SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 20: Emerson Collective Founder and President Laurene Powell Jobs speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 20, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
Emerson Collective (EC) may not have the name recognition of a Tides or an Open Society Foundation, but this Silicon Valley-based “social change organization” is just as ambitious, and nearly as important in the world of left-wing philanthropy. It’s the brainchild of Lauren Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs—and it seems the tech titans have put their own spin on giving.
EC is structured not as a foundation but as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), making it a for-profit philanthropy. Powell Jobs has previously said she structured EC as an LLC for more flexibility. This is highly unusual for philanthropic organizations, but the same choice was made by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Laura Chan, in establishing the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC.
Brian Crowley is a Certified Public Accountant and owner of Crowley Accounting and Consulting Services. He said the difference between an LLC and a traditional nonprofit is two-fold: “ownership and taxation. Nonprofits have no owners and are not taxed. LLCs have owners and are taxed. Obviously, LLCs are profit motivated, and nonprofits are philanthropically inclined.”
While traditional philanthropies structured as nonprofits release their tax returns, called 990s, which list each of their grants, Emerson Collective does not because an LLC is not required to disclose their financial documents. Like many left-leaning philanthropic groups, EC’s social change efforts rely heavily on “impact investing,” which is essentially venture capital with a political bent.
EC invests resources in eight priority areas: immigration, social justice, health care, Chicago violence, education, media, a “super school” project, and elemental (“radical remedies of the commons designed to address nature’s tragedies of the commons”). The causes include standard liberal pet projects like climate change and support for immigrants (legal and otherwise), but also general good works like cancer research.
These good works do sometimes overlap with the political. One such project is Chicago CRED, which seeks to combat inner-city Chicago violence. CRED is run by Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education under President Obama, who recently made a presentation on CRED’s progress at the City Club of Chicago.
While rejecting calls to defund the police altogether, Duncan did call for reducing police in Chicago and reallocating those resources. He said Chicago has twice as many police per capita as Los Angeles but three times as much crime, and as many cops per capita as New York but twice as much crime.
Duncan said Chicago police use too many resources fighting mental illness and other issues not well suited for police intervention, and not enough time solving violent crime. Duncan also noted that 80% of Chicago crime occurs in fifteen of Chicago’s seventy-seven neighborhoods. These neighborhoods, including Lawndale, Roselawn, Englewood, Auburn Gresham, and Chatham, are all on Chicago’s South and West side.
CRED recruits former gang members and criminals who have turned their lives around to mentor those who are trying to do the same. It works. Malik Tiger, who appeared at the event as well, was on his way to being a statistic after his most recent gun charge in 2014. Instead, he entered the program, has committed no new crimes, and works full time at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Malik also said his father went to jail when he was young, so drug dealers became his role models. Malik recently had a child himself, who he is taking care of.
At the bottom of one page of EC’s website is something like a disclaimer: “Although Chicago CRED, Elemental Excelerator, and XQ Institute are related to Emerson Collective, they are separate entities.” I sent a list of questions to EC, including a further explanation on this, but received no response; I also reached out to Chicago CRED but they also did not respond.
Other EC projects are less impressive, and seemingly less substantial. For instance, the LLC has partnered with NowThis, a media company which focuses on slick 5-10 minute news videos which are primarily marketed through social media. With Now This, Emerson Collective has produced a series of videos on climate change, a couple of which appeal directly to farmers.
They talk about regenerative farming, disappearing coast lines, hydropower, and more. One video also backs the Green New Deal. The videos range from 10,000 to several hundred thousand views on occasion, and sometimes to a million and more. Calling agreement on climate change “overwhelming,” they aren’t much different from standard videos produced by other climate change interests.
One video features Ray Mabus, the former Navy Secretary under President Obama, who calls climate change a national security threat. “This president,” Mabus says of Trump, “not only is not taking climate change seriously, they’re saying it doesn’t exist.”
EC and NowThis also partnered for a series of videos on voting. The videos either targeted traditional Democrat constituencies like women, minorities, and millennials, or they accused Republicans of voter suppression. One video is entitled “How Texas Republicans are trying to stop people from voting.”
“Texas Republicans have been waging a war on voting rights for many years now but it’s really heated up in 2020,” said Marc Elias, founder of Democracy Docket in the video, “Texas is one of a handful of states that didn’t make voting easier during the pandemic, in general, and specifically did nothing to make it easier to vote by mail.” Another video claimed Hispanic votes were being suppressed in Florida.
There are also videos on immigration promoting narratives from asylum seekers, immigrant families, and migrants in the country illegally. All of it seems like a rather modest effort, especially when you consider the extent of the Jobs family’s resources and the ends they’ve been put to in the past.
Maybe that’s why Powell Jobs has recently stepped up the Emerson Collective’s activity in the media sphere. In January 2020, EC invested in a production company, Concordia Studio, with some industry heavyweights. Here is more from Deadline:
Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth Davis Guggenheim and former Participant exec Jonathan King have teamed with Laurene Powell Jobs and Emerson Collective to launch Concordia Studio. The new company will focus on creating innovative nonfiction and scripted films, series, and streaming content.
By the following month, Concordia had four films entered at Sundance: A Thousand Cuts; Time; Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets; and Boys State.
Time is a movie about Fox Rich, a successful entrepreneur who in the 1990s committed an armed robbery of a bank—she said out of desperation—with her husband. She received three years in prison while he remains in prison on sixty year sentence; the movie tracks Rich as she tries to get her husband out of jail. Its dealings with race and incarceration are especially relevant to the progressive causes of the day, which Emerson Collective was established to support.
A Thousand Cuts, meanwhile, moves into international politics, tracking the battle between Philippine journalist Maria Ressa and Phillipine leader Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has waged a bloody war against drugs, killing tens of thousands and Ressa has been perhaps his chief critic, especially through her news website Rappler.
She has also been arrested multiple times, convicted of a seven-year-old crime, and faces six years in jail. Ressa has become a cause célèbre for global press freedom.
The narrative of the movie is that Duterte presents like a populist even as he engages in cut throat tactics like disinformation, threats, arrest, and indiscriminate killings. “We are witnessing a death by a thousand cuts to democracy in the Philippines,” Ressa says in the movie, the line which gives its title.
The movie is also noteworthy for its remarkable access. Not only was Ressa interviewed, but several other Rappler staff and her family. The filmmaker also sat for several interviews with Mocha, Duterte’s chief media ally and Ronald De La Rosa, a former police chief turned senator.
But even this impressive foray into the documentary realm is hardly the entirety of Emerson Collective’s media activity. Since 2017, the little-known Silicon Valley LLC has been the majority owner of The Atlantic—one of the nation’s leading political magazines—and intends to move toward full ownership in the near future.
The move quickly made waves. Here is more from VOX:
Laurene Powell Jobs, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, is acquiring a majority stake in the Atlantic magazine.
Jobs, in a statement, called the Atlantic “one of the country’s most important and enduring journalistic institutions,” and cited the links between her organization, the Emerson Collective, and the Atlantic’s founder, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who “created a magazine whose mission was to bring about equality for all people.”
By the end of 2019, the longtime CEO was out and Politico was reporting that Laurene Powell Jobs was wrestling even more control:
Billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs will assume greater control of the legendary Atlantic magazine as it seeks a new president/CEO and longtime Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley prepares to step away from management duties, Atlantic officials told POLITICO.
The move signals a changing of the guard in Washington media circles as Powell Jobs, the California-based widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, asserts herself in the world of D.C. journalism, and Bradley, one of the city’s best-known hosts and connectors of power, steps away from day-to-day control of the magazine he has shaped for decades.
That changing of the guard, though, is hardly limited to Laurene Powell Jobs—four years earlier, tech titan Jeff Bezos had already purchased The Washington Post from D.C.’s old-guard Graham family. That Emerson Collective, LLC now owns one of America’s oldest and most respected publications is simply indicative of the rise of a new elite—and given EC’s broad, ambitious goals, it may be suggestive of much more change to come.
Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance, . He’s based in Chicago.
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