November 27, 2020; New York Times
Newly released documents covered by the New York Times detail the critical role McKinsey & Company consultants played in developing strategies to “turbocharge” OxyContin sales even as the terrible toll the pharmaceutical was taking on this nation had reached crisis proportions. How do we know that this was a conscious and therefore evil act in service of simple greed? In one meeting, among the options for boosting sales presented by McKinsey’s representatives was giving “Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold.”
It projected that in 2019, for example, 2,484 CVS customers would either have an overdose or develop an opioid use disorder. A rebate of $14,810 per “event” meant that Purdue would pay CVS $36.8 million that year.
In terms of communicating through the pain and grief Perdue was causing, McKinsey’s marketing wizards also provided Purdue executives with stock responses for the Food and Drug & Administration in preparation for a committee meeting. One possible question: “Who at Purdue takes personal responsibility for these deaths?” The proposed answer was, “We all feel responsible.” Perhaps, but not enough to act to control how oxycontin was sold, and how much.
For purposes of attracting business, McKinsey portrays itself as a firm that recognizes and respects the uniqueness of the nonprofit sector and asserts that it approaches its work with a set of values that would be at home here. But that premise stands on the idea that we believe such a firm could hold one set of values that supports the rapacious greed of corporations like Purdue and another that would want to save the world from all of that. Author Anand Giridharadas, a former McKinsey consultant who reviewed the documents, said of the firm’s work with Purdue, “This is the banality of evil, MBA edition. They knew what was going on. And they found a way to look past it, through it, around it, so as to answer the only questions they cared about: how to make the client money and, when the walls closed in, how to protect themselves.”
This appalling new revelation about McKinsey’s plan to turbocharge OxyContin sales for Purdue Pharma is anything but an anomaly. Rob Meiksins wrote about McKinsey for NPQ a year ago. Then, he observed the need for concern. “Social sector organizations must ask: Is it a good idea to align with a firm that encouraged ICE to treat immigrants inhumanely, or promoted austerity in Puerto Rico, or devised strategies to push opioids? Clearly, the decision is not without risk to one’s reputation.” The revelations about McKinsey’s Purdue consultation make this warning even more critical.
Consultants with whom we choose to work need to understand the differences that make our sector unique, reflecting the morals and values that guide us as though they truly mattered and don’t simply present a value-free problem to be solved. And, if individual organizations in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors pay money to a firm like this, they need to understand the evil they are helping sustain.—Martin Levine