daveeggers

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.

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19 Comments

  1. Thank you for reporting on this. In spite of this I would still highly recommend “Zeitoun” to anyone who is interested in American history and concerned about the loss of civil liberties.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

  2. i will probably ramble a bit, and be somewhat disjointed. the basic information is here (along with typos)

    Dave Eggers.

    created the zeitoun foundation.

    if you contact the Z foundation via email , you get a reply from “Daniel Gumbiner”, apparently an associate director.

    if you donate to the zeitoun foundation, make your check payable to press street (hi dave).

    press street will then cut Z foundation a check.

    both press street and z foundation donate to voice of witness (hi dave).

    z foundation has donated a lot of money ALSO to jableh llc (hi again dave), and as of their 2010 990 form, owes jableh llc over $160,000 (in addition to investing tens of thousands in jableh inc), this is seen in the one Z foundation 990 we can find online.

    z foundation has not ever filed an annual report with the LA secretary of state.

    however, on their form 990, michelle quintin lists the books for Z foundation as being kept at the same phsysical address in CA as… voice of witness.

    this form 990 was filed in Ogden UT.

    keeping up so far? might need to visit the secretary of state sites in both LA and CA.

    then, to get form 990 information (which you can easily get on press street, but you have to go through some hoops to find the Z foundation one) … go to irs.gov, which will direct you to guidestar.org. now you won’t find zeitoun foundation there. HOWEVER, if you go to charitynavigator.org and do a search on their normal search, you won’t find z foundation, but then go to their link “Evaluating Charities…” and search there and you can get the z foundation 990

    also, supposedly jableh llc is based in CA… want to guess what address?

    why would you go through so many hoops with the same money? how in the world does z foundation owe jableh llc over $160,000 AND owes “grants payable” $100,000???

    that is more than the foundation has taken in….

  3. Thank you, Reluctant Habits, for restoring my faith in bootstrapping web-based investigative journalism. It’s encouraging to see your that your relentless pursuit of truth and plain speaking prevails, even though the object of your investigation is clearly an institution with values in line with your own.

    I will confess that I also enjoyed reading this because of the thrill I get when pompous piety, like that expressed by Eggers Inc., has its comeuppance.

    But more importantly, I write to commend you on an extremely worthwhile project. While the legerdemain of Egger’s institutions isn’t as blatant, or corruptly self-serving, as, say, Wyclef Jean’s Yele outfit, it does point to a worrying trend among popular media professionals to abuse the mission of socially responsible organisations–to use the ‘halo effect’ of social responsibility as a veil of justification to obscure other, different ends.

    It must be called out, and I’m happy you are doing it. Keep on keeping on.

  4. Jableh, LLC has a location in San Francisco, CA. Jableh, LLC has no known officers.Jableh, LLC filed as a Domestic on Thursday, July 16, 2009 in the state of California and is currently active. David Eggers serves as the registered agent for this organization.

    Filings: Domestic (CA – Active)
    State of Record: CA
    State Reference ID: 200919810274
    Registered Agent: David Eggers
    File Date: Thursday, July 16, 2009
    Active: True
    Filing Type: Domestic

    Source: California Secretary of State last refreshed 6/23/2012

  5. Date: Thu, 16 Aug 2012 09:52:14 -0700
    Subject: Re: Form 990
    From: zeitounfoundation@gmail.com
    To: X

    Hello,

    If you send us your physical address, along with your name, we will gladly send you the public disclosure copies of our 990s.

    All best,

    On Thu, Aug 16, 2012 at 6:03 AM, X wrote:
    I would like to request copies of all your form 990s, your budget, and your annual reports (which are not to be found at the LA secretary of state’s site, nor at guidestar), for the years since you came into existence (2009) to present.

    Thanks in advance for your help in this matter.

    Kindest Regards,

  6. FWIW, there are laws which require them to divulge more than a form 990.

    Also, I have not received any replies since i asked about Mcsweeny’s – Jableh, LLC – Press Street – Zeitoun Foundation – Voice of Witness and why they share a lot of things in common other than Dave Eggers, i.e. address and the same dollar touching all of these places.

    Perhaps it is all completely innocent and easily explained… Don’t know. This is the only non profit which Eggers is involved with, whose purpose is to give money away to “charities”; so, it is handled differently than the others.

  7. Thanks, anon. I received what was apparently some attempt at a threatening email from one of the CPAs associated with McSweeney’s. I am still making inquiries.

  8. […] both the subject of the book, and the Zeitoun Foundation. There’s a good roundup here: Zeitoun Foundations Finances: An Investigation, from the Reluctant Habits […]

  9. Good article, Ed. Has anyone looked into how Eggers operates 826 Valencia (non-profit organization) and McSweeney’s (“privately held company with wildly fluctuating resources” as their books say) from the same address? Is there separate metering for all utilities? If 826 has internet service, does McSweeney’s use the non-profit’s internet, or have its own lines? This has important tax implications for the non-profit, for McSweeney’s, and for Eggers.

    The 826 website has posted its 2010-2011 annual report, the most recent one available. Page 20 has financial information.

    http://826valencia.org/downloads/826Val_annual_rprt_2011.pdf

    2009–2010
    INCOME
    Contributions from individuals $253,899
    Contributions from institutions $352,000
    Special events $77,798
    Other $180,470
    Total $906,883
    EXPENSES
    Programming $607,043
    Fundraising $111,653
    Administrative $96,041
    Pirate Store $57,464
    Total $872,201
    TOTAL ASSETS $1,936,089

    2010–2011
    INCOME
    Contributions from individuals $339,070
    Contributions from institutions $434,045
    Special events $145,854
    Other $187,733
    Total $1,106,702
    EXPENSES
    Programming $867,747
    Fundraising $139,669
    Administrative $75,255
    Pirate Store $47,090
    Total $1,129,761
    TOTAL ASSETS $2,037,505

  10. Have you talked to anyone in the non-profit world –maybe the Foundation Center, or Center for NonProfit Management– about this? You’re making some big accusations based on leaps that seem likely taken out of context. For example, grants to Voice of Witness could be to support development, publication, and distribution of books like “The Power of the Story,” to help teachers understand how oral narrative can help document, and therefore address, human rights issues. That’s not a leap for the Zeitoun Fdn’s mission at all.

    I’m not saying that everything is in order, but I *am* saying that you’ve produced a piece that seems lacking in any background in the field you’re investigating.

  11. Just wondering if there are any updates on this investigation. My school has this book as a part of the curriculum and I am not happy about being forced to purchase a book knowing the money may possibly be used in ways I do not agree with. Keep up the good work!

  12. back in the beginning of this foundation mr. eggers stated that monies was going to be given to me, i see nowhere in your article about this, maybe i can help clear up some of the missing money you can’t seem to find because i was given a large sum for a few years in a row, sorry i didn’t see your request earlier and saved you some face.

  13. i also lived next door to zeitoun on claiborne ave from 2000 till sept. 2005, and i can assure you sir I never heard them fight but only once and they were over it before the night ended, anyone going thru a seperation knows that each person will only remember the bad and tell the judge their exaggerated view of these events, but living next to them all I seen and heard was a hard working family who showed great care for their children and I for one admired them for this.

  14. and if you don’t print what I have to say, I will understand because I too experienced what people and their perception of others can have an effect on their lives unwanted I might say.

  15. HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2012

  16. Mr. Gambino: I have approved all of your comments. Thank you for stopping by. If you are indeed the real Todd Gambino, it is worth pointing out for our readers that you were incarcerated with Abdulrahman Zeitoun and that, as Eggers has stated in a few interviews, he did pledge to offer you money. The issue here is HOW these funds were disseminated — whether through The Zeitoun Foundation, Jableh LLC, or another of Mr. Eggers’s organizations. The issue here is one of accountability. Mr. Eggers, having run away from journalists who merely seek clarification and transparency over mysterious funds, has not been forthcoming and has had at least one of his agents threaten me. Additionally, according to Kathy Zeitoun’s testimony, the abuse was ongoing: starting from the beginning of the Zeitouns’ marriage in 1994. But your remarks are noted for the record.

  17. Hi,

    Please look into fiscal sponsorship and what it means. If a project is fiscally sponsored, it means it doesn’t have its own nonprofit status, which means it does not need to file annual reports. It also means it’s likely that someone had to create a corporation or business name to setup an account to receive the funds. Possibly Jableh, LLC. It is the fiscal sponsor’s responsibility to post any information about fund dissemination AND to monitor it, since they are the ones technically receiving the money. Fiscal sponsors charge a fee – typically 8-11% – for providing projects nonprofit status. Dave Eggers claimed he wanted it to be a simple grant-giving project. Nonprofit corporation is not simple. Fiscal sponsorship is. Also, Zeitoun’s story first appeared in a Voice of Witness book. Voice of Witness’s stated mission is to empower those most closely affected by social injustice. Each of the books feature firsthand narratives of human or civil rights abuses. It does not fall out of the guidelines of the Zeitoun Foundation. There also isn’t any reason to find it odd that Kathy isn’t involved. It’s a simple corporation with fiscal sponsorship that was set up to divvy the proceeds of the book to nonprofits of the Zeitoun family’s choice. There are real issues, real sadnesses, real atrocities out there. There are also some really horribly run nonprofits and some shady practices that I would love to read an investigative piece on. I don’t know how much time you spent researching this, but it seems like it was both too much and not enough. Anyone who has started a small nonprofit and needed fiscal sponsorship to get off the ground could easily suspect this article is written out of some issue the author has with Dave Eggers. Dislike his writing all you like, but please don’t shed poor light on an organization/organizations that are attempting to do good.
    Please know that I am not trying to be rude, argumentative, or disrespectful. I am more than willing to write privately about this instead, if you’re interested. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone or any organization you have listed in this article, but I do have a fiscally sponsored project of my own and may be able to shed some light. To end on a positive note, I like your writing and hope you have a good day.

  18. Dear Kristina: Thank you for your comment Your IP address checks out as San Francisco and, in light of the fact that I received several DDoS attacks from San Francisco today not long after The Paris Review linked to the 1996 INFINITE JEST review (presumably an attempt to hinder any vague criticism of Eggers from making the rounds), I wish you would be more transparent about your full name and intentions. Nevertheless, I will address your points. I am fully aware of fiscal sponsorship. Nonprofit LLCs are, of course, permitted in California and it is also possible that this is the structure and approach of Jableh, LLC, We’ll never know completely. Because Eggers, McSweeney’s, and company refuse to be transparent about this subentity. These parties have deliberately created a structure that is not subject to public scrutiny, so the Zeitoun Foundation’s stated goals matter not one whit. I am well aware that there are plentiful atrocities out there. I count Kathy Zeitoun’s being assaulted with a tire iron as one such atrocity. One would think that a man who wrote about Abdulrahman would have the decency to offer a reassessment, given such startling facts. My opinion of Dave Eggers’s writing, not mentioned at all in these dispatches, clearly has no bearing on this report, which is predicated upon facts and concealment that is fishy. I still invite Eggers to respond to my inquiries. He knows how to reach me. But he has eluded all questions from all reporters (not just me). One must ask why a grown man would run away at the name “Abdulrahman Zeitoun,” much less any person who, in good faith, wishes to clarify murky financial issues. Most people in their forties have developed the ability to own up. I am sorry that Eggers feels the need to play Peter Pan this late in life.

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