Craigslist, Corporate Revenues, and Charitable Intent
Quite the intense philanthropic discussion around Craigslist, the popular and vast online classified network founded by Craig Newmark more than a decade ago: The New York Times reports the founding of the Craigslist Charitable Fund, a new foundation that will support organizations in ten key areas, including human trafficking and child exploitation. But there’s a problem – some experts in the sexual exploitation of women and children point to Craigslist itself as one of “the foremost venues for human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in the United States,” according to Times reporter Brad Stone.
Sexual postings on Craigslist have been controversial for years; Stone provides the background:
In late 2008, under pressure from 40 state attorneys general, the company, based in San Francisco, agreed to start charging for what was then called “erotic services ads,” and to donate that money to charity. In mid-2009, it shifted course, changing the name of the forum to “adult services,” raising fees for initial posts to $10, from $5, for a new ad, and stating that it would no longer commit to giving that money away.
He also reports that the company has taken in $36.3 million from adult ads. Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster fired back at the Times on the company’s blog, and added these details on the charitable fund (which has filed public documents with the IRS):
For those interested, the craigslist Charitable Fund, established in 2008, and funded by craigslist, focuses on subject areas including the following:
- peace and disarmament
- supporting US military veterans
- human trafficking and child exploitation
- social justice and civil liberties
- health and the environment
- journalism and new media
- sustainable transportation and energy
- clean water, poverty, and other developing world issues
- homelessness and other urban challenges
- education, and disadvantaged youth
The Fund concentrates on organizations with annual budgets less than $5 million, and on orgs highly rated by CharityNavigator and other rating services.
Further, Buckmaster issued a strong statement on the company’s policy on personal ads, “adult services” and human trafficking:
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and we embrace all criticism as useful in improving our approach. But cynical misuse of a cause as important as human trafficking as a pretense for imposing one’s own flavor of religious morality (”casual sex is evil”) strikes me as wrong on so many levels.
We will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement and advocacy groups, and reach out to potential new ones, as we strive to do the best job we can in combating human trafficking, while preserving the full-fledged classifieds (complete with all of the free personals categories) that CL users (and the general public) want and deserve.
Is Craigslist’s fund the moral equivalent of British Petroleum establishing a foundation to clean up the Gulf oil spill, or Goldman Sachs funding nonprofits who oppose highly-leveraged securities? I’m not so sure. Craigslist, despite its revenues, is a small company whose ethos has trended more towards community-based “crowd-sourced” regulation than top-down corporate control. It’s eschewed big branding and ad campaigns, and large-scale operations and remained stubbornly bulletin board like, despite its financial growth. Yet it’s also reacted to the trafficking charges with more hands-on policing of its huge advertising commons. And Newmark himself is known as an engaged participation on the social commons.
Clearly, however, the company faces a real business – and moral – challenge with regards to trafficking. Last week the FBI arrested 14 members of the Gambino crime family on charges of selling the sexual services of girls ages 15 to 19 on Craigslist, according to The Times. And Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has subpoenaed the service over prostitution ads. “Craigslist has not given any indication that they are outraged and disturbed that their site is the primary way children are bought in the country,” said Rachel Lloyd, executive director of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which provides assistance to sexually exploited and trafficked women. “All they have done is made cosmetic changes.” Some charities say they will simply say “no” to Craigslist money.
It will be interesting to monitor the confluence of corporate philanthropy – or social responsibility – with this issue and Craigslist as time goes on.