US Women’s Groups Hit Hard by Madoff Scheme

Not all of Bernie Madoff’s victims are rich, jet-set investors.

Madoff’s alleged Ponzi plot, combined with a battered economy and government cuts, adds up to the perfect storm for groups working for a good cause – especially causes that benefit women.

“People don’t think about the fact that when people do things like the Ponzi scheme, the people it’s going to impact are sometimes the most voiceless people of all. The face is really homeless children and moms,” said Nancy Owens Hess, co-executive director of the Elizabeth Stone House, a group that helps women cope with mental illness, domestic violence and homelessness. Though they didn’t directly invest with Madoff, the group was slated to receive $30,000 from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation of Boston, which had $145 million of its $324 million in assets lost by Madoff.

The Shapiro foundation, which mostly supports causes in Boston and Florida, intends to fulfill all of its current obligations. It donated $27 million last year to the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in Boston.

Since the Shapiro group has vowed to keep up commitments, that money headed for Elizabeth Stone House is secure. But that doesn’t mean the center isn’t taking a good, hard look at its financial future.

“That’s sort of a cloud that hangs over all of us – to balance that funding so we can withstand government cuts,” Hess explained. “What the economic crisis does is impact us at every single point along the way.”

Intrigued by the impact of Madoff’s investments on women’s groups, we here at wowOwow recently contacted some of the nation’s female-centric non-profits to get a handle on just how much they’ve been hurt by Madoff’s trickle-down effect.

Many groups doing progressive women’s work received funding from both the Picower Foundation and the JEHT Foundation. The $1 billion Picower Foundation was one of the few major funders of reproductive rights issues, while JEHT supported programs that promoted reform of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, including the Stop Prisoner Rape Project and the Women’s Prison Association’s Institute on Women and Criminal Justice. Both Picower and JEHT were forced to shutter shop after Madoff’s funds went bust.

“The issues the foundation addressed received very limited philanthropic support and the loss of the foundation’s funding and leadership will cause significant pain and disruption of the work for many dedicated people and organizations,” said JEHT President Robert Crane. And he’s right.

With Planned Parenthood groups around the country losing about $734,000 from foundations that invested with Madoff, including Picower, Shapiro Foundation and Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation, mainstay non-profit Planned Parenthood got off relatively easy. The central organization, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, lost about $484,000 through various investment groups. The organization has since laid off 20 percent of its staff, although it does point out that those cuts are also a result of the broader economic dip. Maryana Iskander, COO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told wOw:

As with many other non-profit organizations, Planned Parenthood Federation of America is feeling the effects of the challenging economic times facing our country. However, we want to convey to the millions of women and men who rely on Planned Parenthood as a health-care provider that we are committed to ensuring our ability to deliver care to those in need. Our No. 1 priority will always be to ensure that women looking for affordable cancer screenings or young people searching for reliable information to prevent unintended pregnancies are able to obtain the care they need.

Though Planned Parenthood remains relatively solid, the Center for Reproductive Rights faces far more daunting challenges.
A legal advocacy organization dedicated to promoting and defending women’s reproductive rights worldwide, this New York-based group lost $600,000 in funding from Picower for 2009. With a staff of about 60, including some lawyers abroad, and about half of its funding coming from individuals, the depth of the hit remains unknown.

“We are still absorbing the impact of it,” President Nancy Northup told wOw. “We’re going to fight like heck to try to make up that loss as much as we can but it’s a very substantial setback … We are working so hard to try to minimize impact as much as possible, because we are at a point in history, with the Obama administration in, it’s so critical.” The group is, of course, looking for alternative sources, especially since the Bush administration has tried to reverse so many advances in reproductive rights. Northup hopes other foundations step up to fill the gap left in funding for progressive women’s groups, like and the Open Society Institute with Human Rights Watch and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“Those are terrific organizations but we need that kind of community foundation support for women as well,” she added. CRR’s not the only one in its field that’s feeling the pinch.

According to the website, ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project is out $200,000. “They addressed a real need in the field,” spokeswoman Sarah From told Salon. “Now there will be fewer resources for this work overall, and we’ll have to work harder to convince new funders to take a look at our issues for the first time.” While all of these organizations operate out of the United States, the impact’s not solely domestic. Take, for example, Hadassah.

The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which lost $90 million to Madoff, focuses on health care in Israel and the U.S. and underwrites the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It’s trying to determine how to proceed with any cuts in its operating budget and other reductions in the turbulent economy.

“Falling victim to this unprecedented fraud will require us to make necessary adjustments, but it has not in the slightest affected our commitment to our core Zionist mission. These are indeed turbulent times, but the key pillars of Hadassah remain as strong as ever,” the organization said in December.

Though these groups – and others – are struggling, Elizabeth Stone House’s experience speaks to the generosity of Americans. The group’s annual appeal, announced in December, just as the economy began its big freeze, surpasses that of last year. “American people know that even when things are bad and your portfolio has hit rock bottom, there are people that are worse off, and you have to take care of them, too,” points out Hess.

Other women’s groups or organizations who were reportedly funded by Madoff-affected foundations include: The Rape Foundation (Santa Monica, CA); Women’s Care Cottage (North Hollywood, CA); The Center for Traumatic Grief and Victim Service (Moorestown, NJ), which has since had to close; Equal Justice Initiative (Montgomery, AL), which received 25 percent of its annual budget from JEHT; Breast Cancer Research Foundation (New York, NY); Casa Myrna Vasquez (Boston, MA); Girls, Inc. (New York, NY); and NARAL Pro-Choice America (Washington, DC).


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