Posts Tagged ‘Management Advice Day tip’

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.

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!

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, If I’m not supposed to know about it, how can I complain about it?

October 29, 2012
Dear Nonprofiteer:My wife is the development director for a nonprofit animal welfare organization. I am a dues-paying member of the group, which entitles me to a vote, and to have input at group meetings.

Is it improper for me to express my concern to the board members about policies and practices I have a problem with? My wife has asked me not to, and I understand why.

Last year, I was chairman of the group’s nominations committee. We were charged with recruiting and vetting potential candidates for our board of directors. The application process involved assessing the candidate’s background, skills, network and, not to put too fine a point on it, access to people with deep pockets. This year, the chair of the board made a decision on her own to revise the board member application so that it more closely resembled the application our prospective volunteers fill out. I also have a problem with the fact that all the nomination committee members this year are also board members. I’m not saying that our present board is completely dysfunctional, but even so, I would think that if even if a partially dysfunctional board is picking out its own replacements, that’s like perpetuating the problem.

There are other problems I have with the group, but those two are ones I feel strongly about. The problem is that I wouldn’t know this information except through my wife, because board meetings are not open to the general membership. Even employees aren’t allowed to attend unless they are invited or ask for (and are granted) a spot on the agenda. That’s another thing I have a problem with.

What is my recourse?

Signed, On the Outside Looking In
Dear Outside:
The real question is, what recourse do members have when the Board of Directors is leading the organization in a manner unsatisfactory to its members?  And that in turn is dependent on the group’s bylaws.  From what you’ve reported, the Nonprofiteer gathers that the organization is Board-governed rather than member-governed, meaning that members have very little power.  You say you have “a vote . . . and input at group meetings;” but it seems that votes at group meetings aren’t binding on the Board of Directors, which holds the real power.
But even if the group can overrule the Board of Directors, you’re only one member of the group.  Your “recourse,” such as it is, is to persuade your fellow members that something is rotten on the Board, and secure a group resolution (binding or not) proposing that the Board Nominating Committee include members who are not on the Board and/or that the Board members’ job description be revised to emphasize the need to give and raise funds.
But you say you wouldn’t know about the membership of the Board Nominating Committee, or the revision of the Board members’ job description, except through your wife.  That strikes the Nonprofiteer as bizarre: neither of these things can be considered confidential.  So you’re well within your rights, as a member of the group, to say to other group members, “We don’t even know who’s on the Nominating Committee, or what they’re looking for—how come?” and to petition the Board to release this information.  That way you’re asking a question that any group member would ask—“Who’s being recruited to the Board, to do what, and by whom?”—and not breaching the confidentiality of Board-meeting conversation.
On your general point: most nonprofit Boards are self-renewing, recruiting new members through a committee of old members.  It’s a best practice to have the Nominating Committee chaired by someone who’s leaving the Board rather than someone who’s staying on it, and it’s probably also a good idea to have the Nominating Committee include representation of the organization’s various constituencies (including, in your case, the group); but there’s nothing suspicious or untoward about an all-Board Board Nominating Committee.
In sum: don’t express your opinions to Board members, particularly concerning things you’re not supposed to know.  DO express your opinions to fellow group members, and if you’d like to know who’s on the Board Nominating Committee and what they’re looking for, secure a group resolution to that effect and have it presented to the Board as an inquiry by the collective.
In other words: don’t embarrass your wife.  Her income is at stake.

Dear Nonprofiteer, What’s this “shared sacrifice” I keep hearing about?

July 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

My mom works for a small nonprofit that recently went through financial hardship.  The organization did everything in its power to keep afloat, including (unfortunately) firing employees and cutting pay, hours, and health benefits for the people remaining. And it has bounced back, for the most part.

Recently managers have given themselves raises based on their own research about pay scales elsewhere. First, is this a conflict of interest? Does it seem unethical to give yourself a raise based on your own research while other employees are not given one at all?

My mom works in the accounting department and has been there for over 10 years. While the company wasn’t doing well she accepted all the cuts while taking on the work load of the people who were let go. Since then, other employees have been given raises, and now make nearly double what she does. She was even promised a pay increase for obtaining her BA in Accounting but it was never delivered.

She has brought these issues up but nothing has been done for her. She’s a dedicated worker, going out of her way to take on more work and more education for nothing more than the occasional cost-of-living increase.

Does this happen often? Is it common to see managers in non-profits overcompensate themselves even though it was their poor decisions that almost caused the organization to go under? Does it seem wrong that the employees who fought to keep it afloat have not been given the same percentage increase?

Have you come across any literature or articles on the subject?   I feel terrible for my mom because I know her work ethic and her commitment to the good the organization does for the community.  She deserves to be paid more than an entry-level accountant and her employer should have recognized that long ago.

Signed, Daughter in High Dudgeon

Dear Daughter:

You’ve asked two separate questions, really: first, is this ethical behavior?  Second, is it common behavior?  The first question is easier than the second.

Of course it’s not ethical for leaders to provide themselves with raises before restoring their subordinates to their pre-emergency level of compensation.  Employees who are considered essential enough to be retained during times of crisis, albeit at reduced pay and benefits, must be considered essential enough to be rewarded once the crisis is through.

However, many managers (and the Boards of Directors to whom they report) assume that employees are working there for the love of the agency and/or that any monkey could do the job those employees are being underpaid to do.  This is the proverbial Catch-22: we pay you so little, you and your work must be worthless; since you’re worthless, why should we pay you any more?

The only way to respond to this is to document how people who do the same job are paid elsewhere.  Your mother should use her financial skills to find out what BA accountants with similar responsibilities are paid at similar-sized agencies in your city or county.  Then she should take this documentation to the Executive Director with a specific demand for an increase in pay and benefits to at least parity with her professional peers.  It’s always harder for an ED to refuse a raise based on outside comparables, whereas if your mother tries to compare herself with people in her own agency the ED can always checkmate her with, “Well, but Ellen works three extra nights a week,” or, “But Josephine has been here since 15 minutes before you arrived.”

The other advantage of seeking outside comparables is that it will give your mother a sense of the job market.  It’s hard to think of moving elsewhere after years of loyal service, especially while feeling committed to the agency’s mission and clients.  But that’s no reason to be treated like a slave.  (And salaries from other agencies may include ones paid to men.   No one ever believes that women are paid less than men for the same work until they encounter the cold hard facts for themselves.)

Notice that the major fault is the agency’s unwillingness to restore your mother’s salary now that there’s money available again.  The fact that managers documented the market for their services, and then rewarded themselves based on that documentation, is more an apparent conflict of interest than an actual one.  If everyone does his/her job it doesn’t really signify who did the research about comparable compensation: only the Board of Directors can give the Executive Director a raise, and the Board is designed to be independent of the ED.

But perhaps the Board isn’t actually independent, which leads to the question about whether your mother’s situation is a common one. It’s very common in nonprofit organizations for the Board of Directors to be utterly in the Executive Director’s thrall and prepared to do as s/he says without any independent evaluation whatsoever. This is partly because many nonprofits are still run by their founders, to whom every Board member is personally loyal, and partly because Executive Directors manage their agencies full time while Board members govern them only part time.

So if the Executive Director of a small nonprofit wants to skim off a raise for him/herself while withholding money from his/her subordinates, it’s easier for him/her to do so than it would be in a larger nonprofit with a professional human resources department, or in a regular business.  (The Nonprofiteer herself once succeeded an ED who had helped herself to a raise: knowing that the Board Treasurer signed checks without paying attention to the amount, s/he simply took advantage of that fact.)

But however easy, or common because easy, such practices may be, they are unethical.  If your mother can’t get the raise she deserves by offering honest comparables to her boss, she should find a new job and, on the way out the door, send a letter to the Board president and treasurer (or the whole Board) denouncing the ED’s shoddy financial practices.  It won’t get Mom the raise she hungers for but she will get to enjoy the dish best served cold: revenge.

Dear Nonprofiteer, If I want higher wages will you tell me what to do?*

April 17, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I work at a major environmental NGO.   I am well compensated, but I can’t help but think my colleagues and others in the sector (I did not always used to be so well compensated) would benefit from Unionization.

What unions exist for non-profit employees? How could we make more?

Signed, In Solidarity

Dear Solidarity:

It does you credit that you remain concerned about the poorly-paid even after you’ve left their number.  But the question you raise can only be answered with a frustrating, “It depends.”

Individual circumstances dictate whether any particular nonprofit would benefit from a union.  Certainly nonprofit employees are a resource for unions looking to grow—our institutions are rooted in the community and therefore unlikely to pick up and move to Dixie (or China) when the union comes to call.  But whether unions are a resource for nonprofit employees looking to grow is a separate question.

If the morale at an agency is poor, and a significant component of that morale is poor wages, hours, benefits and working conditions, then talking union only makes sense.  But if morale is poor because the Executive Director is a dingbat, then unionizing is pretty much beside the point.  And if morale at an agency is high, then there’s unlikely to be much support for the idea of bringing in a third party to mediate between the working and the worked-for—particularly as the organizing process can be so disruptive and embittering.  That’s not a rap on the unions: you’re going to have disruption in any context requiring the taking of sides, whether the subject is program expansion or relocation or mission creep—or union representation.

The issue is certainly not that there aren’t enough unions organizing in the sector, though they may not be organizing enough.  The Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees and even the Teamsters have taken their turns organizing nonprofits, often following jobs government agencies have chosen to outsource.  (See the Nonprofiteer’s earlier discussion of the “progress” from government employees [unionized] to nonprofit employees [non-union, at least at first] to faith-based employees [presumably too holy to strike].)  So we don’t need to “make more” unions; we need to encourage more nonprofits to adopt either significant improvements to compensation, benefits and work rules or a relationship with a union designed to provide those significant improvements.

If you can get from a nonprofit Board of Directors the improvement in wages and working conditions you want, there’s no need to go union.  But those Boards of Directors are apt to be resistant to your demands, because they regard it as their fiduciary duty to direct money to programs rather than to the salaries of the people who run those programs.  (If this strikes you as a distinction without a difference, you’re completely correct—but you’re also obviously unfamiliar with the rhetoric of charities and their funders.)  Or they might resist your demands just because they’re lazy and don’t want to raise money.

In either case of resistance, having a union organizer in your back pocket (or at least on speed dial) may be what’s necessary to get the Board’s genuine attention.  Just as the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully, so the prospect of being unionized concentrates the minds of charity Boards.

(A rigorous research paper on the subject reported that nonprofit organizing drives succeed more often than those at for-profits.  But does that mean that nonprofit employees’ sense of social justice makes them/us more receptive to unions, or just that unions don’t bother to organize at nonprofits til they can see it’s going to be a slam-dunk?)

The Nonprofiteer always snorts when she hears employers talk about how it would be a shame to insert a stranger between them and their employees, who are just like family.  Especially at nonprofits, if a workplace is like a family, it’s generally like the family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  But small and medium-sized nonprofits do have a uniquely porous relationship between management and labor, as well as between management and governance; and a union, or even a failed organizing drive, will disrupt that once and for all.

Thus, unions make the most sense at the largest nonprofits (the hospitals and universities), which are practically indistinguishable from for-profits.  At smaller agencies they may make sense, but only if employees are already up in arms, and only if there’s blood left in the turnip.

Oh, and only if fresh employees will be hard to find.  It’s illegal to fire someone for union organizing but you can be made uncomfortable enough to quit, and that may be a higher price than you’re willing to pay to make sure your fellows can send their children to college.  Or perhaps not.

Solidarity forever!

———————

See Talkin’ Union

Dear Nonprofiteer, Why didn’t I stay a volunteer?

February 22, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I need some advice.   I have been a paid employee of a non-profit for the last eight months. Before this I was an unpaid volunteer for several years. There are three of us in the office—the ED, the founder, and myself.

The Executive Director

For the last eight months I have been doing most of her job, and my own. As a result I am easily working sixty or more hours each week. Attempts to change this environment have been met with hostility. Despite repeated requests I still have no job description. My working relationship with the ED is close to breaking point. Simply put, I do not want to go into work tomorrow. I have my concerns about her integrity. At the start of the month I was told we were 20K above budget. Last week I overheard her tell the founder we were 40k under budget. I have no proof of mis-, mal- or nonfeasance, and to find that information would be extremely difficult. I would like to prepare a fact laden letter to the Board, but have very little proof.

The Board

I believe the Board has lost confidence in her ability. Their relationship with her appears strained. I also believe they have lost focus on what is best for the organization. A majority of the board are employees or board members of another organization, a non-profit in the same field. We take on the debt. They profit. The cynic in me wonders if there is an element of tax avoidance occurring. Despite repeated requests I am not shown Board minutes. There are open spaces on the Board, but only people friendly to this other organization are accepted. I have nominated two extremely qualified candidates to open positions. Emails inviting them to meetings have been “lost”.

The Numbers

We are a forty year old 501c3. There are three full time employees. During our busy periods we employ around 100 seasonal workers. Our turnover is approximately 300k a year. We provide a service to approximately 1400 children, teenagers and adults. We are four weeks away from the busiest time of our year.

The mission of the non-profit is very important to me. I want to do whatever is best for the long term health of the organization.

I have considered handing in my notice and writing an open letter to the Board explaining my decision. I love this organization though and don’t want to leave it. I have also considered raising my concerns with the state AG, but fear that could spell the end of the organization. Unfortunately I do not have the ear of anyone on the Board that I can speak to in confidence about this.

I am really torn as to what to do. Please advise.  Signed,

Concerned in Carolina

Dear Concerned,

You’ve laid out the central aspects of the situation very clearly: the organization has trouble in the staff, trouble on the Board, and at least the potential for trouble in its finances, which will make it difficult to continue serving this large number of clients and paying this large number of seasonal workers.  As you describe your own position, you are essentially powerless: the Executive Director doesn’t listen to you, the Board is unaware of your concerns, and you don’t want to damage an institution that you care about by involving the authorities.

But that leaves the Nonprofiteer with a question: what, exactly, do you love about an institution with an inept and/or dishonest Executive Director and a Board whose independence may be compromised by its relationship with another organization?  If what you mean is that you love the group’s mission, that’s all very well; but that’s like the Nonprofiteer’s saying she would love her boyfriend if only he were 6’10.”  This is a phenomenon therapists refer to as, “It would be so great, if only it were different.”  It’s not different, and if you have no power to make it so, your only realistic choice is to find another agency to work for: one whose mission you can believe in AND whose governance and management support that mission.

You are best off to find that organization and secure that new job before you leave this one, and certainly before you write any kind of letter to anyone about what you believe and suspect is going on.

It’s rarely worthwhile to burn bridges with that kind of valedictory note—all you get is a reputation as an arsonist, while the people on the other side of the river continue to do what they’ve been doing all along.  But if you feel you need to, you must do some more research to confirm or refute your suspicions.  The Nonprofiteer doesn’t quite grasp the relationship between your agency and the other one for which you think it may serve as a form of tax dodge, so she can’t suggest exactly what you need to find out.  But it would have to be something as clear as your Board members’ being paid by the other organization, which then reduces its own account of taxable profit, for it to be worth taking to the state’s Attorney General.  The very “mis-, mal- or nonfeasance” for which you don’t have evidence is what would be required to cause the authorities to step in.

If you feel you must speak up but don’t have this level of proof, simply write a post-resignation letter to the Board president (with copies to the rest of the Board) laying out only those facts of which you’re certain: that the Executive Director is in the office only 3 hours a week, that she’s using members of the staff to run her personal errands, or whatever the case may be.  If the Board is compromised, though, this won’t make any difference; and if the Board is honest and diligent, it will discover all this about the Executive Director as soon as you leave, because there will be no one available to cover for her by doing all her work.

The Nonprofiteer’s best advice: find a new job, send a one-sentence letter of resignation to the Executive Director, and write an intemperate five-page screed blasting the entire agency, which screed you will then put in your desk drawer or the fireplace.  You’ll have the release of having said everything that needs saying without putting yourself at risk—one of life’s rarest pleasures!

Write again so we know what you do and how it goes.

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.

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