A City Hall-run fund set up to help those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has tapped a veritable who’s who of Boston business movers and shakers in raising at least $33 million, and distributed much of that private money to groups big and small that help the poor, the hungry, and students, a Globe review has found.
Those steering the fund are three of the bigger power brokers in Boston, and some of the major recipients of the money are well-known human service organizations that have provided a public health safety net amid the coronavirus. They include Boston Medical Center, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, Health Care for the Homeless, and the Greater Boston Food Bank.
The Resiliency Fund has its critics. One city councilor, Michelle Wu, has expressed concerns with the fund’s setup, saying that an organization aligned with Mayor Martin J. Walsh soliciting private donations and then deciding where the funding goes distorts the political process and creates “a very disruptive and dangerous dynamic.”
In calling for structural change, Wu said, “using the platform of city government to direct private fund-raising in this way creates conflicts of interest under a troubling lack of oversight.”
Walsh has strongly defended both the idea and the execution of the fund. The mayor says the money raised has helped to put food on people’s tables, expanded virus testing among vulnerable populations, and purchased Chromebooks for students so that they could participate in online learning.
Walsh, in a statement this week, said the fund “is one of the best examples of people coming together in a moment of crisis to support one another.”
“I am incredibly proud that through the fund we moved quickly to harness the generosity of residents and businesses in order to meet the most pressing basic needs of Bostonians,” said the mayor.
Some have lauded the fund for providing crucial help during an unprecedented public health emergency. Others are now calling for more long-term planning for systemic change not dependent on private donations. Yet others see the fund as a measure from an old school political playbook, a sort of business-as-usual response to a crisis from city authorities.
Lou DiNatale, a veteran Massachusetts pollster and longtime political analyst, said that Wu’s comments represented a “legitimate criticism” and that her spat with Walsh reflected “an old world/new world” divide in the Democratic Party.
Walsh, he said, is solving a problem by “doing it the way it’s always been done,” which involves the city’s political power brokers reaching out to business power brokers.
“It does feed a narrative,” said DiNatale. “The narrative is that he does it the same old way and the old way doesn’t work for us.”
He added, “Even when the insiders are doing a good job, the process leaves those most affected out. It comes across as charity as opposed to a living wage or health care for everybody.”
Walsh would be up for reelection next year but has yet to formally announce his plans. Wu, who is thought to be seriously considering a mayoral run, has also criticized Walsh over the Boston Racial Equity Fund, which is intended to raise tens of millions of dollars to address structural racism.
In terms of whether the Resiliency Fund creates conflicts of interest, some local observers and experts shrugged.
“It’s certainly within the realm of the norm in city politics to have these kinds of things,” said John Infranca, a professor at Suffolk University Law School whose areas of expertise include urban law and policy.
“I don’t see the political benefit as being all that significant,” he said. “It’s a city initiative and to the extent that when the city does anything good and beneficial, it’s beneficial to the mayor.”
Others, like Roxbury resident and political consultant Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, had nothing but praise for the Resiliency Fund. She said that she was “a little surprised” by Wu’s accusations and added that the criticism would be more relevant if there was a specific example where “strings were attached to accessing money.”
“The Resiliency Fund has been a lifeline to so many people that I know personally,” she said in an e-mail. “I mean I kinda feel that it is your duty as Mayor to use your skills and connections to help people who are hurting. If you have the ability to raise funds to help others, isn’t that what a mayor or governor, who with his wife has also created a fund, does at a time like this?”
Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based political consultant, said she recognized the fund was created to help the city deal with the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis, but she also said it “feels like an old playbook.” Rivera said she hoped the mayor would use his “executive capacity to pivot . . . to a larger conversation.”
“It’s time for big, structural change,” she said.
City Council President Kim Janey also wants to see a long-term strategy to reduce economic and health disparities that exist along racial lines and close opportunity and achievement gaps.
“The deeper issue for me is about structural change and why so many people are vulnerable in the first place,” she said.
The Boston Resiliency Fund has received donations from more than 6,000 people and groups. Among the collection of heavy hitters from the local business community to make substantial donations was the Vertex Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, one of the business pioneers of the Seaport District. That foundation gave $1 million. So did John Hancock, the insurance and financial services company that sponsors the Boston Marathon, and Liberty Mutual, a Boston stalwart for more than a century that employs about 4,600 in the city.
General Electric, the industrial giant that has scrapped its ambitious development plans in Fort Point, gave $500,000. So did Walsh’s own election committee.
Suffolk Cares Charitable Foundation, the charity of construction behemoth Suffolk, also gave $500,000. The John W. Henry Foundation gave $250,000. Henry owns The Boston Globe and the Red Sox.
Infranca, of Suffolk Law, said that if the mayor had a fund like this at all times, “it would be likely to be problematic,” but given the pandemic, the Resiliency Fund offers a way to“ efficiently target areas of need.”
In response to a Globe request, the city last week released a detailed list of contributors and recipients. A list of grant recipients is also available on the city’s website.
The three-member steering committee for the fund is mega fund-raiser Jack Connors Jr., Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief executive of Partners HealthCare, and Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, chief executive of Vertex.
Walsh’s office has said there are three separate reviews of funding applications before a recommendation is presented to the committee. The fund had completed 15 cycles of grant-making as of last week.
Groups such as Brighton Marine, which provides military and veterans services, received $25,000. The Greater Boston Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in New England, received $2 million.
The Black Economic Justice Institute received $20,000.
Priscilla Flint Banks, a cofounder and program director of that group, said the money was used on masks and gift cards for supermarkets and laundromats that were given to those who needed them.
”It did help,” she said.
Still, Flint Banks thinks more could be done to help the underserved, noting there are persistent concerns about seniors and housing amid the pandemic.
“It’s a lot to think about,” she said. “You try to do the best you can.”