The Zeitoun Foundation’s Finances: An Investigation

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun was one of the rare books that managed to turn an Entertainment Weekly review and a lengthy Times-Picayune profile into advertisements for a charitable foundation. The Zeitoun Foundation is an organization ostensibly intended as grantor for post-Katrina rebuilding initiatives. “All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation,” reads the beginning of a clearly stated note at the end of Zeitoun, which is followed by a list of nonprofit organizations that will receive the proceeds.

“From the beginning, I told them I wouldn’t be paid and I would not benefit from their story in any material way,” said Eggers in a 2009 interview. “The Zeitoun Foundation will be a lean organization, one that simply acts as a conduit to donate proceeds from the book to specific charities, including the Muslim American Society, Islamic Relief and Rebuilding Together, which helps return evacuees to their homes in New Orleans. Tangible and beneficial results can be achieved, which allows the Zeitouns to feel that something good came from their suffering.”

But according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, The Zeitoun Foundation is not in good standing (as seen in the above screenshot). The foundation has failed to file a single Annual Report since its registration date on August 3, 2009. This represents over $250,000 in grants, distributed over the course of three years, that has no clear or fully accountable trail.

The only information that the foundation’s website provides is a list of “nonprofits supported by the Foundation,” but nothing on the website designates how this grant money has been disseminated. The foundation’s website has announced five separate rounds of grant allocations since its inception, but it’s troubling that these cheery dispatches offer neither a date nor a list of specific grants for each round (one such example can be seen below).

According to public records, the three officers that the Foundation lists as directors are Kathy Zeitoun, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and Michelle Quint. Yet Kathy told The Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi that the Zeitouns were not involved in the foundation. This leaves Michelle Quint, who was Dave Eggers’s assistant in 2008, as the accountable director.

Quint did not return our emails or telephone calls for comment. We did manage to get through to McSweeney’s by telephone, where a young and somewhat nervous male voice informed us that “someone will get back to you very shortly.” We are still waiting.

If you give directly to The Zeitoun Foundation, you’re asked to make out your checks to a literary and visual arts collective called Press Street. But in studying financial documents, one begins to encounter a few accounting problems.

Reluctant Habits has obtained financial documents filed by Press Street with the IRS for 2009 and 2010. (To follow along, here’s the 2009 990 (PDF) and the 2010 990 (PDF).) During the year 2009, Press Street issued $62,500 in grant money to The Zeitoun Foundation, designated to “rebuilding and cultural awareness grants to New Orleans area non-profits and to other national organizations.” Obliged to reveal the grantees over $5,000, the 2009 990 contains a schedule listing the following organizations:

There’s one big problem with this. And it isn’t the $17,500 in grantees that the schedule doesn’t specify (which is likely grantees who each received less than $5,000 in money for that year).

Someone who donates money to The Zeitoun Foundation is probably going to expect that the funds will be directly allocated to post-Katrina efforts or ongoing rehabilitation in Louisiana. But a few of these groups have nothing to do with The Zeitoun Foundation’s stated goal, which is “to aid in the rebuilding and ongoing health of the city of New Orleans, and to help ensure the human rights of all Americans.” The Muslim American Society is based in Chandler, Arizona and its stated mission is “to move people to strive for God consciousness, liberty, and justice, and to convey Islam with utmost clarity.” (Additional financial documents obtained by Reluctant Habits revealed that this chapter of the Muslim American Society operates at Tulane University, based in New Orleans.) That’s a laudable goal, but this faith-based approach is somewhat different from the foundation’s stated reconstruction goals. (In contrast to this, Islamic Relief USA, another Zeitoun grantee which is based in California, has a clearly articulated relief-based mission fitting in with Zeitoun’s goals.)

And then there’s Voice of Witness, which Eggers himself is involved in.

Voice of Witness is a McSweeney’s publishing imprint founded in 2004 as a nonprofit which has released several well-received oral history collections relating to social injustices. In 2006, Voice of Witness published the book Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. But since 2009, Voice of Witness’s activities have not involved Katrina or New Orleans at all. Here are a list of books that Voice of Witness has published from 2009 on:

  1. Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (September 1, 2009)
  2. A Spanish edition of Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (April 6, 2010)
  3. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (March 1, 2011)
  4. Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (April 12, 2011)
  5. Patriot Act: Narratives of Post-9/11 Justice (August 23, 2011)
  6. Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prison (November 8, 2011)
  7. Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence (September 12, 2012)

Of the six new titles, only two (Patriot Act and Inside This Place, Not of It) fit into the Zeitoun Foundation’s secondary goal of ensuring “the human rights of all Americans.” The other titles, while tackling admirable issues, have nothing to do with Katrina or New Orleans.

So why would Press Street allocate funds through The Zeitoun Foundation to publish books that have little to do with its mission statement? Especially when Press Street itself has been publishing books that are more directly related to New Orleans and Katrina.

It is with the 2010 990 that the Press Street/Zeitoun Foundation finances become especially murky. The Press Street 990 shows $155,500 in grants distributed in 2010 through The Zeitoun Foundation for “rebuilding & cultural awareness grants to NOLA-area non-profits & national org + Benefits over $5,000.” Yet unlike the 2009 990, the 2010 990 doesn’t include an attached schedule which designates the organizations and individuals who received grants over $5,000, much less the class of activity, the grantee’s name and address, the amount given, and the relationship of the grantee, as required by law.

We reached out to Press Street Director Anne Gisleson — the woman who signed the 990s — by telephone, email, and Facebook to clarify the Press Street/Zeitoun connection. She informed us by email that she had become involved with Eggers’s philanthropy because Eggers had been “a longtime supporter of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts,” the high school arts conservatory where Gisleson teaches creative writing. The idea was to use Press Street as a fiscal sponsor for the foundation “because it was the most expedient way to distribute grants from the proceeds of the book.”

“The Zeitoun Foundation is a fiscally sponsored project of Press Street and focuses the rebuilding of New Orleans and the fostering of interfaith understanding,” said Gisleson. “After the book, Zeitoun, was released, the author and the Zeitoun family decided on a number of nonprofit organizations to which they would direct proceeds from the book. After compiling this list of organizations, the sole task of the Zeitoun Foundation was to direct funds to these organizations whenever funds from the book became available. Beyond helping to choose the organizations the Foundation supports, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun have had no day-to-day duties with the Foundation.”

This statement confirms Kathy Zeitoun’s remarks with the Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi.

We also asked Gisleson if she could provide us with a schedule accounting for the 2010 grantees that were not listed in Press Street’s 2010 990. Gisleson claimed that Press Street was “in between spaces, with all of our papers and equipment in storage, so we’re looking into finding the hard copy of the 2010 990 to see what happened with the Schedule O pages.” She did provide us with this list of 2010 grantees:

  1. Innocence Project NOLA
  2. Muslim American Society
  3. Rebuilding Together
  4. The Green Project
  5. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center
  6. Voice of Witness
  7. Meena Magazine
  8. New Orleans Lens
  9. Islamic Relief USA
  10. The New Orleans Institute
  11. The Neighborhood Story Project
  12. Catholic Charities
  13. Jeremiah Group
  14. New Orleans Center for Creative Arts
  15. Restore Wesley United
  16. Muslim Student Association/Tulane University
  17. The Porch

But without the dollar amounts, it’s difficult to understand how these funds were allocated, or if they were even fairly divided. We pressed Ms. Gisleson further on the finances and she was kind enough to divulge the Schedule O sums (that is, the amounts over $5,000) on the 2010 990, in which the grantees are listed (with dollar amounts) as follows:

We were relieved to learn that most of the finances were accounted for and that Press Street was on firmer ground (even if The Zeitoun Foundation remains “not in good standing”). Voice of Witness, however, was the top grantee, receiving $25,000 of the funds. And as we have established above, the books don’t quite fit in with the foundation’s stated goals.

It’s bad enough that Dave Eggers has refused to speak with journalists about Abdulrhaman Zeitoun’s recent arrest on three charges of solicited murder — a set of developments which flies in the face of Eggers’s depiction of Zeitoun as a robust and morally upstanding hero in his book. Eggers did issue this statement with Jonathan Demme, stating that he and Demme were “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25” and asking his audience to “join us in respecting the Zeitoun family’s privacy at this difficult time.” But while Demme is preparing an animated film adaptation of Zeitoun, what does Demme have to do with The Zeitoun Foundation? Shouldn’t this statement be released on the main McSweeney’s site?

But it would be refreshing to see Eggers, whose motives are clearly benevolent, open up about how he has used charitable funds. We shouldn’t have to do this much digging to find out how the foundation has been allocating its monies. All this should be outlined on the foundation’s website. (By contrast, The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation’s financial documents are more clearly accountable.)

Eggers has claimed The Zeitoun Foundation to be “a very simple grant-giving operation.” But if it was so simple, why did we have to do all this detective work? The McSweeney’s operation has been around for fourteen years. Shouldn’t it keep proper records by now? If The Zeitoun Foundation could file its documents in a timely manner or be transparent about the way it disseminates grants, we wouldn’t have to make sure that it was in the clear.

8/16/2012 UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous source, Reluctant Habits has obtained the 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation for 2009 (PDF available here) and it appears that The Zeitoun Foundation is more complicated than previously reported.

The 990 lists another organization by the name of Jableh, LLC, which was incorporated on July 16, 2009 and lists Dave Eggers as the registered agent for the organization. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation lists $161,331 due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeds the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

Needless to say, our investigation has been reopened. We will offer additional findings in a separate report.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: We made efforts to talk with Mr. Eggers in person about these charges and more. As we reported at length on November 14, 2012, he ran away from us. He is also fleeing inquiries from other reporters. Mr. Zeitoun has also been indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation.

Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jesmyn Ward appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463. She is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

The Bat Segundo Show #463: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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Gustav, Republicans, and American Amnesia

As Gustav’s mad whorl whirls north to the Louisiana coast, the current chatter has less to do with New Orleans’s numb carcass, the rebuilt homes and levee systems that will almost certainly be annihilated, and the wave of destruction that Bourbon Street hipsters will guzzle down with dutiful debauchery. All eyes are now focused upon the political hurricane. Three years ago, the President of the United States played his guitar as New Orleans transmuted into a mute and miserable milieu, as more than a thousand people lost their lives and thousands more were unsecured in their homeland, and as those who fled to the Superdome saw their improvised sanctuary transformed into a madhouse of rape, murder, and suicide.

Lest anyone forget (and if we are urged by the elephants not to forget September 11th, then certainly we should not forget Katrina), this irresponsible bunch demonstrated gross incompetence and negligence on an unprecedented level. FEMA, the American branch of government set up in 1979, showed a dot com startup’s ineptitude after being absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. One of 2005’s most popular catchphrases did not come from a sitcom or a movie. It came from President Bush telling the incompetent FEMA head Michael Brown that he was doing “a heck of a job.” Brown’s “heck of a job” involved waiting until the last possible minute, putting Katrina victims in trailers with toxic levels of formaldehyde, and preventing bottled water and other supplies from getting to the victims. Most recently, in 2007, FEMA took it upon itself to stage a fake news conference in response to the California wildfires.

Under the Bush administration, FEMA has had more success with this propaganda, placing it above the expected salve of proper relief.

Will the Republicans acknowledge any of this in Minneapolis this week? Or will we see the same lies and moral grandstanding? It could involve another variation on Reagan’s disingenuous pitch to the American people when he ran for President. In the eyes of these bungling opportunists, the question of whether the American public is better off than it was four years ago doesn’t matter nearly as much as the preordained answer. To these wild turkeys, it will be better off under them. Because four years from now, you’re not going to remember what they did before.

To be fair, the incompetence wasn’t just limited to FEMA. The American Red Cross, which had raised more than $2 billion in funds for Katrina, saw its efforts excoriated by international organizations. Funds earmarked for Katrina went to other places. The British Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross had both sent experts to the Gulf Coast, discovering inexperienced amateurs in key roles of responsibility and supplies that were not being shipped to their proper places. The official response of the Red Cross? From Devorah Goldburg:

“It’s frustrating to our thousands of volunteers out there every day, away from their families, helping people. We never said we were perfect — we’re trying to do our best under extraordinary circumstances.”

Instead of Goldburg telling reporters what the Red Cross planned to do in response to these inadequacies, she delivered the same “heck of a job” nonsense that Bush had slapped Brownie on the back for. Helping other people was no longer about being professional. It was about simply being there. Jerzy Kosinski (or the ghostwriters who actually wrote the novel) was decades ahead of his time.

In other words, competence and getting results is no longer part of the American equation. What is important is that those in charge have labored in some sense. Never mind that the quality of that labor was severely lacking, or that those who were incompetent could not be held to any basic level of accountability. Forget the fact that the labor itself resulted in deaths, lives being lost, limitless property damage, and endless consequences for those hit hard by Katrina.

And rest assured, as we receive more horrible images from Gustav’s wrath this week, they will spin you the same lies. They will try once again to tell you that they have done their jobs simply by being there. But they will not dare reveal their inadequacies. And even if they did somehow do this, why should they? It’s not as if you’ll be bothered to remember.

[UPDATE: Thankfully, Gustav did not decimate New Orleans. But while I am immensely relieved that there were no casualties and minimal property damage, I still stand by many of the observations that I made within this post concerning the American attitude towards responsibility, which isn’t nearly as socialist an idea as it seems. This hasn’t stopped one guy from calling me a liberal brown shirt. Which comes with the territory, seeing as how others have called me over the years a Republican, a Christian, a Buddhist, a nihilist, a Quaker, an anarchist, a socialist, a craven capitalist, and numerous other epithets which amuse me to no end. So sorry that, once again, I don’t quite fit into your neat ideological rubber stamp. But of course, my great plan to kick in the teeth of any person I disagree with should go off without a hitch. That little red book I keep hidden up my ass crack has worked wonders over the years.]