Posts Tagged ‘Fundraising’

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.

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!

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.

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!

Dear Nonprofiteer, Whose money is too filthy to take, and why?

April 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’d be interested in your take on the Tucker Max/Planned Parenthood issue. That whole issue, which I’m sure you’ve touched on before, of NPOs making tough decisions about accepting donations is one that constantly comes up.

Signed, Hoping to Keep Clean Hands and Full Coffers

Dear Hoping:

So Tucker Max (a blogger the Nonprofiteer had never heard of until this letter) tries to give half a million dollars to Planned Parenthood, which has just lost funding from the Komen Foundation and is at risk of losing Federal funding, and PP turns the money down.

Under ordinary circumstances the Nonprofiteer would say, “WTF? So he’s a sexist piece of dog excrement! So he’s trying to whitewash his reputation! Why shouldn’t we help impoverish sexists by accepting their contributions? Why shouldn’t they pay restitution for their crimes and sins?”

But these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because the donor describes himself as follows:

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions . . . sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.

Years of public education about what Planned Parenthood actually does would go right down the drain if it permitted itself to be publicly tied to an advocate of reckless, consequence-free sex. The Republicans have clearly hit a responsive chord when they strive to outdo each other in demonizing PP, and that chord is that the very existence of Planned Parenthood represents an utter breakdown of sexual morals. Never mind that this isn’t true: Tucker Max actually DOES represent an utter breakdown of sexual morals, and Planned Parenthood can’t afford to be associated with him.

In general, though, the Nonprofiteer remains in favor of taking money from bad people: it’s not possible to eradicate them, and they ought to be good for something. If she still shudders (as she does) at entering the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, she consoles herself that it represents millions of dollars the self-same Koch no longer has available to give to the Tea Party.

It’s fine if donating makes an evil donor look good. Just be sure that accepting doesn’t make you look bad.

Existing forever versus doing some good

March 28, 2012

An op-ed piece a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall)  argued that donors should construct their foundations to spend down assets as rapidly as possible, lest the foundations end up supporting causes their donors would revile.  This familiar argument comes with a familiar whipping-boy: the Ford Foundation, whose enthusiasm for assisting the poor and marginalized was certainly not shared by its eponymous founder Henry.  The op-ed piece, like many of its kind, focuses on the question of donor intent, arguing that only a brief payout period can assure that the donor’s intent is served.

The Nonprofiteer has never cared particularly about the intent of dead donors.  First of all, they’re dead, and while death may not extinguish intent as a matter of law it certainly does as a matter of common sense.   Second, how much better off do we really think the world would be if Ford’s foundation had spent all its money on Ford’s enthusiasms, such as promoting publication of the scurrilous anti-Semitic tract The Learned Protocols of the Elders of Zion?   Third and most important, the  tax-free status of foundations is supposed to encourage philanthropy, not the accumulation of permanently idle tax-free money.

The Nonprofiteer has long argued that the minimum expenditure required of foundations is way too minimum, and that setting up a structure to give away 5% of income shouldn’t entitle a donor to a 100% tax shelter–whatever his/her intent.  Most likely that intent was to escape from taxation, without too much more thought than that.

So let’s think about the issue not from the standpoint of donor intent but from the standpoint of social good.  Which is more useful for a philanthropy: remaining around in perpetuity, to grapple with issues that may arise a generation or three from now, or spending down in the present and relatively short-term future on issues the donor understands and cares about and which in any case are currently urgent?  From the phrasing you can tell the Nonprofiteer’s position: spend it down.

Julius Rosenwald saw the wisdom of this approach when he created a program of fellowships for African-American artists for their professional development.  Rather than keep the fellowships around in perpetuity, he ordered that the principal be awarded completely within 5 years of his death.  As a result, virtually every mid-20th-Century African-American artist you’ve ever heard of received a Rosenwald Fellowship: Ralph Ellison and Romare Beardon and Katherine Dunham and Gordon Parks and many others.   The value of what Rosenwald did, giving artists enough money so they could work without fear or distraction, is literally incalculable.

But also as a result, virtually no one remembers Julius Rosenwald, or at least not his fellowship program.  So that presents the question: are we in the business of fostering greatness, or memorializing it?  Is remembering a donor as important as creating work through a donor’s generosity?  Again, to the Nonprofiteer the answer is self-evident.  She’d rather be grateful for Ralph Ellison than to Julius Rosenwald.

Look, here’s the deal: people will make money in every generation, and in every generation some people will make a lot of money.  If we tax them properly they’ll look for the opportunity to shelter their money in philanthropy.  Why shouldn’t we tax them so that they’re motivated to spend it philanthropically, too?  Like the proverbial Fifth Avenue bus, another chunk of  money will be along any minute.

Sure, there’s a risk of spending too rapidly and with insufficient research (or “due diligence,” as people are fond of saying when they want to pretend that the nonprofit sector is really just like a business).  But the greater risk is the situation in which we find ourselves now, where philanthropies give out amounts insufficient to make any significant change.  No, philanthropy isn’t supposed to be society’s primary source of support, but while people are busy starving government so they can drown it in the bathtub, private wealth can and should step into the breach.

Consider the contributions of the Gates Foundations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Can anyone really argue it would be better to hold back on eradicating those diseases, in case there’s some bigger plague later on?  If there is, as AIDS itself demonstrates, we’ll mobilize and raise money for it.  Meanwhile, in case of every ailment, time is our enemy: the later we provide resources, the harder it will be for those resources to have impact.  Thus wasting money is a less significant risk than failing to spend enough to make a difference.

Two things need to happen: philanthropists themselves need to organize their giving so that it ends within a reasonable time after their death, and Congress needs to modify the tax code to require philanthropies to pay out more each year to retain their tax-favored status.  A 10% annual payout–double the current rate–may end up causing philanthropies to dip into principal, maybe even until they’re empty.  But remember the words of Citizen Kane as he contemplated the financial difficulties of his newspaper empire: ” I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years. ”  Let’s take a Kane-like risk of running out of money.

One more story: Some time in the ’90s Joan Kroc stood up at a Ronald McDonald House benefit to announce her annual gift.  Rumor had it she was actually going to make a five-year pledge, and the Nonprofiteer’s table indulged in the parlor game of trying to figure out just how much that would be.   We figured the previous year’s gift ($5M) plus a little bump (so $6M) for each of 5 years, and settled on $30 million.  And then she rose to speak, a little woman holding a torn-off piece of yellow legal paper in her hand.  And she said, “I was going to make a 5-year gift, but then I thought: ‘The need is now.’  So tonight I’m giving $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.”  Everyone at the table fell back in her seat, literally knocked over by her generosity, and also by her insight: The need is now.

Aside from Ronald McDonald, Mrs. Kroc mostly supported causes her late husband disapproved of.  If only he’d given more in the present, he wouldn’t have had to contemplate a future in which his money went to places he despised.  So the donor’s intention and the sector’s need are in sync:

Spend it now.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How dare they tell me what to give?

February 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Maybe I’m just being pissy.  It’s possible.  But….

I’m on the board of two smallish non-profit arts organizations, and a regular financial supporter of several others. I’ve noticed a trend in fundraising appeals- in letters that go out to previous funders, the dollar amount they contributed in previous years is named, with a request for a specific increase in the current campaign.  (“Thank you for your generous contribution of $100 in 2011. Would you consider a gift of $125 in 2012?”)

Why should this bother me?  But it does.  It really irritates me, especially from the organizations that I contribute to generously.  And this year, when, as a board member, I was given the fundraising “ask” letters that were going out under my name to my personal contacts, I felt especially irritated to see the request for a specific additional amount.  I would certainly never have written my friends directly with this request.  Now that the dust has settled and our annual appeal has ended, I intend to speak to our director of development about it.But, in the meantime, could you illuminate me as to when this practice started?  Why it started?  And whether I should offer, in a kind way, feedback to the other organizations that are asking for a specific dollar amount increase to my giving?Does this bother anyone else? Or am I just being pissy?

Signed,

Possibly Pissy, But Really Very Generous At Heart

Dear Generous,

The practice likewise raises the hair on the back of the Nonprofiteer’s neck.  There’s something creepy about the notion that an organization is 1) keeping track of what you’ve given, in violation of some notion of privacy and 2) asking for more, as if in reproach, instead of trusting you to give more if you’re able.  But of course they’re keeping track of what you’re giving—how inept would you think them if they weren’t?—and of course they’re always working to raise more—ditto.  So the first thing to recognize is that it’s not the practice so much as the expression that annoys you.

The practice is at least 40 years old, and was pioneered by the universities, probably because it’s natural for those institutions to think of givers in terms of the passage of time: the class of 1960 can reasonably be expected to have more resources than the class of 2010.  It arose, the Nonprofiteer suspects, in response to the habitual nature of many people’s giving: if they gave $100 last year, they go on giving $100 into eternity.  This seems like a great thing and, in fact, is the reason individual giving is such an important source of funds to organizations: while foundations often won’t continue their support unless you do something new and different for every grant, most individuals will just keep on giving unless you affirmatively offend them.

But what you’re saying is that the request for elevated support is just such an affirmative offense.

The problem is that the cost of everything continues to go up, and unless the monetary inflow goes up at the same time the agencies you support will find themselves seriously behind the 8-ball.   Perhaps the agencies requesting your increased support would do better if they reminded you of that—”We haven’t been able to give our actors a raise for five years while their rents and grocery bills just keep on rising”—rather than beginning with a flat-out demand that you do more.

The Nonprofiteer prefers to err on the side of thinking that’s what they meant, anyway, and that the only thing they can be reproached with is their effort to raise money based on need instead of on opportunity.    Most prospective donors, whether offended by an appeal or not, give money to agencies because of what they’re going to do and not because of how much they need.  That, most probably, is the source of your feeling offended by the approach: that what you want to hear is how great they are and how much they can do with your help, not how needy they are and that they’re so desperate for your support as to reach their hands directly into your pocket.

The question of what gets said to people who are getting fundraising letters over your signature—or at least under your aegis—is a separate one.  You are utterly within your rights as a Board member to say “I’m happy to solicit my friends but I won’t send out a letter telling them how much to give,” so that the staff can prepare your letters without the offending terminology.  Those letters are from you, and therefore should represent your own approach to the people you’re soliciting, whether that’s “This group is in desperate need” or “This is the only group I’m supporting this year because of the fabulous new program they’ve launched.”

In other words, it’s one thing to shake off what you consider a slight directed at you, and another to permit the agency to direct that slight at your friends.   In that spirit, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to notify the agencies whose appeals have troubled you that you wouldn’t ask your friends for money with that inflection and that they might consider not asking their friends for money that way, either.

But consider this.  The Nonprofiteer remembers being unable to ask how much something cost in Paris because the straightforward “Combien?” seemed so abrupt and rude but she lacked the syntax skills to soften it, not to mention the language facility to know what phraseology would constitute appropriate softening.  People who ask for money and people who get asked are speaking different languages.  Those doing the asking never mean to be rude—they just lack the skills to determine what constitutes being polite.  Perhaps if you consider the transaction from that perspective you’ll be less annoyed.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Who are they to tell me what to give?

February 6, 2012

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