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NFPs Rethink Opioid Flushed Gifts


25 February 2019 at 4:53 pm
Maggie Coggan
A growing list of universities, museums and not for profits around the world are reviewing their philanthropic relationship with members of the Sackler family over their role in marketing the controversial pain-pill, OxyContin.


Maggie Coggan | 25 February 2019 at 4:53 pm


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NFPs Rethink Opioid Flushed Gifts
25 February 2019 at 4:53 pm

A growing list of universities, museums and not for profits around the world are reviewing their philanthropic relationship with members of the Sackler family over their role in marketing the controversial pain-pill, OxyContin.

The Sackler-owned pharmaceutical giant, Purdue Pharma, has been under renewed scrutiny since January over allegedly contributing to the opioid epidemic via aggressive marketing techniques of the drug OxyContin, and concealing the strength of the drug from doctors.     

According to reports by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The New York Academy of Sciences, which hosts the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, and Columbia University, which received funding from the family for a professorship, awards and an institute in its psychiatry department, are the latest institutions to reconsider their philanthropic relationships.

Activists have been mounting pressure on other institutions to stop accepting philanthropic donations from the family.

In early January, the Sackler Centre for Arts Education, which sits in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, was stormed by anti-opioid group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now.

Similar protests were held at Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C, which have all received philanthropic funding from members of the family.

A spokesperson from Purdue Pharma said the donations were not funded by the sale or distribution of OxyContin, its most successful product.

“Many leading medical, scientific, cultural, and educational institutions throughout the world have been beneficiaries of Sackler family philanthropy for nearly seven decades, including long before OxyContin was approved by the FDA in December 1995,” the spokesperson said.  

“Since that approval, OxyContin has been and continues to be appropriately prescribed by doctors to bring needed relief to thousands suffering from severe pain, including those with cancer and terminal illnesses.”

The exact figure of philanthropic gifts from the family has not been made public but according to the WSJ, from 2015 to 2017, the Mortimer D. Sackler foundation handed out more than US$2.7 million (A$3.7 million), while London-based Sackler Trust donated UK£8.4 million (A$15.4) in 2017.

Philanthropy and NFP experts told WSJ removing the Sackler name from buildings, awards or scholarships could be difficult, and dependant on the nature of the contract that often accompanies large gifts.

Sarah Davies, CEO of Philanthropy Australia, told Pro Bono News deciding which donors to accept money from required strict governance.

“It’s a difficult issue and charities need to consider and define what this means and looks like for them from a governance perspective, and how this then folds into policies about who they will partner with and who they will accept donations from,” Davies said.   

“Some may take the broadest definition ‘if it’s legal, we will accept it’. Others will choose to take a tightly aligned approach or overlay an ethical framework that considers purpose, values and culture to determine fit.”   

She said it was a serious matter not only for boards and leaders to determine what was best for them in achieving their purpose against their values, but for potential donors as well when they were considering who they wanted to support.

She said the key was for organisations and donors to be transparent in their practices.

“Being open about where you land is important – this clarity and transparency will help connect natural partners and set relevant expectations,” she said.


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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