Archive for the ‘Charity scandals’ Category

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

February 4, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Neighborhood Watch,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Nonprofiteer, Why do nonprofits ask for the moon?

March 23, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am a nonprofit professional “in transition” otherwise known as job hunting.  In the course of my job search I have come across two  job postings that have left me incredulous and I was curious as to your opinion.
  1. An executive director position listed for $32K/year. Granted this was described as a half time gig but is there any such thing as a half time ED? Maybe it means you can take weekends off. The job description/requirements were just as detailed as any full time description.
  2. A director of development position for $20-25K.   Again this is listed as 3/4 time. It comes with a very detailed laundry list of expectations but again is this really a job that can be done well with less than full attention?

Something seems really off here. My gut (and review of their 990’s) tells me that these are marginal organizations to be avoided.  Do I seem unrealistically fussy in today’s job market?

Signed, Born At Night But Not Last Night

Dear Born:

You are not unrealistically fussy, especially when “today’s job market” in the nonprofit sector seems to include a number of jobs that are going begging for want of the right candidate.  And you’ve put your finger on why that should be the case: because the job descriptions (and presumably the jobs that accompany them) are a pile of unrealistic expectations held together with the glue of employer entitlement.  This glue is particularly thick in the nonprofit sector, where hiring managers presume that their poverty entitles them to your services for less than they’re worth.  But, as the workplace sign has it, Bad planning on your part doesn’t necessarily constitute an emergency on my part.

And you’ve identified a favorite gambit of those self-entitled managers/agencies: pretending that a full-time job can be done part-time because they know the proposed salary is an insult.  (For what it’s worth, the Nonprofiteer was paid $25K as an Executive Director of a small organization in 1987; if salaries haven’t increased 20% in the past 25 years, they should have!)  As you say, it is virtually impossible for anyone to be a part-time Executive Director, and the length of the list of responsibilities demonstrates that the agency knows this as well as you do.  You could do it simply by specifying the number of hours you’re prepared to work (e.g., 30), but sure as death and taxes would come a grant application deadline which must be met, and your self-imposed part-time-ness (part-time-itude?) would go out the window.

The Nonprofiteer just had occasion to help a client work on a job description for a part-time professional position. The original description had two problems.  First, it specified more than 40 hours’ worth of work for a 20-hour position.  Second, its qualifications included both items that couldn’t be expected from someone willing to work part-time for $20 an hour (such as a roster of contacts in high-profile media) and items that shouldn’t be expected from a professional (such as facility with word processing programs).  If you’re hiring a professional, don’t ask for secretarial skills.  And if you’re hiring a professional, be reasonable about how much professional service you can get for $20 an hour and/or 20 hours per week.

By contrast, another client has recently shifted its budgeting from “How much can we spend based on how much we raised last year?” to “How much do we need to raise to support what we need to do?”  Moreover, one of the things the agency realized it needed to do was steadily increase the salary of the Executive Director so that when the current martyr departs, the group will be in a position to offer a living wage to the next group of candidates.

(Consider, by the way, that the people offering such meager salaries are Board members who probably chafe at being asked to give $1000 a year.  They don’t hesitate, though, to ask you to forego $25,000 or so of income.  This is why the Nonprofiteer doesn’t advocate asking staff members to donate to their agencies: they’re already doing so at a level no other donor is likely to match.)

(Consider also that the sums offered make clear that the agencies are expecting women, and only women, to apply for these jobs.  No one would dare offer such a pittance to a man.  The nonprofit sector operated for years on the unwaged labor of women, but there’s no reason we have to continue to provide this subsidy.)

Thus, your incredulity at the nerve of some agencies is perfectly well-founded.  That won’t help you get a job with them: but hey, why would you want to?  You’re a star, and you’ll find a place that won’t also ask for the moon.*


“Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”–Bette Davis to Paul Henreid, Now Voyager

Give the people at Komen a piece of your mind . . .

February 2, 2012

as they seem to have lost their own.  Komen’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood at the behest of an anti-choice Board member reminds us how ready the right wing is to sacrifice women’s health for political gain.

There’s a petition to sign if you want to want to make your voice heard.  If you’ve been a Komen supporter and you now de-fund the organization, your voice will be heard even louder.

No good deed goes unpunished

November 22, 2011

Now here’s something that breaks the Nonprofiteer’s heart: the MacArthur Foundation is making grants to a dozen libraries and museums nationwide to establish youth computer learning centers modeled on YOUMedia, the Chicago Public Library’s innovative youth learning project.

Why does such good news evoke such profound sorrow?  Because the Nonprofiteer can remember when the notion was that the philanthropic sector would serve as a laboratory, trying out new approaches to solving social problems and then passing along the ones that worked to be funded by the government.  What we have here, however, is a model already vetted in the public sector whose future sustenance apparently will have to come from private charity.

This role-reversal is particularly galling here in Chicago, where the reward for the library’s pioneering work has been a substantial chop in the city’s library budget.

It’s hard to read a computer screen, or learn anything, when the world is upside-down.

At long last coverage

November 10, 2011

It will be interesting to see how things develop at the Washington Post’s new On Giving section.  Self-described as a “conversation about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship,” it at least aspires to talk about the nonprofit sector in more depth than the conventional scandal-or-gala approach.  (The Nonprofiteer has long complained about the mainstream media’s coverage of the sector, which manages to be both narrow and shallow; in fact, those shortcomings account for the launching of this blog.)

But is a focus on mammoth gifts and efforts to up-end the nonprofit model really any better?  Maybe those are the dog-bites-man stories.  Maybe the day-to-day struggles of the majority of good-deed-doing agencies simply don’t lend themselves to the conventions of daily journalism—but the Nonprofiteer would give a lot to see someone try to find out.

By any other name . . .

November 4, 2011

The Nonprofiteer has never had much time for people who want to change the name of the sector to something non-“non”—something more positive, like “Civil Society Organization,” or less meaningful, like “independent.”  But this article about the connection between Herman Cain’s campaign and a Tea Party front group funded by the Koch Brothers has her rethinking her position.  Under the headline “Cain to Review Links to a Nonprofit” we learn that

An outside lawyer will review allegations that Herman Cain’s presidential campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars in goods and services from a tax-exempt organization founded by his chief of staff . . .

The front group, “Americans for Prosperity,” is a Wisconsin nonprofit granted at least preliminary 501c3 recognition by the IRS.  And if it were actually nothing more than a group of citizens banded together to advocate for policies they believe will lead to prosperity, there would be nothing wrong with that.  But if instead it’s just a mouthpiece for the Koch brothers—an Astroturf, rather than a grassroots, organization—then there is something wrong.

The IRS requires 501c3s to raise a third of their money from the public precisely to prevent the creation of captive organizations of this kind.   Use of a tax-exempt entity to promote the interests of a single individual or family is a violation of Federal tax law.  Moreover, if the nonprofit paid some of the Cain campaign’s expenses, that’s a violation of Federal election law—perhaps one of the few activities left that is.

The Cain campaign may collapse under the weight of far more interesting allegations (sex beats money every time); but if in fact this nonprofit was nothing more than a campaign slush fund, its existence represents a taint on the “nonprofit” label.  What a shame that “handmaiden to profit and to policies assuring that the profitable get more so and the rest of us get squat” is so unwieldy.

Maybe a new name for the sector wouldn’t come amiss; but let’s be realistic.  The Iron Law of Euphemisms means that whatever name is adopted instead will soon become an epithet itself.  This explains the “progress” in designating African-Americans, from “n****r” to “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “Black” to “people of color”: as long as people using the term hate the people they’re describing, the term will be infected with their hatred and soon need to be abandoned.

And as long as the wealthiest people using the term “nonprofit” are determined to distort the form to support the worst excesses of the profit-driven world, it hardly matters what the rest of us call it.

Tom Sawyer was wrong

June 2, 2011

This branch of Habitat for Humanity has chosen to charge volunteers for the privilege of helping out.

When the Nonprofiteer pointed out that volunteers give more readily to the agencies they serve than non-volunteers, she wasn’t advocating admission fees.   Volunteers may have paid to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence, but Twain’s point was that they were stupid.  Your volunteers aren’t.

Even if mandatory “contributions” (oxymoron watch!) weren’t offensive in suggesting that volunteers’ time has less than no value, they’re practically the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish: people will pay what you require (or not) and then regard their giving to the agency as being done for the year.

Or forever.  Please stop this idea before it kills again.

Dear Nonprofiteer, For whose benefit, exactly?

February 9, 2011

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I have an ethical dilemma that I need help sorting out. I’m really bothered by this and I want to know 1. if I am seeing this from the wrong perspective and 2. what you would advise doing.

I am a wardrobe stylist and I make custom dress shirts & suits. Fairly often, when approached, I donate gift certificates for custom shirts to silent auctions, which raise a nice amount of money for fund-raising organizations.

Here is the issue: In the Fall of 2009, I donated a gift certificate to a well-known organization that runs after-school and extra-curricular programs for children. I was told that the gift certificate was for the silent auction that coincided with an annual fund-raising event. Obviously, I was told proceeds from this event & auction would go to support the local children’s organization.

Last week, I got a call from the former President of the Board of Directors of this organization. He was really excited to finally have his custom shirts made. The organization had given a gift certificate to him while he was on the board, as a thank you gift for his service.

I was a little fuzzy on the gift certificate details, had completely forgotten that I had donated a certificate to the auction, and couldn’t remember anyone buying a gift certificate as a gift…but went the next day to fit him and thought it would all be clear once I saw the certificate.

I only realized at the end of the 60 minute appointment that HIS gift certificate was the one I had DONATED to raise money for THE KIDS and the facility. It apparently was not auctioned off at all, but was given to a Board member as a gift! (Now, it might not have had any bidders in the auction, but this is sort of unlikely, has never happened yet.)

So now I am out-of-pocket, a lot, for a board member’s gift, as opposed to the organization buying something for him (which is tax-deductible for them!) This is a $700 retail value gift. I feel deceived—this money was for kids, not the board president.

Thoughts? Advice? I’ve heard both sides. Someone from non-profit told me I was stuck, that it was perfectly legal & someone else said that I am not accountable to fulfill this certificate.

I would really appreciate your experience/thoughts on this matter.

Signed, Tailor-Made

Dear Tailor:

1) You are not seeing this from the wrong perspective.
2) But it’s hard to know what to do.

There’s no question about it: if you donated a gift certificate to be auctioned off for the benefit of the agency, you wuz robbed if instead it was used instead as a personal gift to an agency Board member. Nonprofit Board members aren’t supposed to be compensated for their services, though they may be recognized: I would argue that a $700 gift starts to sound more like the former than the latter. (I’m presuming the agency knows the value of the certificate.)

You’re not actually stuck: no one can make you make these shirts, and neither agency nor Board member would be likely to sue you to secure them (or equivalent reimbursement). But you have a business reputation to protect, and so the question is which will cost the least to you: telling the Board member you can’t honor the certificate because it’s not being redeemed according to its terms, or telling the agency you want to be reimbursed for their misuse of your gift.

It’s a matter of strategy: if the Board member is likely to become a regular customer, you’d rather not piss him off by refusing to honor the certificate. (Obviously you can only guess about that, but you’re a savvy person: your guess is probably correct.) If you’re likely never to see him again, then say you CAN’T (not you won’t) honor the certificate because its terms called for it to be auctioned, not given away. If he protests that no such “terms” appear on the face of the certificate, explain that those were your arrangements with the agency, and advise him to return to the agency and explain that its gift is unredeemable. You can say or merely imply that what the agency did was exactly like passing counterfeit money: giving him something valueless while pretending it was valuable. Smile when you say all this, but say it and repeat it as often as necessary to get the guy out of your shop.

If, however, he’s a likely future customer, then your only choice is to go to the agency and tell them what you’ve told the Nonprofiteer: that you were told the certificate was to be auctioned off for the benefit of the agency and it wasn’t; that you were willing to donate to the agency but not to its individual Board members; and that you’d like to be reimbursed for the $700 value of your misused gift. If you want to sound lawyerly (which is all the Nonprofiteer got out of her three years in law school), say that you won’t take the $700 out of the hide of the Board member because he’s an innocent “holder in due course,” that is, someone who was given something worthless while believing in good faith that it had worth. Do all this in person with the Executive Director, and then (unless s/he hands you $700 on the spot) reiterate it in a letter to the entire Board.

Getting the $700 out of the agency won’t be easy: they know you’re as unlikely to sue them as they are to sue you. But if they fail to cooperate, do two things: include in the aforementioned letter a statement that you will never donate goods, services or money to the agency again; and include an express or implied intention to make the agency’s misdeed public. You can say, “and I intend to post this on my Facebook page,” or “and I intend to tell alll my business colleagues to do likewise [withhold support] or “I intend to mention this to my friend the New York Times reporter;” or you can simply say, “I know the agency’s reputation for uprightness and am sure you would not wish to have it stained by any accidental misuse of a donation,” and let them infer that the stain on its reputation will come from you.

If the agency offers you refund of half the price or more, take it and walk away. If not, make the shirts for the Board member and do them so brilliantly that he’ll be on your doorstep demanding more–for which you can overcharge him with a clear conscience.

What a shame you’ve had this experience–it seems to validate the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But plenty of other charities will use your gift correctly, so please try not to be embittered.

Dear Nonprofiteer, There’s trouble in the pulpit: Can I get a witness?

December 20, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m dealing with a non-profit corporation, a church as a matter of fact, that is for all practical purposes a for-profit business masquerading as a non-profit.  The board is not independent—it is made up of the leader, her family and various of her hangers-on.

It would be easy to just walk away from this situation—it is so tempting!  However, taking the easy way out to let the organization fail on its own isn’t necessarily the way to minimize the harm the organization will likely do along the way while doing this masquerade.

Do you know of any tests that can be applied to non-profits, especially churches, that can expose cases where they are for-profits masquerading as non-profits?  If you have any other advice or guidance I would be glad to receive it.

Signed, Clean and Pure

Dear Clean and Pure,

There are all sorts of phony nonprofits.  There are “Astroturf” nonprofits, subsidiaries of for-profit corporations purporting to be grassroots efforts to educate the public on issues of financial import to the corporations.  There are what I’d call “lunch bucket” nonprofits, which exist to accept Congressional earmarks whose benefits actually flow primarily to for-profits.  And then there are flat-out scam nonprofits, which exist to provide tax-shielded income to their founders rather than the public benefit for which the tax shield is a quid pro quo.

The good news is, the IRS discourages out-and-out scams by requiring 501c3 groups to raise one-third of their income from public donations.  Though it seems peculiar on the face of it to identify charities by their income rather than their outflow, the theory seems to be that raising money is such hard work, no one would be willing to do it just for the purpose of stealing.  It’s easier to sell something, anything, and then steal from the earned revenue.  So that’s one of the many reasons that agencies which support themselves entirely by earned revenue are presumptively for-profits (and therefore taxpayers).

State Attorneys General also keep track of the scams, requiring agencies to specify a public or charitable purpose (which is sometimes broader than the IRS’s definition of a nonprofit, sometimes narrower) in order to qualify for tax-favored treatment.  (At the state level, this includes exemption from property and sales taxes, among others.)

There are hard and fast IRS rules about when a presumably public charity needs to be re-classified as a private foundation, but that represents a decision about which kind of nonprofit we’re dealing with, not the “phony nonprofit” scenario you’ve described.  Further details about those decisions and other IRS rules of thumb are available on the very clear and comprehensive IRS Website (no, really!) on the subject.  The decisions and guidelines often refer to  something soporific like “reclassification of exempt organizations,” but they are full of traps for the unwary nonprofit as well as disincentives for the dishonest one.

The bad news is, neither Federal nor state regulations are very often enforced against churches.  The First Amendment protects free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from becoming “excessively entangled” with religious organizations.  “Excessive entanglement,” according to the courts, includes most tax regulation, for if the government has the power to insist on an audit, what faith institution would be safe from government oppression?

This is all very well, except for situations like the one you’ve described.  Occasionally someone will petition the state Attorney General or the IRS to reclassify a “church” as a non-church to capture the kind of self-dealing you’re talking about.  But that would be very occasionally, which is why Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their ilk have managed to get so wealthy under cover of the cloth before crashing and burning for more venial (but juicier) sins.

The only thing you can do to keep yourself clean is to walk away.  If you’d like to notify your state’s Attorney General and/or Secretary of State that you believe this agency is not actually a church, you may do so.  But bear in mind that the burden of proof will be on you, and the mere fact that the pastor and her brood and buddies govern without membership input and  seem to be well-paid will not be enough.  Many churches are governed without membership input except in an advisory capacity (consider parishes of the Catholic Church, or affiliated congregations of the Lutheran Church, in which the diocese or the synod rules and the congregation obeys).  And many ministries are a family business: think Billy Graham and his son.

So though the Nonprofiteer wrinkles her nose in distaste at the situation you’re describing, she thinks you have no recourse but to walk away.  If you’re right, and the agency will crash and burn without your intervention, so much the better.  This would demonstrate the wisdom of the Bible saying, “All things come to him who wait.”


What a difference a syllable makes

November 19, 2010

More about the troubles of the do-well-by-doing-good gang, this time in the financial services sector.

Which raises the question: when does “profiting” turn into “profiteering”?