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.

Dear Nonprofiteer, . . . And we all lived happily ever after, thanks to you!

December 25, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

It was at this time one year ago that I wrote to you about my horrible “School Director” job. Your reply helped me see that it was not only horrible, but hopeless.

For six months, I’d been optimistic in thinking the situation couldn’t possibly be as absurd as it seemed. Surely there was some logical (and legal) explanation for all the things that made my jaw drop, one after another — I just needed to understand how it made sense. (It didn’t.)

I repeatedly asked for clear communications with the board, and for clarity about my relationship with them individually and collectively. That too was sure to happen any day, I thought, and everything would be cleared up and straightened out. (They didn’t tell me when the meetings were scheduled, let alone allow me to speak with them.)

You may recall that the Board Chair was also Artistic Director of the organization and director of the “professional” performing group; also, the highest-paid employee, hour for hour. Yet as a resident of another state, this Uber-Boss was a very rare presence in the building, with no direct knowledge of school operations or clientele.

Worse, all of the other board members were involved in the organization—performer, teacher, parent, etc., so they were ever-present in non-board-member roles. I wondered things like: If a board member is acting in her role as a teacher, must I take orders from her? If a board member is acting in her role as a parent volunteer, must I acquiesce to policies that favor her child? And is the Uber-Boss EVER not the boss of everybody? (Answer: No.)  Like a team of Gladys Kravitzes, they scrutinized me minute-by-minute and gossiped in personal phone calls. (You know the game of “telephone,” where the original statement gets garbled? Like that, except it started out garbled.)

I was a subordinate not worth listening to until the day I resigned. Then they wondered why! (I didn’t bother to explain.)

It stung for a long time, and it still pains me to think about it. I put my heart and soul into my work there, and accomplished a lot for them in a short time. Goodness only knows what was told to faculty and parents, as only one parent has made any contact with me since I left. The organization is in my community, and I dread running into board members in the grocery store. It’s like some special nonprofit arts brand of PTSD.

I only wish I’d had your advice sooner, because you were so right. My “normal” is back to normal, free from being bossed, berated and belittled. I work with wonderfully creative people, with mutual respect and appreciation, and make more money with far fewer hours and none of the stress. And when “Board of Directors Horror Stories” come up among colleagues, I can top them all. Easily.

Thank you for helping me restore my sanity! It’s been a good year, and no doubt 2013 will be even better. Signed,

Happily No Longer Hanging

Dear Happily:

That’s terrific–“some special nonprofit arts brand of PTSD.” Over Christmas dinner the Nonprofiteer was telling her own tragic story of working in the nonprofit arts world, and though it’s been nearly 30 years, she can taste the bile in her throat every time the subject comes up. So don’t be surprised if you’re not fully recovered a mere six months later.

The other really powerful observation you’ve made is that you weren’t worth listening to until you resigned. It’s not clear why nonprofit Boards are so frequently deaf until it’s too late, but it’s certainly the case; and then they wonder why they have trouble keeping personnel!

Finally, you’ve offered a word to the wise: nonprofit arts Boards dominated by people whose primary connection to the organization is through their non-Board roles are nonprofit arts Boards looking for trouble. If roles and responsibilities aren’t clear, nothing gets done and everyone blames everyone else. People should have to choose how they want to be involved in the organization; and, if the artists’ fear is that the Board will take the group away from them, the artists should arrange to be represented on the Board—but as a group, not as individuals. Representing your fellow artists is one thing; feathering your own nest is something else, and the latter is conduct unbecoming a Board member.

Thanks for letting us know you made a change for the better—you never know who may be out there in nonprofit arts hell, reading and being inspired.

Dear Nonprofiteer, If a Board member’s gift falls before year-end, does it make a sound?

November 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I serve on the board of a nonprofit. 100% of our board gives in some form monetarily throughout the year through event sponsorship, general giving, donations at events, etc. With all the year-round giving, many of us were not making a gift to the annual appeal. Recently, we were informed that funders look at what percentage of our organization’s annual appeal total comes from board members. This has the board scrambling to make sure everyone gives a significant sum here at year’s end. It also has many of us questioning the timing of our gifts for the next year. Do we not sponsor the gala or give to summer programs, but instead save that donation for the annual appeal? There is only so much to give for many of us.

While I know that funders want 100% of board members to give, the desire for that giving to come in the form of the annual appeal is new to me. I find it especially surprising that they would ask what percentage of the annual appeal comes from board members. Have you heard about this stipulation? Is it widespread?

Obviously we all want what is in the best interest for our organization to be positioned for future funding. However, I don’t want to lose the help and momentum the organization gets from year-round board giving if it isn’t necessary.

Signed, Surprised and Scrambling

Dear Surprised:

First, let the Nonprofiteer congratulate you on having a Board that gives 100%. It’s bizarre to imagine that some additional hurdle should be placed in the way of a Board which has already cleared that one. Institutional funders are notorious for always asking for one more thing; but this hoop is a brand-new one.

The Nonprofiteer suspects that what we have here is a failure to communicate*—that is, a misunderstanding of what the funder actually wants to know. If the program officer asks (or the guidelines say) “What percentage of your annual fund comes from your Board members?” the English translation is most likely, “What percentage of your annual donated income comes from your Board members?” NOT “Which appeal do your Board members respond to?”

The funder’s concern may be for institutions whose Boards donate 75% of the group’s contributed income, reflecting a failure to reach out into the broader stakeholder community. Conversely, the funder—which mostly doesn’t deal with Boards as generous and active as yours—wants to know if Board member donations are significant or merely pro forma: if every single member of the Board gave $1, that wouldn’t be the kind of Board participation the foundation wants to see, or intends to spark through its inquiry.

If in fact the funder cares about the Board’s response rate to the annual appeal, meaning the end-of-year solicitation letter, this is a classic example of a wider problem in the nonprofit community: the “it doesn’t count” syndrome. Oh, members of your Board buy and sell tickets to the benefit event? “It doesn’t count” because there might be something involved in the transaction beyond a straightforward check and tax receipt. “It doesn’t count” syndrome leaves Board members feeling unappreciated and nonprofit executives feeling unsupported; so repeat after the Nonprofiteer: money is fungible; IT ALL COUNTS.

And if the funder disagrees: so the funder is stupid! Having money is no guarantee of having brains, and that’s as true in the philanthropic sector as anywhere else, though it’s harder to remember when we’re spending all our time trying to please people with money.

The Nonprofiteer’s advice: call the program officer and say, “Do I understand you want to know what percentage of the response to our end-of-year solicitation letter—what we call the annual appeal—comes from the Board, or do you just want to know what percentage of our annual contribution income is donated by the Board?” If s/he really means the former, then yes, just shift the timing of your contributions in future years.

“Teach your funders well . . . . just look at them and sigh, and know they” don’t understand you at all.**

——————————–
*Cool Hand Luke
**Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “Teach Your Children”

Giving Tuesday: A Holiday Tradition Worth Creating

November 27, 2012

This is glorious: someone figuring out how to divert some of that pointless holiday shopping into social good.  Go bust some charity’s door today!

From Law Students to Nonprofit Trustees

November 26, 2012
And now a word from the Nonprofiteer’s favorite guest poster, Lesley Rosenthal of Lincoln Center in New York:

Making the rounds at law schools for Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, I’m heartened to meet so many students interested in serving on charities boards in their communities.  My recent talk at Harvard Law School about how law students and young lawyers can start preparing for the trustee role is available here.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How do we reach consensus on our Executive Director’s performance while preserving every Board member’s perspective?

November 20, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

What is the best way for a Board to review its Executive Director?  Our current review process involves each Board member’s completing a review of the ED and then our Board president’s “averaging” the reviews (without further debate or discussion from the Board) into the final document.  While this is an effort at broad input, in reality it results in producing only the most general review, with minority viewpoints often dropped.

As  Board treasurer I work with the staff and Executive Director often in different ways than other Board members and this give me the opportunity to see areas of weakness and strength others may not see.    Likewise I’m sure other Board members, due to their unique positions of involvement, are seeing still different weaknesses and strengths but because their observations may not be those of the majority,  they never make it into the final report.

Signed,  Minority Report

Dear Minority:

You’ve put your finger on an important but oft-neglected aspect of nonprofit management: the need (as in the wider political arena) to protect the rights of the minority while preserving democratic governance by a majority.  Nonprofit Board members are often so averse to conflict that they unintentionally shut down opposition—even their own—to preserve the illusion of unity, or at least consensus.

But it’s not consensus if it doesn’t include acknowledgement of minority opinions, particularly when those opinions are informed by special expertise.   Board members are charged with governing agencies, which largely means overseeing the work of the Executive Director.  Many Board members ask how that’s possible when everything they know about the agency comes from that selfsame Executive Director; and the only good answer is to secure information from within the Board itself.

As Treasurer, you know whether the ED is a spendthrift or a penny-pincher; whether s/he manages cash flow well or whether every month is a festival of white knuckles; whether s/he is carrying the appropriate share (or much more, or much less) of the fundraising burden.  If you don’t share these data with the rest of the Board, all the other members are operating in needless dark.

The Nonprofiteer suggests that you propose to the Board president a relatively minor modification of the current approach:  that after s/he’s crafted what’s designed to be a consensus report on the Board’s behalf, s/he bring it back to the Board for final approval.  At that time, every Board member should get to see the comments of every other Board member, which enhances the likelihood that someone will say, “Wait a minute–we can’t gloss over these comments about how the Executive Director abuses the staff in public.”

The Board president probably wants to make sure that the ED isn’t getting feedback from all directions, because that sort of cacophony is to no one’s benefit.  That’s a fine goal, but it should be balanced with the goal of making the ED’s review as comprehensive and nuanced as possible.  Your agency’s decision to gather all the Board feedback gets you half the distance to the goal line; sharing and incorporating that input as a group will earn you a touchdown.

Taxing Wealth Instead of Income

November 19, 2012

This very smart proposal for addressing inequality probably has zero chance of adoption, before or after our skid toward the fiscal cliff; but its central point–that wealth inequality grows faster than income inequality and is thus more pernicious–should be an answer to all the people clamoring for the abolition of estate taxes.  Don’t let them fool you by calling them “death taxes”–dead people don’t pay taxes.  The question is whether people who inherit their money should have to pay taxes on it just like people who work for their money.


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