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Institutions Are (Quietly) Taking Sackler Money

Institutions Are (Quietly) Taking Sackler Money


When arts organizations began shunning the Sackler family over its role in the U.S. opioid crisis, it wasn’t just American institutions that cut ties. Museums in Britain that had accepted Sackler largess were among the first to take action.

After the National Portrait Gallery in London canceled a $1.3 million Sackler donation in 2019, the Tate museum group announced it would not seek any more of the family’s support. Other museums began discussing removing the Sackler name from their walls.

Soon, the Sackler Trust — a British nonprofit set up by members of the family that once owned Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the addictive painkiller OxyContin — announced it would pause all new philanthropic giving, and its donations fell dramatically.

The foundation continued to honor some existing pledges. But now, its donations appear to be growing again — and fast. According to the Sackler Trust’s latest accounts, which were published this month, the nonprofit committed around 5.2 million pounds, or $6.6 million, in 2022, comprising 66 grants to institutions. That was almost four times more than the pledges it made the year before.

With Britain’s arts, scientific and educational institutions facing a cash squeeze, fueled by high inflation and falling government support, some organizations appear to have accepted Sackler funding — albeit with the risk of reputational damage offset by keeping the donations secret.

In previous years, the Sackler Trust named grant recipients in its accounts. In 2018, for instance, it gave to the Young Vic, the Old Vic and the Donmar Warehouse — three of London’s major playhouses — among other institutions. Occasionally, the trust donated to recipients in the United States including the Friends of the High Line and the New York Genome Center.

But the latest accounts don’t say who the 2022 beneficiaries were, or where they are based. Instead, the document groups the donations by area of activity, with scientific organizations receiving the most money. A note says that listing names would “expose the recipients to serious prejudice and impair the furtherance of their charitable activities.”

Through a trust spokeswoman, the Sackler family declined to comment.

Peter Grant, a lecturer at the center for charity effectiveness at City University in London, said that he would be “very, very surprised” if major British institutions were taking money from the Sackler family — even in secret — given the potential for criticism if discovered. But small organizations may decide it is better to accept a Sackler donation than shutter services entirely, he added.

In emails, over 30 cultural institutions that once accepted Sackler Trust funding — including the Royal Opera House, the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum — said they had not received any money from the Sackler family in 2022, or since.

The only exception was the Watermill Theater — a small playhouse in a village 60 miles from London — which declined to comment. Although the Sackler Trust is not currently listed as a donor on the Watermill’s website, it gave the theater £500,000, about $635,000, in 2020. Two years later, the theater lost all of its state subsidy in a shake-up of government arts funding, putting its survival at risk.

Only one organization has publicly admitted to receiving funds from the Sackler Trust: Veterans Aid, a British nonprofit that supports former soldiers experiencing financial, housing or other crises. Glyn Strong, the nonprofit’s media adviser, said in an email that Veterans Aid had received funding from the trust regularly since 2016 and used it to help around 80 people per year overcome addiction.

“We consider expenditure on rehab/detox to be the most appropriate use of this money,” Strong said in an email, adding that Veterans Aid expected to continue receiving Sackler funding for the foreseeable future.

Beth Breeze, the director of the Center for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, said that it was impossible to work out if the Sackler Trust had actually ramped up donations in 2022 because the grants in the accounts could be legacy or multiyear commitments only now being paid out.

Whatever the case, Breeze added, the trust’s options were limited: Under British law, funds held by grant-making trusts and foundations must be used for charitable purposes, so the Sackler family cannot withdraw money for personal use. If the funds weren’t given to educational, cultural and scientific nonprofits, Breeze said, they would simply sit in a bank account accruing interest.

If approached with a potential donation, she added, charity trustees would have to decide for themselves whether it was better to accept the money and use it “for good,” or to let it go unspent.


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