A charity with plenty of very long tentacles

November 19, 2010

A charity with plenty of very long tentacles
Kevin Libin, National Post ยท Friday, Nov. 19, 2010

In late October, a group of environmental and social justice activists met at a remote lodge on Cortes Island, 150 kilometres north of Vancouver, up the Georgia Strait. The four-day gathering was billed as the Social Change Institute -- an event that says it "gathers seasoned and emerging leaders with thinkers and trainers from the change-making world" -- and it's been happening for years. The lodge is called the Hollyhock Centre, a New Age retreat known for its holistic healing circles, Shaman drum making workshops and Tantric "sacred sexuality" seminars.

Stop before you conjure up images of hippies dreaming of a utopian free love world. The Social Change Institute is a magnet for professionals. Professional activists. Professional environmentalists. And, yes, professional business people and politicians. One does not sign up for the SCI; one applies and is accepted-- or not. The 12-hectare centre, which started life in the early 1980s precisely as something resembling a hippie caricature, has been transformed into the virtual headquarters of a powerfully sophisticated and co-ordinated network of people who are mobilizing millions of dollars "towards systemic social change focused in one region," as Hollyhock president Joel Solomon has described his mission.

On his side are wealthy trust-fund progenies, powerful U.S. business leaders, billion dollar American foundations, a web of environmental groups and prominent Vancouver political players. The region under focus for "systemic" change is Western Canada. The funding is frequently foreign. And Canadians may not know it yet, but the program is already well underway.

In a promotional video, praising the institute's work, one attendee notes, "I think we're starting to see ourselves as parts of a whole, rather than as separate pieces." And that co-ordination, co-operation and collective power is precisely the point of the Social Change Institute. And not just the institute: It's the point of all the efforts Mr. Solomon has brilliantly co-ordinated into a breathtakingly enterprising strategy.

Mr. Solomon is the vice chair of Tides Canada, and a director and former chairman of Tides' American board. And he is a major reason Tides has been pumping money into environmental and social activist groups that have been fighting fish farms in British Columbia, the oilsands in Alberta, logging in the Boreal forest, and dozens of other anti-industrial campaigns. Most any prominent green group you might think of has probably been on Tides' list of recipients. Tides also provides charitable assistance to The Tyee, its website shows, an NDP-friendly online magazine. Tides has hired government lobbyists. Former officials and affiliates of Tides, meanwhile, have influence at the highest level of Vancouver's city government, including its eco-chic mayor Gregor Robertson, who has made it his explicit goal to turn Vancouver into the "greenest city in the world." Some of the biggest donors to his campaign, and that of his Vision Vancouver party, are also connected to Tides.

"The Tides Foundation has some very long, strong tentacles into all sorts of businesses that all support Vision Vancouver, not as a political party, but as a movement, and this is extremely troubling," says Alex Tsakumis, a former political analyst for the newspaper 24 Hours and former director of Vancouver's municipalNon-PartisanAssociation opposition party, who blogs on political affairs. "And [Joel] Solomon is the green father, if you will, behind this social engineering movement."

At an SCI gathering, a representative of ForestEthics, a bumptious American antagonist of Canadian forestry and oil industries, announces "we need to gain power." A visitor from the Dogwood Initiative, which pursues a roughly similar agenda, proclaims "we have an incredibly ambitious agenda we have to achieve, unprecedented in the history of humanity." The head of Environmental Defence talks of "advancing things that can be implemented right away, that are tailor-made to be implemented by a receptive government."

If corralling the kind of money that can bring corporate-scale power and disciplining the social change lobby is the goal, an organization such as Tides is certainly a good place to start. Tides was designed by its American founder, Drummond Pike, in 1976, to be a vehicle through which large donors could give immense sums of cash, which Tides would then redirect to non-profit recipients. There would be no public connection between the originator of the funds -- much of the more than US$700 million Tides has given away in the U.S. and Canada since 2000 has come from esteemed American foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and others, controlling billions of dollars between them -- and the recipients who eventually got the cash.

Under the direction of the American Tides Center, the organizing branch of Tides, those recipients eventually included, besides hospitals, schools, religious groups and museums, a catalogue of left-wing causes, everything from anti-war groups and anti-gun groups to pro-choice efforts, gay-marriage advocates and numerous environmental causes, ranging from the mainstream, such as Ducks Unlimited, to more hard-core anti-industry groups like Corporate Ethics International, an organization that this year launched the "ReThink Alberta" boycott against the province's tourism industry to protest the oilsands.

Vivian Krause, an independent Vancouver researcher who has investigated Tides, discovered through the organization's U.S. tax returns that its Canadian and American arms have together helped more than 30 organizations campaigning against Alberta's oilsands, with roughly $6 million in funding. Tides has launched a campaign to stigmatize the oilsands, with $4.3 million specifically earmarked for what Tides calls its "Tar Sands Campaign". Tides refers to its role of separating donors from recipients as "donor advised giving." The website for the Centre for Consumer Freedom, a U.S. market-minded advocacy group, calls it "less like a philanthropy than a money-laundering enterprise ... taking money from other foundations and spending as the donor requires."

Mr. Solomon's office voice-mail instructs callers that he can only be reached by email, but Mr. Solomon did not respond to five e-mails sent over the course of two weeks requesting an interview. Nor did Tides Canada representatives respond to calls seeking comment. Mr. Solomon is, according to friends, rather media shy. But in the few public interviews he recounts how he was raised in a staunchly Democratic family of Chattanooga Jews. His father, Jay, a wealthy suburban mall developer, was a key Jimmy Carter organizer in Tennessee and Mr. Carter appointed him to head the federal General Services Administration in 1977, the department that manages federally-owned buildings, though he was let go after two years; insiders told People magazine he may have been too open with the press.

After being diagnosed in his early adulthood with a potentially fatal genetic kidney disease, Joel Solomon became something of a wayfarer, traveling up the West Coast and eventually landing in, and falling in love with, coastal B.C., where, in 1993, he connected with Carol Newell, heiress to the U.S. Rubbermaid fortune, now living in British Columbia, with her own tens of millions of dollars and West Coast way of thinking.

They created what Vancouver Magazine de-scribed in a profile as an "Escherl i ke organization" (referring to the famously convoluted, confounding sketches of M.C. Escher) that tied together a newly established Canadian branch plant of Tides with Ms. Newell's own $60 million Endswell Foundation, as well as Hollyhock, a web of affiliated consulting groups and charities, and a firm called Renewal Partners, headed by Mr. Solomon, whose stated goal is "to invest in a collection of organizations using the powerful tools of business and philanthropy in support of long-term societal solutions." (Renewal gives money away, but also invests seed capital in eco-friendly companies producing, for example, organic foods and reusable menstrual pads). And they all connect, too, to Vision Vancouver, the city's ruling municipal party.

"I concluded that I should use the power and privilege I had as a white north American male from an affluent family: to use those tools -- the power of business and finance and politics -- towards the common good," Mr. Solomon said, retelling his voyage of self discovery to a Tides Foundation conference in San Francisco two years ago. "And if I did that, however many days I got to live, I'd be doing what I'd feel good about on my deathbed." After becoming a Canadian citizen he received a recuperative kidney transplant here. Astonishingly, the "best match" and donor was Hollyhock co-founder Shivon Robinsong.

It was at the San Francisco meeting that Mr. Solomon laid out his strategy to launch "systemic social change focused in one region" that could, once established, be a model exported to other regions. If the world could not be changed in Vancouver, "one of the wealthiest and most blessed places on the planet ... we have a real problem on our hands," he told the audience. There was a "massive amount of sleeping and distracted capital" that he aimed to track down and mobilize toward his cause. He also said, to wide applause, that "we have to break out of the cycle that tells us that holding on and building infinite wealth is a responsible and moral position in the world." Little wonder the Vancouver Magazine article labeled Mr. Solomon a "revolutionary."

In fact, in an interview this spring with the liberal U.S. website, Huffington Post, Mr. Solomon went further, explaining that he and Ms. Newell had concocted a 500-year vision for the planet, incremented into sequential 50-year strategies. The first strategy, the project begun in the '90s, would connect businesses, non-profits and public administration "because we wanted to apply a whole-system approach to change," he said. "And concentrating our efforts in one place allowed us to amplify the relatively small amount of money we had to invest." The five-century vision would work to improve all "that had gone wrong" in the 500 years since Columbus discovered the New World, he explained.

Along the way, Mr. Solomon has been moving around impressive sums of cash, a good portion of it passing at some point through the hands of Tides, the organization's tax returns show. Since 2000, U.S. foundations have given at least $57 million to Tides Canada. While the bulk of it has found its way, stripped of the identity of its original donors, to non-profits and charities, a good deal has also ended up paying the businesses and people that surround Mr. Solomon and Tides.

For instance, while Ms Newell's foundation, Endswell, run by Mr. Solomon, has sent 99% of its grant money directly to Tides, suggesting it's a fairly non-complicated operation, it has, in the last six years, its own U.S. tax filings show, spent an average of nearly $2 million yearly on administration costs such as consulting fees, and salaries, including, from 2006 to 2008, more than $140,000 a year to Mr. Solomon.

There are, in fact, five Renewal Partners employees who are also paid from the Endswell payroll; four of them collect six-figures yearly for their work that includes donating nearly every last dollar of the Rubbermaid fortune to Tides. Ms Krause found also that Endswell has reported spending $1.4 million in "consulting fees" to companies listed as Interdependent Investments Ltd., IIL, and "Interdependent In." The officers of Interdependent Investments are Joel Solomon and Martha Burton, a fellow Tennessean and senior executive at both Renewal and Endswell. Ms. Burton also did not respond to repeated voicemails and emails over several days requesting an interview.

Consulting fees seem to be something Tides spends a lot of money on.

Between 2000 and 2008, the Canadian and U.S. offices spent $142 million on just consulting (the equivalent rate of about $16 million a year). The consultants hired by Tides Canada happen to include the Endswell Foundation itself, which Tides paid $118,000 to in 2003 and $102,000 to in 2005, as well as Convergence Communications (which received $121,000 in 2005 and $83,000 in 2003), a company run by Michael Magee, a colleague of Mr. Solomon's and now the chief of staff to the Vancouver mayor.

A consultancy called Boreray Praxis collected $436,998 in consulting fees from Tides Canada between 2003 and 2008. Boreray Praxis's sole officer, according to its corporate records, is Tides Canada president and CEO Ross Mc-Millan.

To get a real sense of how cozy the entire network is, consider this: a single Vancouver address, Unit 200-220 Cambie Street, has been listed at various points over the years as being the headquarters of Tides Canada, Hollyhock, Endswell, and Renewal. Perhaps it's why in British Columbia, Mr. Solomon's circle is often jokingly referred to in the local press as the "Hollyhock mafia." Mr. Solomon has dismissed the comparison. "There's no mafia structure. No meetings. No secret codes," he told the Vancouver Sun in August.

But the connections, more recently, extend to another address: Vancouver City Hall. Before becoming a politician, mayor Gregor Robertson was an organic farmer on Cortes Island and a co-founder of Happy Planet Foods, an organic juice company bankrolled in its start-up phase by Joel Solomon's Renewal Partners. Mr. Robertson was also treasurer at Hollyhock in 2003 and 2004 and a board member at Tides Canada from 2002 to 2004. Mr. Robertson and Mr. Solomon were even "married" in a symbolic fake wedding at Vancouver's gay pride parade last year.

Mr. Solomon, the man with the plan to use his skills in a way that would leverage business and politics toward the "common good" was, by reported accounts, influential in persuading Mr. Robertson to enter politics, first as an NDP MLA and later, in 2008, to run for the leadership of the newly formed Vision Vancouver party. Some of the biggest donors to both Vision Vancouver and Mr. Robertson have come from Mr. Solomon's circle. Michael Magee's Convergence Communications, which consults to both Tides and Renewal, sent $28,000 to Vision Vancouver to help it pay off its $350,000 debt prior to the 2008 election; Mr. Solomon's Renewal sent $10,000; and Strategic Communications, one of Renewal Partner's investment recipients, sent $48,000 (Strategic Communications' founder, Bob Penner, has also been brought on as an advisor to the mayor). A Vancouver Sun analysis found that in the lead-up to the 2008 election, won by Mr. Robertson, more than $330,000 of the $1.4 million raised by Vision came from people and organizations affiliated directly with Mr. Solomon or his businesses.

In all, Vision spent nearly $2 million on its campaign, a record expenditure for the city of Vancouver, official population 600,000. Several donors to Mr. Robertson's own nomination campaign were Americans, including Oprah's "healthy living" expert Dr. Andrew Weil (an acquaintance of Mr. Solomon's and a favourite Hollyhock speaker) who gave between $1,000 and $1,999, according to Vision Vancouver's election filings; heirs to Roy A. Hunt's Alcoa fortune (the Hunt-Badiners gave between $500 and $999); Richard Perl, a New York recycling executive and advisor to Renewal ($500 and $999); Mark Deutschmann, head of a Tennessee realty company backed by Renewal money (between $1,000 and $1,999); and organic yogurt magnate Gary Hirshberg, a Hollyhock regular (he gave between $2,000 and $4,999), who told the Sun he believed a Robertson-led Vancouver was an ideal "incubator" for conservation concepts that could eventually be spread to other cities.

Vancouver, unlike many other governments, has no rules against foreign election donations, nor any donation or spending limits; disclosure of donor records comes only after the election ends, leaving voters in the dark about whose money, and how much of it, is behind which candidate. Bill Tieleman, a former communications director for the B.C. premier's office, and a friend of the mayor, acknowledges that his city is "sort of the wild west in terms of electoral financing." Mayor Robertson's office did not respond to a request for an interview.

"As [former prime minister] Paul Martin put it, money is the mother's milk of all politics," says Duff Conacher, director at the Ottawa-based Democracy Watch. "At every level of government foreign donations should be illegal," and usually are. Donations should come only from citizens with a direct stake in the jurisdiction, should be disclosed before voting day, and "you want to have a low donation limit," he says, so that the wealthy cannot influence politics any more than the average citizen (donations to municipal campaigns, without tax deductibility, are even less affordable).

A number of donors to Mr. Robertson's mayoralty campaigns (whether they donated cash or volunteered their professional time) have been (either themselves or through their firms) on the receiving end of consulting fees paid by Tides, an organization that accepts American donations. The donors include Joel Solomon who, together with Carol Newell, donated a total of $95,003 and Strategic Communications and Bob Penner, whose contribution total was $85,009.

That raises other questions, given that it is hard to tell whether the money that has flowed to politics might have originated with charities, points out Michael Klassen, a blogger at CityCaucus.com,a Vancouver political website friendly to the Non-Partisan Association in the city.

"The money that has gone into these charities, [it] then has been handed over to the consultants who are being hired by the charities, and then the consultants are being hired by the political party," he says.

Mr. McMillan, president & CEO, said "Tides Canada fully complies with all charitable regulations in Canada and any suggestion to the contrary is simply false and misleading. We are audited annually by external auditors as part of our commitment to ensure compliance and appropriate oversight in financial tracking and accounting. We were formally audited by the Canada Revenue Agency in 2008, and received positive feedback for compliance and financial management."

Then there is the coziness of those in the immediate Tides orbit. For example, Martha Burton has not only served on the executives of Tides, Endswell, Renewal and Interdependent, with all the money for salaries and consulting fees sloshing back and forth between them, she is also the treasurer of Vision Vancouver, Mr. Klassen notes.

"In the case of Martha Burton, the person at the other end with the catcher's mitt is the same person who's giving the money," he says. "It's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon where she throws the pitch and then she's at the other end catching the ball. How does that work?"

But Mr. McMillan said, "Our donors, staff and board members fall across the full political spectrum and what these individuals do with those views is their own business and has nothing to do with the activities of Tides Canada."

After some criticism over the U.S. donations, Mr. Robertson said he would be willing to consider new election fund rules, though nothing has happened yet. On the other hand, he hasn't gotten terribly far either in his quest to make Vancouver a world green leader. To date, he's ripped up some traffic lanes and replaced them with bike lanes, allowed urban dwellers to raise up to four chickens in their backyard, and planted an organic garden at City Hall. He also recruited Chicago's chief environmental officer, Sadhu Johnston, to be Vancouver's environmental czar. Mr. Johnston was, perhaps predictably, married at Hollyhock. But if the Hollyhockers behind Vision Vancouver had hoped for signs of this region-focused "systemic social change" in their city, they're still waiting.

Still, with the millions Tides has brought into the country and distributed to groups here, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Forest Ethics, Environmental Defense Canada, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Driftwood Foundation, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Dogwood Initiatives and a roll call of other environmental activist groups, Mr. Solomon's plan to change the region hasn't been completely without consequence, Mr. Klassen believes.

Thanks, increasingly to the help of the money Tides has been bringing to B.C., he says, there are "concurrently, all these ENGOs [environmental groups] that are agitating all over the province. For example, you've got a set of groups that are just focusing on gas resource development in the Kootenays; you've got people on the West Coast making sure that no fish farming happens; you've got people on the West Coast making sure that no oil tanker traffic happens; you've got people in the north making sure no pipeline installation happens," he says. Politically, he says, all these groups are "involved in political agitation and keeping things off balance as much as possible."

Grant Costello, the project manager of the proposed Jumbo ski resort near Invermere, B.C., which has been stalled by relentless opposition from some Tides-funded groups, believes the money has certainly had an effect on public policy.

"They are de facto political organizations in B.C.," he says. "They're distorting the balance of power where a few people control these huge amounts of money that flow in from the U.S." And, he believes the growing impact of environmental groups is only hurting British Columbia's economic potential.

For those awaiting a certain kind of change, that alone may be a good start. In any case, there are still 480 years left in Mr. Solomon's revolutionary plan. And this is only phase one.