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  Careless Internal Memo Leak Explodes RPA Hypocritical No Corporate Donations Claim
July 29, 2022

The RPA continues to be critical of any politician or political organization that accepts funding from corporations. In the RPA alter-universe, all corporations are evil, whether they sell fossil fuel products, solar collectors or life-saving medicines. Unless, of course, they are a source of money to the RPA.

A leaked internal memo from RPA leaders (BK Williams, Claudia Jimenez, Floy Andrews and Emily Ross) indicates that their condemnation of corporate money is actually more Machiavellian than hard and fast.

Read the memo copied below, and you will see them struggling with whether to take $125,000 from a foundation funded by a corporate billionaire, Tom Preston-Werner.

You can almost feel the angst as RPA leaders pondered a significant monetary offer:

Recent events, though, ask us to look more deeply in to the question of what, exactly, does “corporate money” include? Clearly it includes funds coming directly from the accounts of for-profit corporations.

But does it include funds that were once held by a for-profit corporate entity but are now held by other non-corporate entities? Probably not, as such an expansive definition of “corporate money” would sweep in most of the money in the US economy. Afterall, arguably, most wealth in the US was created, at some time in the past, through for-profit activities undertaken by corporate entities.

It is not clear from the memo whether RPA accepted the funds, but they clearly found a way to rationalize acceptance notwithstanding their “no corporate donations” pledge.

When Claudia, Floy, and I met to debrief, we found no further downside

But, they did not want the contribution to be known to the public:

We were asked if we wanted to have our name on the website to which we declined.

What corporate donations are really about is the potential for overwhelming influence by special interests over politicians in a democracy where everyone supposedly has only one vote. While the RPA demonizes corporations, the group has no problem with donations from other organizations with a stake in how public money is spent. SEIU, a union representing Richmond’s public employees, has been a significant funder and supporter of the RPA for years and even has a seat on the RPA Steering Committee. Hypocritically, RPA City Councilmembers have reciprocated with generous contracts boosting the union’s wages by double digits.

Another issue here is disclosure. Like the dark money sources the RPA likes to criticize, the RPA has no obligation to disclose the source of these funds, and no one would know about this if it weren’t for a careless RPA member who forgot to secure the memo.

Figure 1 – Tom Preston-Werner. From Wikipedia: “ Julie Ann Horvath, a GitHub programmer, alleged in March 2014 that Tom Preston-Werner and his wife Theresa had engaged in a pattern of harassment against her that led her to leave the company. GitHub initially denied Horvath's allegations, then following an internal investigation, confirmed some of the claims. Preston-Werner resigned. GitHub's new CEO Chris Wanstrath said the "investigation found Tom Preston-Werner in his capacity as GitHub's CEO acted inappropriately, including confrontational conduct, disregard of workplace complaints, insensitivity to the impact of his spouse's presence in the workplace, and failure to enforce an agreement that his spouse should not work in the office."

Below is documentation of RPA leaders debating the tendered $125,000 contribution:

Part 1 is the Memo
Part 2 is a Grant Team Meeting (not included but summarized)
Part 3 is Summary from Yari/Foundation Meeting.

Richmond Progressive Alliance Internal Memorandum                                        

Date: August 27, 2021

To: Co-Chairs, BK Williams and Claudia Jimenez
From: Floy Andrews and Emily Ross

Re: Richmond Progressive Alliance (“RPA”) Policy on Receiving Grant Funding and the Preston-Werner Foundation Grant Opportunity

1.     Foundational Pillar of the RPA - No “Corporate Money”

A fundamental organizing principle of the RPA has been to never accept funds from corporations. This principle has served the organization well. It provides a seemingly bright line, affirming our alliance with the communities and the people of Richmond and our independence from corporate interests that often value profits and power over people, and regularly co-opt the fair processes of democracy. The principle is also essential to the RPA “brand.” The voting public trusts that RPA and RPA-endorsed candidates are not beholden to corporate interests. 

Recent events, though, ask us to look more deeply in to the question of what, exactly, does “corporate money” include? Clearly it includes funds coming directly from the accounts of for-profit corporations.

But does it include funds that were once held by a for-profit corporate entity but are now held by other non-corporate entities? Probably not, as such an expansive definition of “corporate money” would sweep in most of the money in the US economy. Afterall, arguably, most wealth in the US was created, at some time in the past, through for-profit activities undertaken by corporate entities.

What about funds coming from a non-profit entity that is mostly funded by for-profit companies primarily for the purpose of “greenwashing” activities that are otherwise inconsistent with RPA values? Certainly these funds should be excluded, but under the “no corporate money” rule, they would not be, because they come from a non-profit entity.

2. What About Funds from Progressive Billionaires?

The “no corporate money” rule does not forbid grants from billionaires. Yet, their financial power can be used to influence public institutions, like museums, public parks, hospitals, and much more. This influence inevitability extends to our social discourse, our politics, and our culture; and it reinforces itself, further hardening the current power structure that burdens our social order. Such vast influence by a handful of rich individuals is fundamentally destructive.

But a portion of today’s billionaires firmly stand with the progessive movement, even as  beneficiaries of the status quo. Some are demanding change and are working to use their wealth to support such change, by specifically seeking to support organizations like the RPA.

We now must decide whether the RPA should accept such funding?

Recently a member at an RPA Steering Committee meeting stated: “Isn’t this what we would want the billionaires to do with their wealth?” We should accept and use the money for the good of the community.

Another member separately asserted that such resources will insidiously influence our organization by creating dependency and subtly influencing our work to ensure continued funding. If these billionaires truly held our progressive values, they would deliver a percentage of their wealth to the state to be managed by the democratic process. And what about the public relations impact of accepting billionaire funding? Accepting billionaire money compromises our hardwon reputation of independence from the current power structure.

Others have suggested that the RPA is primarily a political organizing entity focused on electing progressive representatives. Taking contributions that are tax deductible for the donor (i.e. 501(c)(3) qualified) adds complexity because they can only be used in limited ways, which does not include political organizing and campaigning. If we agree to accept these funds, we must use them for activities not currently inline with our main focus. Instead, we would need to direct a portion of our energy to actually using the funding for non-political purposes. Non-tax deductible donations such as 501(c)(4) contributions are easily applied to our core competency: political organizing and campaigning.           

On the other hand, if we conclude that funding from such individual billionaires is unacceptable to the RPA, we substantially limit the funding available to further progressive values. Especially now, when so much societal wealth is held privately, if we avoid funds from like-minded wealthy people, we handicap our effectiveness. Certainly billionaires on the “other side of the isle” are distributing vast sums to organizers and activists supporting their aims. Can we, now, with the weight of climate, extreme inequity, seemingly intractable environmental and social injustice, and potential far-right mania threatening our democracy, afford to let our highest ideals limit the reach of our movement? Or, over time, will stepping back from our highest ideals, eventually undermine our effectiveness?     

3.     The Preston-Werner Foundation Grant

On July 29, 2021, Yari Greaney, Program Manager, Local Politics & Environmental Justice for Preston-Werner Ventures contacted the Richmond Progressive Alliance (“RPA”) via our public contact email. Yari indicated she was  inquiring on two fronts.  First, she was interested in learning about “the work happening in Richmond around transitioning away from the fossil fuel industry,” and suggested her organization would be willing to compensate the RPA for its time.  Second, she indicated that her organization was providing “unrestricted,” 501(c)(3) grants in the amount of $50,000 to organizations like RPA. There are no reporting requirements or applications. The landing page of the Preston-Werner Ventures website begins: “we are driven by the moral imperatives posed by climate change and inequity. We seek not only to prevent their harms, but also to create a society that redirects capital to build healthier ecosystems and flourishing human communities.”
Emily Ross discussed the opportunity with RPA leadership and then spoke with Yari on August 10 about Preston-Werner Ventures and its associated foundation, the Preston-Werner Foundation (the “Foundation”). Yari said the 510(c)(3) grants would be funded by the Foundation, an entity funded by the wealthy Tom and Teresa Preston-Werner family, who apparently have a net worth of over $1B. Tom Preston-Werner was the co-founder and CEO of GitHub, a technology company bought in 2018 by Microsoft for $7.5B in Microsoft stock. The Foundation is funded solely by the Preston-Werner family, said Yari.

Floy Andrews took a preliminary look at the legal underpinnings of a family foundation.  There are generally two types of 501(c)(3) entities: public charities and private foundations. Public charities are expected to have diverse control and funding and must pass a “public support test.” Private foundations, on the other hand, are closely governed, can obtain all of their funding from a single source, and are usually organized to fund other public charities. A family foundation is essentially a private foundation that is governed and funded by a single family. Private foundations are required to distribute at least 5% of their assets each year.

After the August 10 conversation, Yari reached out again, on August 16, this time offering a grant “in the $100k range if RPA is interested.” She further confirmed that the Foundation is funded solely by the Preston-Werner family, and that the grant would come from the Foundation. She also indicated that she and other staff members also help to manage two other family funded entities: Preston-Werner Initiative, a 501(c)(4) entity, and Preston-Werner Ventures, LLC, which makes for-profit, impact investments in the areas of social justice, climate change, and technology.

Emily and Floy separately investigated the information from Yari. Nothing in our joint research contradicted Yari’s information. Specifically, we were able to confirm that the Preston-Werner Foundation (which is where the RPA grant would come from) is a 501(c)(3) organization. Further, Claudia Jimenez and Ray Chimezie conducted additional research, both confirming separate aspects of the information gathered to date. Specifically, Claudia spoke with Michelle Chan. Michelle is a longtime RPA member and employee of Friends of the Earth, an environmental justice organization that has received funding from Preston-Werner Foundation. Michelle expressed limited knowledge of the Foundation, yet did not indicate any concern. BK Williams also conducted a search for negative press, which found nothing of concern.

4.     For Your Consideration

Should the RPA Accept the Preston-Werner Foundation 501(c)(3) funding?
If offered, should the RPA accept 501(c)(4) funding from this source?   

 Following the research from Emily and Floy, we met with the Program Manager from the Foundation.

Next steps
Co Chairs Claudia Jiménez and BK Williams along with SC Secretary Floy Andrews met with Yari Greaney.
Yari expressed respect for the way RPA is run.  She understood our need for further inquiry. She offered to compensate us for our time.  (This is becoming more common when POC are being used to help design policy for people who need the voice of poc.)   We may charge her for our time, yet.  Particularly if we do not accept the funds.

What we learned
Who is Yari:  Yari is a graduate of Stanford University and has done Environmental work on fossil fuel. She is a member of East Bay DSA.  She worked with 350 DC Investment, No pepco campaign, Empower DC, Stomp Out Slumlords.  She did a lot of volunteer organizing and abolition type work.
For paid work, Yari worked for Dow Chemical and did some work on Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
She lives in El Cerrito and does climate advocacy and now is a Program Manager.
Yari is aware of RPA and described our “incredible success”.

Why RPA?
Yari is offering the money to RPA because of the work we are already doing. She can support Environmental Justice causes and local politics and is able to give money for these causes through the Foundation. So, she sought out to find a group fighting “white supremacy and power” and give the money with only a small amount of paperwork.

The fund
Presto Werner and his wife took 100M and put into their foundation and they give away a small portion of that each year.  They have put aside money for 501c(s).  They have no additional tax benefit from this move as they already have gotten the tax benefit. They just have to give a certain percentage of the fund away each year. 

Yari’s goal in funding for the RPA is tied to her having accepted the position.  She is a socialist and wanted to redistribute as much as possible to push back against racial discrimination and white supremacy.

No strings attached. We were asked if we wanted to have our name on the website to which we declined.

Clarification of the award amount
The award went up to $125,000.00 during this zoom meeting when Floy sought to confirm the amount.  The original amount of $50,000, moved to $100,000, and now stands at $125,000.00.
There is no particular wait time period; they are waiting on us.

When Claudia, Floy, and I met to debrief, we found no further downside.  Our meeting and understanding of the award and Yari whose role it is to administer the foundation’s resources was satisfactory.  Additionally, the research provided separately by Emily an Floy did not result in any red flags and actually served to set up the method of vetting future funding opportunities.