Archive for the ‘Nonprofit management’ Category

Dear Nonprofiteer, Is the banquet deductible?

March 5, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the Development Manager for a small nonprofit that operates on a budget of around $500,000 a year. Something came up this year for the first time, and I’d like your opinion.

The ticket price to our annual benefit is $100, and we routinely send acknowledgements to guests that $50 of their $100 ticket is deductible. This is a fairly accurate estimate of the value of the food, drink and entertainment cost, and according to our business manager and auditor, standard best practices (as well as the way benefit tickets have been handled at every nonprofit for which I have ever worked, during the past 20+ years).

This year, we got an RSVP from one guest with a note saying, check to follow. When the check arrived, it was from a donor advised fund with a letter stating that endorsement of the check would confirm that the full amount was tax-deductible and that no goods or services had been received in exchange. My Executive Director and I felt that to treat this differently from all other benefit ticket purchasers would be inappropriate, and compromise the integrity of our nonprofit. I contacted the donor advised fund representative, and explained the situation. I made it clear that the woman would be welcome at our event, but that we would not deposit the check without further instruction from him.

At the benefit, the woman handed me a check for $50. She was very kind, but basically said, these things are done all the time, there’s a fine line, you are on the wrong side of it, but “you’ll learn.” She also told me that the board member who invited her will be speaking with me about this.

I realize this is a relatively small amount, but it’s a larger principle. One of the reasons I value my job at this particular nonprofit is that there is a strong commitment to integrity, consistency and transparency here. My ED and I both feel that we made the right call; but this is very likely not the end of it, as we haven’t heard yet from the board member.

What do you think?

Sincerely, Just Following The Rules

Dear Following:

It’s not a matter of what the Nonprofiteer thinks; it’s what she knows, and you know and your Executive Director knows.  There’s nothing at all “fine” about the line between deductible and non-deductible payments: the IRS permits deduction of the amount that goes to the charity, and not of the amount that goes into a guest’s belly.  It’s what any lawyer would refer to as “a bright-line rule.”  So maybe the banquet guest just got her lines mixed up.

Seriously, this isn’t even a close call.  What this person has asked you to do is to lie to the IRS on her behalf.  Let’s leave aside ethics, integrity, all those mushy things.  Lying to the IRS is a really bad idea–just ask Al Capone.

Now, is your agency likely to be audited for breaking the rules (also known as “the law”)?  No.  Nor is the guest likely to be audited for misreporting her charitable contributions.  But that’s not a reason for you (or her) to pretend that she received no value for the money she handed over.  You were wise not to endorse the donor-advised fund’s check embodying such a pretense, and you will continue to be wise by not issuing a tax-deductibility receipt for the $50 personal check she ultimately forked over.

If and when the Board member comes at you, you will reiterate what we all know to be true: that the IRS does not permit you to certify the food, drink and entertainment costs as tax-deductible contributions, and that you’re sure she wouldn’t want an agency she governs to participate in such a dangerous and false maneuver.  If she presses, observe that the guest may make any use she pleases of her cancelled $50 check.

If the Board member continues to press, turn the matter over to the Board president.  It’s her/his responsibility to make sure no one member of the Board in any way tarnishes the reputation of the whole group.  If s/he resists addressing the issue, try using the words “tax evasion,” and if s/he continues to resist, try using the word “fraud.”

You don’t have to be in the business of judging or disparaging the guest (though she richly deserves it. Wealthy enough to have a donor-advised fund and wailing about $50?).  But you likewise don’t have to be in the business of abetting her dishonesty.  And if anyone argues, “Well, it’s only $50,” make sure to agree.  “Our agency’s good name isn’t for sale,” you’ll say.  “But if it were, it would cost a hell of a lot more than $50.”

Keep on abiding by the law, and may the Force be with you.

Dear Nonprofiteer, When is a Board member not a Board member?

February 28, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I came across your website as I was searching for information on Board members’ volunteering in programs. I’m wondering if you might have some advice on a situation I’m trying to handle.

I work in a service agency, which relies heavily on volunteers. Recently, one of our volunteers became a Board member. She has continued volunteering in the program and a couple of issues have come up that the program director would normally address quickly and easily with a volunteer. However, because this volunteer is now also a Board member, there is a hesitation because she is somewhat of a boss.

The issue has been brought to the attention of the Board president.  He and the program director have different ideas on how to handle the situation.  The president wants to handle the situation one on one because he doesn’t want to discourage other members from volunteering more.  The program director wants a limit on how much time a Board member can spend volunteering in a program.

I’m the Executive Director and can see both sides.  I’d like for the president to deal with it one on one, but to then adopt a policy/guidelines for Board members as volunteers to avoid conflicts of interest.  I can see where this particular person likes to make decisions and that easily oversteps the program director’s role.

I’ve been searching on line for a policy around this, but have found nothing.I would greatly appreciate any insight or resources that you might have to help with such an issue.

Sincerely,

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Dear Clowns:

This is only a problem because of what seems to be a fundamental misconception about the role of Board members, as opposed to the Board as a whole.  No individual Board member is “somewhat of a boss;” in fact, from the standpoint of the program director, the only boss she has is you, the Executive Director.  You, on the other hand, answer to the Board as a whole, and the Board as a whole has the right to hire, evaluate, discipline and if necessary fire you if it’s not satisfied with the job you’re doing.

But there’s a reason the Nonprofiteer keeps repeating “as a whole . . . as a whole.”  Individual Board members have no supervisory responsibility for personnel, even when they’re members of the Personnel Committee.  Personnel decisions belong to the Executive Director, except for decisions about the Executive Director’s tenure which belong to the Board—all together now—as a whole.

So the Nonprofiteer doesn’t see any reason why there should be a policy prohibiting Board members from volunteering in the program, or limiting the amount of time they can spend doing so.  What there should be is

  • a statement by the Board president to the volunteer in question that there seems to have been some confusion, what with her going from volunteer to Board and back again, and that it needs to be clear that when she’s a volunteer she’s not a Board member.  He doesn’t need to go into the subtleties of her general lack of power as an individual Board member.  He just needs to tell her that in the land of program, the program director is king, and thus that she should expect the program director to treat her exactly as she was treated before she joined the Board—that is, to supervise her.
  • another statement by the Board president to the program director reiterating what he said to the volunteer and reassuring  her that she’s not dealing with “somewhat of a boss” and should therefore not hesitate to resolve the problem with this volunteer as with any other.  And
  • a third statement by the Board president to the entire Board at the next Board meeting, leaning again on the “confusion” meme: “We’ve had some questions about the circumstances under which Board members are welcome as program volunteers.  So I thought I’d make clear that each of us is welcome under all circumstances—but when we’re program volunteers, we shed our Board identities like fur in the summertime.  None of us is enforcing policy, or overseeing staff, or evaluating operations—we’re just volunteering.  Which ought to be a great relief for each of us!”  Thus he’ll encourage Board members to volunteer without having them confuse their collective governance role with their individual participation role.

The reason you can’t find any relevant policies is that this isn’t an occasion for policies—it’s an occasion for common sense applied to clearly-understood roles.  Or, in other words, there’s no need for a conflict-of-interest policy because individual Board members have no recognizable interests; their task is to participate in group decision-making about what’s good for the agency.

If you also have a Board Personnel Committee that tries meddling with individual personnel decisions (as opposed, say, to writing policies and procedures applicable to all personnel), then you have a bigger version of the same problem and need to have a bigger discussion about the difference between the Board—what?—as a whole and individual Board members.

But there’s no reason either the problem or the discussion should lead you to limit Board members’ participation as program volunteers.   As a Board member told the Nonprofiteer just last night, the main satisfaction Board members get from their often thankless jobs is contact with the people you serve.  Unless your goal is to produce unhappy Board members and a short-handed program director, you don’t want to restrict or prohibit that contact.

Or, more pithily: damn the Board member!  Full speed ahead!

The ongoing question of what’s really a charity

February 18, 2013

Query whether a failure to file annual 990 reports should be grounds for determining that a nonprofit organization is not actually a charity, and therefore not eligible for property tax exemption.  Pittsburgh thinks so, apparently; but if being stupidly managed disentitled organizations to charity status, how many small nonprofits would remain standing?

This is the latest in a series of battles between Pittsburgh nonprofits and their host city.  The Nonprofiteer thinks the city should follow Willie Sutton’s advice and go where the money is, and stop trying to squeeze blood from these teeny-weeny turnips.

On the other hand, maybe these battles aren’t really about revenue at all.

Dear Nonprofiteer, If I smell a rat, should I just hold my nose?

February 4, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m dealing with a tough situation and I could really use some help. I live in a  quiet rural community outside of a large town.  A neighbor moved away many years ago and turned his home into a “non profit” event center, mostly doing a huge wedding business (illegally by the way, as they’ve been asked to cease and desist by the county).

They now seek to legalize and expand their already enormous operation.  The neighboring residents object to this expansion due to noise, traffic and pollution. (They are looking to go to 7 days a week and build additional events structures.)

There is a hearing coming up and in an effort to find more info to bolster our argument, I’ve been looking into their “non profit”.

I discovered that one of the “non profits” they filter money through is a “therapeutic riding center” for disabled children located in another community.  The manager of this non profit is the daughter of the people in question, and they are also the only 2 officers of the non profit.

There is no website, no phone number and the address is an office building.  If you Google any other “therapeutic riding centers” they all have websites and info and photos of beaming disabled kids.

I smell a rat. How do I go about having them looked into by the powers that be?

Signed,

If I Don’t Watch Out For The Neighborhood, Who Will?

Dear Neighborhood Watch,

What you’ve described is such a tangle that it reminds the Nonprofiteer of those What’s Wrong With This Picture? puzzles in which the task is to identify the 47 not-very-hidden mistakes in the drawing.  Or, in other words, a law school exam.  So she’ll take an issue-spotting approach.

Issue #1 is a building-and-zoning problem, namely, that your neighbor is operating an illegal business.  If a cease-and-desist order has been issued and ignored, you should notify the sheriff and/or the county board and ask what is being done to enforce the order.  If you receive no response, send a copy of the letter to the local newspaper.  Voila: instant enforcement.

Issue #2 is another building-and-zoning problem, namely, that your neighbor wishes to expand his/her illegal business.  Obviously he can’t do that unless and until he comes into compliance on his current activities.  Probably in your efforts to compel him to do so, you should also copy the county executive and/or the zoning administrator and/or the Zoning Commission, and point out that his previous failure to comply with the law suggests that he’s not the sort of person to whom one would wish to grant additional license.

So far nothing we’ve discussed has anything to do with nonprofits. You’ve taxed only the Nonprofiteer’s long-rusty powers as a zoning lawyer. No business, whether nonprofit or for-profit, can operate in violation of the building and zoning laws.

But then we come to the nonprofit part, where once again there are two issues.

Nonprofit Issue #1: Can one operate a legitimate nonprofit without a Website?  Merely to ask the question is to answer it: of course.  Perhaps the group is spending all of its money on helping disabled children and none on an office or a Website.  But if parents of disabled children are unable to access the group’s services—because there’s no phone number and letters to the address go unanswered—then there are grounds for concern.  Contact the state agency responsible for the oversight of nonprofits (in some states this is the Attorney General’s Office, in others the Secretary of State’s Office, in still others a separate Charitable Bureau) and explain that you’re unable to access the services of this nonprofit and therefore you wonder if it is in fact pursuing its mission.  Copy the newspaper and again you should see fairly prompt action in the form of at least a preliminary investigation.

Nonprofit Issue #2: Can one operate a legitimate nonprofit in which the sole employee is the child of the sole members of the Board of Directors?  While this is unattractive (to say the least), it’s actually fairly common among small and newly-formed nonprofits.  All the work is done by the founders and their relatives, because they’re the only ones aware of the agency and passionately committed to its mission.  Provided that the group’s bylaws contain the conflict-of-interest policy required by the Internal Revenue Service, employing relatives is not automatically grounds for presuming that the agency is a sham.  On the other hand, the fact raises enough questions that you might include it in any letter you send to the charitable oversight authorities pursuant to Nonprofit Issue #1.

Frankly, though, the real concern here is that your neighbor is disturbing you by operating an unlicensed roadhouse.  Let sleeping nonprofits lie, and focus on shutting down the event space so you can get some sleep yourself.

If only this were the last word on “venture” philanthropy!

January 26, 2013

This is the smartest, ballsiest response I’ve seen to the omnipresent nonsense about how what’s wrong with philanthropy and charity is that they’re too soft-hearted and how all the problems of the world could be solved if they were just more rigorous and did their “due diligence” and brought other failed concepts and consultant buzzwords over from the for-profit sector. What refreshing thoughtfulness and appropriate humility. Bravo, Mr. Scanlan!

Translation Services: What Does Venture Philanthropy Really Provide?

January 10, 2013

The Nonprofiteer threw a bit of a bomb at a meeting today.  (“Now, dere’s a bolt from da blue,” as Andy Sipowicz would say.)  Perhaps she should be sorry—but she’s not.

After a group of young “venture philanthropists” described their efforts to help expand a small number of poverty-fighting nonprofits and to attract other philanthropists to support them, she had a few thoughts which she generously shared.

  • Their analysis of Return On Investment in this context was very exciting, comparing the dollars spent to the dollars added to the projected lifetime earnings of program participants as a result of whatever intervention the nonprofits provided.
  • Their goal of “Scaling Up What Works,” while admirable, had challenged many other institutions.  Did they have a template for determining which nonprofits would continue to succeed after significant expansion?  (Not really: they look for leadership and give it management support; but management support can’t clone inspired leaders.)
  • Their main achievement was to have assembled a group of white people (staff and Board) to whom other white people would give money.  White people are reluctant to give money to black and brown people (she observed).  But this group, by virtue of its comfortingly familiar MBA-speak upper-middle-class front, is able to overcome that reluctance. 

Afterward, the meeting’s host suggested to the Nonprofiteer that her last comment had been both off-putting and dismissive.  On reflection, she concluded that, while she was sorry to have embarrassed her host in front of his guests, she was glad to have given voice to the Subject That Dare Not Speak Its Name: the gap between the resources available to white people and those available to nonwhites.  We’d like to think that philanthropy responds to need, but most donors actually respond to being asked by those who look a lot like they do.

If these people can level that tilted playing field, more power to them.  And if some of them can make a career out of doing so, mazel tov.  But while the advice and management training and analysis and for-profit perspective on nonprofit problems are all very well, let’s not fool ourselves about what’s really useful in this model: the ability to look and sound like the sort of people who should be entrusted with a lot of money.     

That’s not a critique of pale people who want to help.  It’s just a plea for frankness about how racism plays out in our sector.

Another place to hear from the Nonprofiteer

January 8, 2013

The Nonprofiteer has begun tweeting under the name of KellyNFP.  (A.A.Milne: “Winnie the Pooh lived in the forest under the name of Sanders.”  “What does that mean?” asked Christopher Robin.  “It means he kept a sign saying “Sanders,” and he made his home underneath it.”)  Many of the tweets are about nonprofits; some are about politics.  If you just can’t get enough of her/me, please “follow.”  Thanks!

In other words

January 4, 2013

Another day, another idiotic Top 5 list, this one purporting to identify marketing trends in philanthropy. As it turns out, the list actually identifies what its author believes to be methods of fostering planned giving. Faced with this basic lack of clarity, the Nonprofiteer refrains from making snarky comments about the content. Instead, she translates it into English.

[N]onprofits in the new year [are] advised just to be themselves. “People expect exaggeration in marketing. They don’t expect a matter-of-fact voice that addresses people’s reservations about buying or donating,” says [someone getting paid for spouting content-free advice, who]. . . . calls this first trend “humanvertising” . . . . [and] suggests a pitch might go like this: “Your gift won’t be used to pay the utility bills or marketing expenses. It will be used to advance our important mission through remarkable programs such as…” “Humanvertising,” as opposed to the messages nonprofits so frequently direct at paramecia and ferns. From context the word appears to mean, Sound like every other agency; pretend not to have any operating expenses.

Story Superpowers: “Nothing can generate emotions or stimulate behavioral responses like stories,” [genius] says. And, he says, these stories need to be not only educational, but also inspirational. Mention that you serve people and they benefit.

Photo Assembling: “Photos are an evolutionary preference for consuming information in a short amount of time[.]” A picture is worth a thousand words.

Crowdsourced Inspiration: “For 2013, you should ask more of your dedicated supporters,” [he] says. “Ask them for their voice.” When you want money, ask for advice and pretend to listen.

Stigma-Free Singledom: A record 100 million Americans are not married. . . . So why are singles almost ignored in the [planned giving] world? People without families are losers but they also have nowhere else to leave their money.

Now, aren’t you better off for knowing all that?

Really bad advice about year-end giving, and some really obvious responses

December 31, 2012

The Nonprofiteer just received an e-mail entitled “Five Things You Need to Know About Year-end Giving” which was distinguished primarily by the utter wrongness of each and every one of the items identified.  Names have been omitted to protect the guilty, but commentary appears in bold.

1. Background Check….[B]efore you reach for your wallet, take the time to look into how charities spend their money. It is important know how much of your money actually reaches those in need. A rule of thumb is around 7% to 9% for administrative costs, though some online outlets with low overhead structures are able dip below that.  First clue that this is wrong: the imaginary precision of “7% to 9%.”  Second clue: use of the term “overhead” without definition.  “Overhead” includes such profligate expenditures as electricity and health care for employees.  The last thing we need is for donors to make it a condition of their gifts that nonprofit employees live in poverty. Rather than spend time trying to divine a charity’s wastefulness, donors should work on ascertaining its effectiveness.

2. Beware of dogs….Check the IRS database of more than a million charitable organizations to make sure the one you’re giving to is legit. The IRS database will not tell you which organizations are legitimate, only which organizations have filed appropriate paperwork.  Yes, of course, don’t give your credit-card number to any random jerk who calls; but more important, don’t give money to any agency about which you know nothing but a name and a 501(c)(3) designation.

3. Target the Need. If you see a specific need you want to affect, specify where your donation should go by adding a note, writing an email or by designating it on your check…. Money is fungible: whatever you give to a nonprofit inevitably supports its entire range of purposes and activities.  All that happens if you “designate” a spot for your money is that the recipient nonprofit shifts preexisting funds to another program.  If you don’t trust the charity to use your money wisely, don’t give it money; if you do, get out of its way and let professionals do their jobs.  The Red Cross responds to all sorts of disasters; if it gets more money than it needs for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, it will use that money for the victims of Hurricane Tom, or the house fire around the corner from you.  If you object to that, you’re more concerned with being trendy than with helping, so don’t bother to support the Red Cross.

4. Get More Than a Good Feeling….Be sure to get receipts for large donations above $250. Many non-profits are now accepting direct deposits and can accept funds with the click of a button.  Be aware of the tax deductibility of your contribution as not all non-profits can give you a tax-deductible receipt.  It’s true that donations to the NFL or the American Bar Association are not tax-deductible though  those agencies are nonprofit; but gifts to virtually anything you think of as a charity ARE tax-deductible.  Ask about it if you’re concerned but this is the least of your worries.

5. Simplify and Centralize Your Giving. Simplify your giving by using a one-stop-shop that makes finding and giving to charities easier. [Our company's] users can give to any 501(c)(3) recognized by the IRS. [Our company] keeps a record of donations so you don’t have to and provides a year-end receipt for tax purposes.  Again, don’t be trolling around looking for charities in somebody’s data-base; give money to agencies in your community whose work you know, or to organizations active in the field (social services, the environment, the arts) with which you’re concerned.  It’s no easier to find the names of random charities in some commercial Website’s data-base than directly from the IRS (or from the phone book, for that matter), and if you’re worried about having a receipt you could always just write a check, which is perfectly adequate documentation for the Revenue agents.  Don’t be dazzled by announcements of great on-line services which can direct you to charity: there’s nothing difficult about making your own gift, and “research” in this field means nothing more than familiarity with an agency’s work. What’s being ballyhooed here is the equivalent of an offer to chew your food for you: sure, you could hire someone to do it, but that would eliminate not only all the fun but all the nourishment.

Don’t feel desperate about giving away your money before December 31: there will be plenty of need (and plenty of tax-deductibility) in the new year.  Take the time you need to find out about the mission, services and effectiveness of the organizations you want to support.  There’s no charitable fiscal cliff, so don’t bother searching for a charitable bungee cord; your personal sense of balance will be more than sufficient to support you.

What Price Democracy?

December 27, 2012

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to the Nonprofiteer’s mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.

The Nonprofiteer has often argued that private philanthropy in education (and other areas) is at best a mixed blessing, because it reflects approval of the notion that public assets should be run according to private preferences.   But she never imagined any philanthropy would go this far, offering its generosity only on condition that the public sacrifice its right to choose its own leaders. The question isn’t whether or not Chris Christie is a good governor; the question is whether the Broad Foundation—as opposed to the voters of New Jersey—should get to decide that.

Sure, you can say that no voter is likely to sacrifice his or her rights for a grant of $430,000, but then we’re just arguing about the price. And sure, in form, the voters of New Jersey still hold the power, but the Broad Foundation grant gives them to understand that the cost of exercising their power is losing a lot of money—or, put another way, that the cost of the money is their democratic rights. By comparison, “the vig” (excessive interest rates) charged by organized crime look like a bargain.

Not content with specifying the outcome of an election, the grant’s terms also exempt from disclosure anything having to do with the grant, purporting to provide it with immunity from application of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps this was intended to minimize the impact of the grant on voters: What they don’t know can’t influence them. But when the subject of the grant is the most public of concerns—the education of the next generation—a commendable motive doesn’t excuse unacceptable means. Voters need to know on what basis decisions are being made about their schools so that they can change the decision-makers if they disagree. The grant terms are an effort to protect the foundation and its direct beneficiary, the current Republican government of New Jersey, from that straightforward democratic notion.

Defenders of charter schools and other forms of privatization of public schools argue that such restructuring attracts private philanthropy that would not otherwise be available to those schools. That’s probably true, but is that a cost or a benefit? It’s a slippery slope, from good-willed private philanthropy in support of public goals to a system in which private goals predominate—specifically the private goal of eliminating public input (or even public knowledge) from the governance of the public schools.

We could argue about whether the loss of public input would be worth it if the donation were $430 million. But under the current circumstances, just what kind of girl is New Jersey?

A cheap date, apparently.


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