups that believe in corporate values and non-adversarial forms of advocacy at least be forced to disclose and defend those financial relationships and philosophical views to their own memberships, funders, and the larger public.

Whether it be NJ Audubon’s “Corporate Stewardship Council” or acceptance of Dupont funding, or the entrepreneurial “Forest Stewardship“:  or Sustainable NJ’s  WalMart and South Jersey Gas fueled initiatives; or the “Keep It Green Coalition’s” reticence to call out Governor Christie’s failures in hope of securing open space funding; the Dodge Foundation’s  values and policy agenda setting; the $1 million DEP funded work by American Littoral Society and how that impacts advocacy on Barnegat Bay and Sandy recovery; or the newest corporate game in town at the Duke Foundation – and this list just scratches the surface of the problem.

We need to have an honest, open, and ethics based discussion about how funding shapes the work we all do and whether we need to rethink things at a very fundamental level.

People and organizations need to be accountable and transparent – whether acting as a corporate lobbyist or as a so called non-profit “conservation” group.

When Hal Bozarth testifies on a bill that would impact the chemical industry or is quoted in a news story, everyone knows that his position is driven by industry interests and bottom line corporate profits.

But, when conservation groups do the same thing, very, very few people even remotely consider that what they say could be shaped by funders – including Foundations and State government, not just corporations.

So, who will be the first in line to step forward, fess up, to air out that dirty laundry and come clean?
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