A $100,000 check went up in smoke last week in a spiritual ceremony at the offices of the Center for Young Women’s Development, a San Francisco nonprofit that serves at-risk women.
With the ritual of burning sage and copal to cleanse and energize, the center joined other organizations around the country in refusing large donations from the Craigslist Charitable Fund on the grounds that the website hasn’t done enough to eradicate sex trafficking.
Craigslist shut down its adult services section last week, after being pressured by 17 state attorneys general and receiving a torrent of bad publicity, but that failed to satisfy the center.
“Getting that money was stressful and difficult,” said Marlene Sanchez, director of the Center for Young Women’s Development. “I didn’t know getting money would be so damn difficult.”
Craigslist strategically targeted her organization, Sanchez said, in an effort to improve its image.
“When I get a grant, it’s a partnership. Someone says, ‘We believe in your work and we want to support it.’ It was clear that with Craigslist, that wasn’t the case. They didn’t really know who we were or what we do.”
Sanchez asked Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist’s CEO, if the donation meant a sincere commitment, and if Craigslist wanted to work with her organization. He seemed annoyed by her questions, she said. Other people would have been ecstatic to receive the money, he told her.
Buckmaster and others at Craigslist could not be reached for comment.
It was difficult for Sanchez to reject the money, but she said it was more important for her organization to stand by its principles, and that taking the money would damage their long-standing relationships with other human rights groups.
Earlier this year, Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights and the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington D.C. each returned a $25,000 check to the Craigslist Charitable Fund.
“When their profits are coming from the exploitation of children and women, to turn around and donate proceeds to organizations like ours was inappropriate,” said Robin Phillips, executive director of Advocates for Human Rights.
Craigslist made more than $30 million on sex ads this year, and was on track to make $44 million in 2010 before removing adult services last week, according to a report by the AIM Group.
When she received the donation in May, Robin Phillips called Craigslist numerous times and sent the company a letter that recommended the site discontinue adult services.
No one responded to Phillips’ calls and letter, but she hopes that pressure from organizations like hers influenced the company’s decision.
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, was also bewildered when she received an unsolicited check. She searched for information about the Craigslist Charitable Fund, but didn’t find any answers.
“Who are they funding? Why are they funding them? What is their overall mission?” she wondered. “I didn’t get a response and couldn’t find information online, so I decided to return the check with recommendations.”
Sippel’s recommendations, published in the Huffington Post, ask Craigslist for more transparency and advise the company to establish an advisory council of experts in sex work and human trafficking.
Sanchez said that as the $100,000 check burned to ashes in the courtyard of her office, she asked her ancestors for guidance. “Sometimes when things are hard, we are going on the right path. What it meant to stand firm on what we believe in is a big deal for us.”
Within two hours of burning the check, Sanchez found out that the Center for Young Women’s Development advanced to the next stage in competition for a large grant.
“The $100,000 will be here today and gone tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter if we’re not building relationships.”