There was a time when the Sullivan Foundation's work for a better Africa commanded enormous respect in Washington. In part, this was due to its namesake, iconic civil rights leader Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. Corporate codes of conduct that Sullivan developed, called the "Sullivan principles," were used by America's largest corporations for decades.
The foundation's annual summit also regularly drew world leaders to Africa—from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to General Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. Until 2010, President Clinton was listed as an honorary member of the foundation's board.
Sometime in the past few months, the Sullivan Foundation quite suddenly—and quietly—closed its doors. And it isn't saying why.
The foundation's CEO and president (and daughter of Rev. Sullivan) Hope Masters, who once had an active presence for the foundation on the web, has now gone silent online. The Sullivan Foundation's phone number has been disconnected. A visit to the foundation's former offices shows it now exclusively houses GoodWorks International, an Africa-focused global firm run by Hope's husband Carlton Masters. Their daughter Vanessa Masters, who answered the phone at GoodWorks, says she isn't "particularly interested" in talking about why it closed. And the organization's web site and Twitter accounts don't appear to have been updated since August.
The most recent update to the site is a response from Hope Masters in August to criticism of the 2012 Sullivan Summit, which was held in the central West African country of Equatorial Guinea. The summit came under fire for the choice of its location and of its host: the feared Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang-Mbasago, who is Africa's longest-serving dictator.
At the time, Africa-focused human rights advocates decried the summit, saying a foundation committed to a better Africa shouldn't be hosting an event that promoted a dictator known for his human rights abuses. In her response, Masters described that criticism as "misguided rants" and argued that Obiang has "modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms."
A source close to the Sullivan Foundation told Whispers at the time that the foundation chose Equatorial Guinea because the organization needed cash, and the oil-rich government there had promised to help.
A delegate to the summit, University of Chicago graduate student Arrianna Marie Conerly Coleman, wrote on her blog that the event "was all very strategic political theater- image rehabilitation and deal-making in the name of 'Africa Rising.'"
Sullivan Summit spokesman Aly Ramji told Whispers at the time that the summit could only be done with support, and acknowledged the government was financially supporting them.
Now that the foundation has shut its doors, Africa-focused human rights advocates have mixed feelings about its legacy and its closing.
"To the extent that the organization worked as a positive force to bring attention and funding to education and health projects in Africa, its closing is unfortunate," Joe Kraus at the D.C.-based human rights organization Equatorial Guinea Justice tells Whispers. But the Equatorial Guinea summit, he says "tarnished its reputation."
"One would hope that the Sullivan Foundation's good deeds will be taken up by other organizations," he says, who support "regimes that demonstrate through actions their commitment to good governance."