Posts Tagged ‘arts groups’

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

December 25, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happily No Longer Hanging

Dear Happily:

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

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

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

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


Staying out of jail and up to technological speed while running a nonprofit

December 21, 2011

Some days the Nonprofiteer is happy to serve just as a pass-through for the good work other people are doing. This is one of those days.

On January 11, look out for the publication of Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, Lesley Rosenthal’s guide to every possible legal issue in nonprofits. (The Nonprofiteer urged Lesley, who is Lincoln Center’s general counsel, to call the book “How to stay out of jail while running a nonprofit,” but for some reason she demurred!) Having had a chance to review the book in manuscript, the Nonprofiteer is happy to give Good Counsel her strongest possible endorsement, and not only—not even primarily—for big agencies with their own general counsels.  The lawyers on your Board who are forever being expected to know everything legal that might affect your agency (and who are secretly wetting their pants from anxiety because they don’t actually know all those things) will be particularly grateful for this brief, well-written and comprehensive guide to, well, staying out of jail. And—how moderne!–it’s also available for Kindle and I-Pad.  Publisher John Wiley & Sons/Lincoln Center.

And, in other useful news, announces that it’s prepared once again to provide free Web development services to nonprofits which can match Elevation Web’s contribution.  Last year this “socially conscious Web design and media company” donated $400K in services to 95-plus nonprofits.  So if you (like most of the Nonprofiteer’s clients) think that upgrading your Website and making it easier to use (i.e. donate from) is of critical importance in the coming year, check out the group and complete the application at

Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I face the music, or dance?

December 16, 2011

Dear Nonprofiteer,

If you could stand one more letter asking about Boards of non-profit arts organizations — or even point me in the right direction — I’d be very grateful!  I’ve been the school director for a small non-profit music organization for several months. The organization has two parts — there are performance choirs and then there’s the school.

But maybe it would be more accurate to say that there are two organizations, because I’ve been told that the school is “technically” for profit, meaning that only the performance choirs can receive grant money.  I’m not sure why, or even if, this is so, though I understand that we make more money charging for music lessons than we do sending out the performance choirs, whose members are paid a pittance that nonetheless exceeds the amount companies and civic organizations are willing to pay for being entertained by them.

The main problem: the performance-choir conductor is also Artistic Director of the entire organization, AND is Chair of the Board of Directors.  He is paid $20,000 a year for what’s supposed to be a 12-hour-a-week job, but in fact he doesn’t work nearly that much.  He lives a couple of hours away, so he only comes in once a week to rehearse, and not even that during the summer (or the Christmas holidays, or the Easter holidays, or St. Swithens’ Day!).  And whenever he can he schedules performances near his home rather than near the school, which means we’re not really serving our community.

Meanwhile, I work full-time (theoretically 40 hours a week but actually closer to 90, what with teaching as well as administrative work).  This huge job pays me $34,000 with no benefits.  The Board sees itself as my “BOSS” and reminds me of that often. In addition to the Chair, the Board members are 1.) one of the school’s teachers, who’s also the Board treasurer; 2.) a member of one of the performance choirs who writes the grant applications; 3.) the mother of a former student, who is paid to be secretary; 4.) the mother of a current student, who is paid to be DIrector of Development; 5.) another one of our teachers; and 6.) a lawyer who takes voice lessons from the treasurer.  In other words, NOBODY is without connections to the school and thus a personal agenda.

The school went downhill financially during my predecessor’s tenure, to the point where we’ll probably have to give up half of our space.  But when I say I need help with fundraising, I get, “Sallie Jo managed it.”   I’m expected to do everything Sallie Jo did but with more “Board oversight,” which means micromanagement and no actual help.  That’s not their role, apparently—their role is being my superiors, scrutinizing me, complaining to each other about me, and occasionally sending me a condescending note giving me reprimands and further orders.

As a seasoned professional who is keeping the place together single-handedly, I consider these missives insulting at best. But there is no one I can appeal to. Do you have any suggestions? Advice? Articles you could point me to? (Templates of letters of resignation?)   I’m near the end of my rope.  Signed,

Hanging on By a Thread

Dear Hanging:

This is like one of those children’s puzzles, “Can you spot what’s wrong with this picture?”  There are so many things wrong that even the youngest child can detect some of the problems, while others are so subtle that older children will be challenged.  Or, in other words: what a mess!

Once you’ve said that the Artistic Director is the chair of the Board, you’ve already described an organization in trouble.  One function of an arts Board is, indeed, to support the vision of the Artistic Director, but the other is to counter-balance that vision with business acumen and an awareness of what a nonprofit arts organization owes the community.  Even if every single member of the Board weren’t compromised in the way you’ve described, the organization itself would be hopelessly compromised by having a single person leading both the Board and the staff.

If the Board were independent, the fact that you and the Artistic Director both report directly to it would provide a healthy balance: he would say “I want to do blah-blah-blah” and you would say “blah-blah-blah costs three times as much money as we’ve raised in any year in the history of the organization” and the Board would weigh these competing points of view and make a decision.  In those circumstances, it would be a good thing that the Board knows it’s your boss—that would mean the Board knew that you and the Artistic Director were co-equals reporting to a common authority rather than an inferior (you) reporting to a superior (him).

But with a Board that’s essentially an extension of the Artistic Director’s personality, you have the worst of both worlds: multiple superiors and no equal colleagues.  No wonder you’re feeling besieged and insulted: you were hired with the title of a director and the status of a secretary.

That’s what the salary situation means: they’ll pay you less than half (on a per-hour basis) of what the Artistic Director makes, because he has more than twice your power.  The fact that you’re also earning less than the singing lawyer’s administrative assistant is just icing on the cake.

And now we get into the subtle stuff: what, exactly, is this nonsense about the school’s being “technically” for profit?  It either is, or it isn’t; it either files a Form 990 informational return with the IRS, or pays taxes on its profits like any other business.  It’s hardly unusual for an arts organization to run a school whose earnings help sustain the actual performances: most likely that’s the real function of the School of the American Ballet.  It’s a prestige training program for the New York City Ballet, and as a result it’s also a cash cow for the company.  But the Nonprofiteer strongly doubts there’s any ambiguity in the status of either the ballet company or the school, whether they’re independent or intertwined.  All the hair goes up on the back of her neck when she hears the word “technically;” in the nonprofit sector it almost always means some corner is being cut that shouldn’t be.

So let’s review: you’re overworked and underpaid in an organization where your input is ignored but your grunt labor is expected and taken for granted.  This may also be an organization with a dodgy relationship to the laws of your state concerning nonprofits and community benefit, and the laws of the United States concerning nonprofits and taxation.  Given all this—surprise!  You’re having a terrible time.

The Nonprofiteer ran a small nonprofit herself—a choir, as it happens—back before the glaciers melted.  It was a complete debacle, though it did provide one of the world’s fastest educations in nonprofit management.  It took her nine months to realize that she was on a dead-end path, and to quit.  She urges you to be more expeditious.

It’s a terrible economy and no doubt you want to work in the music world that you love.  But you’d be better off working as a temp and looking for a job with a functional school or music group than staying where you are and having your spirit ground down by fighting against impossible odds.

The Nonprofiteer’s advice: give two weeks’ notice and start the New Year off fresh.  As for templates of resignation letters, the simplest are the best.  Justifiably angry as you are, don’t burn any bridges.  Just write, “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m sorry that I will be unable to continue as the director of [Name] School.  My last day will be [date].  Thank you for having given me the opportunity to work with you.  Sincerely, [you].”  If you just can’t stand the thought of writing something so polite, write a letter that expresses how you really feel—and then put it under the chestnuts and roast away.

Submit your letter today, and you’ll have yourself a merry little Christmas.  You deserve no less.

Why the public should fund the arts, after all

December 6, 2011

The Nonprofiteer had a fascinating conversation with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct the Nonprofiteer’s misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

The Nonprofiteer was particularly struck by that last point.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  The Nonprofiteer has been wrong in her blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because she thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but it will be a relief to her to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

She continues to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, the Nonprofiteer is grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to her.


*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

How not to handle succession in the arts

November 17, 2011

There could be worse ways to handle succession planning than the one chosen by the Miami City Ballet, but it would be hard to think of one. The Board of Directors, concerned that the ballet company would collapse when its famous artistic director Edward Villella retired, decided to test its own theory by forcing him out before he was ready to leave. Some Board members blame the outcome on Mr. Villella, who apparently refused to greet several of them at the company’s gala; but it’s hard to blame him when one of them called a meeting with him for the purpose of handing him a book on succession planning.

The Times article reaches for the classic suits-versus-artists narrative, saying that Villella’s ouster reflected the Board’s determination to place business stability above artistic product; but that’s unfair. The Board is responsible for the continued health of the company, and a failure to consider new leadership when the current leader is 75 would be a dereliction of duty. But what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

As Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre Board learned back in 2000, you don’t call in the company’s artistic engine and hand him his walking papers–or even the sort of broad hint contained in the gift of a book about succession planning. You’re talking to someone about his life’s work and his passion, and you can’t talk to him as if he were a CEO who had been recompensed all these years in cash and expected to be recompensed the same way in retirement. An artistic director who is compelled to retire–and yes, indeed, some of them need to be–has to be offered a form of compensation congruent with what he’s been receiving up until now, something involving artistic control–even if it’s only the control inherent in leading the search for his own successor.

And even if the artistic director’s retirement creates the opportunity for the Board to step into its proper role of leadership–say, supervising the managing director instead of having the artistic director do so–that’s an opportunity to be pursued once the new artistic director begins. From the Board’s standpoint, having the managing and artistic directors report co-equally is a way to lighten the artistic director’s load while assuring that the Board itself receives comprehensive information. But from the standpoint of the incumbent artistic director, it’s a slap in the face, and suggests that the Board wants to interpose a business person (and a businessperson’s veto) between the artist and his vision.

Of course the Board IS the boss of the company, including the artistic director. But the most effective bosses wear their power lightly, in cooperation rather than conflict with the artists they mean to be serving. By this measure, the Board of the Miami City Ballet just fell on its face.

A word to wise arts Boards everywhere.

Of water bills, credit unions and self-help

November 7, 2011

Alarms are sounding in the Nonprofiteer’s home town of Chicago today about the first budget proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which requires nonprofits to pay for water and sewer services they previously received free.  A sector-wide outcry produced one modification—a phasing-in of the charges over three years at smaller nonprofits—but generally the Mayor is keeping a campaign promise to ask nonprofits to bear their “fair share” of municipal costs.

He also seems to be following the lead of the Illinois courts which, as previously noted, are re-examining the nonprofit status of several of the state’s hospitals.  The Nonprofiteer’s colleagues at The Nonprofit Quarterly characterize Emanuel’s move as over-reaching, in that it affects nonprofits other than hospitals.  But the Nonprofiteer has no difficulty identifying non-hospital nonprofits whose water and sewer bills she doesn’t feel like subsidizing: the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago (which, notwithstanding the social services it provides, is mostly a very successful health club that uses a lot of water); the Art Institute of Chicago (which, notwithstanding the educational programs it provides, is a wealthy institution with very low personnel costs because every art-history major wants to work there); the University of Chicago (whose housing and athletic facilities use as much water as any suburban development and whose property tax exemption is secured by the Illinois Constitution).  And let’s remember that the smallest nonprofits are renters, most of whom get water and sewer as part of their leases from for-profit landlords, and won’t be affected in the least.  So a bit less howling, okay?

Especially as we contemplate this past weekend’s flood of accounts transferred to nonprofit credit unions in reaction to the obvious greed of the largest banks, particularly Bank of America.  (Even a major philanthropist has moved his accounts to protest B of A’s failure or refusal to modify a reasonable number of mortgages).  Maybe if the credit unions get wealthy enough they’ll be able to provide the rest of the sector with the working-capital loans it can rarely get from commercial banks.  Maybe they’ll offer special water-and-sewer-bill loans.

And maybe a little taste of self-help will remind the sector that it’s supposed to be independent.  Political trends come and go but the work we do must continue, and it’s our business to organize ourselves so it can.

Collaboration without the head-shaving

November 3, 2011

Thanks to Thomas Cott of You’ve Cott Mail for pointing the Nonprofiteer to this article in Crain’s New York Business about the value of collaboration among small arts organizations as typified by the Lower Manhattan Arts League.

The league — which includes small groups like Access Theater and larger organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam and the Children’s Museum of the Arts — has monthly meetings where constituents help each other with everything from fundraising to legal advice. The groups have created a downtown cultural festival, which they produce in the fall and spring. The members even apply for some grants as one entity and lobby the city government as a pack. Individually, some members with budgets as small as $100,000 are barely on funders’ radar, but as a group the members generate around $14 million in economic activity per year and employ roughly 1,200 people full- and part-time. After years when none of the groups were able to score a grant from American Express, for example, the consortium applied together in 2009 and was awarded $100,000. They divvied up the money according to the size of each budget.

While the cheery tone of the article elides some of the serious difficulties arts organizations face in aligning their missions and needs with one another, the point is nonetheless well-taken: organizations too small to get attention on their own may be big enough when combined with others to secure foundation funding and government cooperation.

Such collaborations also serve as living ripostes to the chronic funder complaint that the supply of arts organizations exceeds the demand for them: if these disparate groups can work together without cannibalizing their audiences or funding, they must not be duplicating each other’s work. Or, as it is written: the whole [collaborative network] is greater than the sum of its parts.

Holiday music to the ears

December 8, 2010

H/t the indispensable Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Nonprofit Newswire: a congregation in Anchorage is running a “Mitzvah Mall,” at which what’s for sale is donations to nonprofits.   A Festival of Light indeed!

And h/t the equally indispensable You’ve Cott Mail, a clipping service about arts and arts management: United States Artists has created a Website to allow patronage of individual artists by individual donors, without the embarrassment of face-to-face requests or the notion that you have to be a Medici to support artists.

What an elegant and lovely idea for the season—individual philanthropy, organized collectively.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How many roles does it take to screw up an organization?

October 21, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Several friends and I have started a new musical arts ensemble and are seeking to incorporate as a non-profit.  There are 8 artists in the ensemble, so we are a very small organization.  Since starting the ensemble was my idea, I have been serving as “Artistic Director,” choosing music, organizing rehearsals and performances, etc., as well as being an Artist in the ensemble.

We are currently working on our Bylaws and so have been thinking about how to structure our Board.  We have decided to have all the usual positions (President, VP, Secy, Treas) plus an Artist Representative, and a variable number of at-large Board members (no more than 5).  We have a provision in our (in-process-of-being-written) Bylaws where the Board can only select or remove the Artistic Director with a 2/3 consensus of the Artists.

At this point, all of our Artists will serve on the Board in some capacity (either as Officers or as at-large members), though we want to allow for a future time when the Artists get to be just Artists and let other people run the business side of things.  The other Artists want me to have a say-so in the running of the organization since the group was formed by my “vision”.

So my question is this:  Is it legal, ethical, practical, etc., for me to serve as both President AND Artistic Director (and an Artist in the ensemble)?  Or should one of the other Artists serve as President and I (as Art Dir) be only ex-officio with no vote?

I should also mention that my husband is also an Artist in the Ensemble, and so would also sit on the Board (for now).

Thank you very much for any advice you can give.  Signed,

Wearing Many Hats

Dear Hats:

Last issue first: it is never a good idea to have a married couple on the Board of a nonprofit, nor is it a good idea for one-half of the couple to serve on the Board while the other is employed by the agency.  (I gather you’re not getting paid as Artistic Director, but if you can be selected or fired by the Board, you’re an employee.)  A husband and wife on the Board stacks the voting since more often than not they will vote together, and the more important the issue the more likely they will march in lockstep.  Majority or not, they constitute a bloc, and blocs or factions create trouble on any Board.

And if your husband’s on the Board and you’re the Artistic Director, you’ve stacked the deck in your own favor on every issue while at the same time guaranteeing the maximum damage to the Board (your husband’s resignation) in case of any disagreement.  Don’t start out your nonprofit life with a built-in conflict of interest.

Further, as you seem to realize, no staff member (including the Artistic Director) should serve on the Board at all (whether President or not) except in an ex officio, non-voting capacity.

But let me suggest that you pause here to consider why you want to create a nonprofit structure at all.  Don’t become a nonprofit because “all arts groups are nonprofit;” the Nonprofiteer did that for a client once and it was a disaster.  As soon as there’s any money involved, you’ll find yourself fighting with the Board over whether those dollars should go directly to you, as Artistic Director; to the artists, in some proportionate way; or back into the institution.  So imagine yourself confronting that question now, and build the structure that will get you the answer that you want.

It’s fine to fill your Board with ensemble members and thus guarantee complete artistic and financial control of the agency by its artists.  But if you do, an “ensemble representative” would be redundant and should be omitted from your bylaws.

You might further consider that if you’re entirely ensemble-governed, you’re missing the opportunity to use the Board for its central purpose, which is to connect the group to the wider community (and, yes, raise money from that wider community to support the work you do).   You do your art for people; perhaps some of them should be represented on the Board—not just to do “the business stuff” but to help you maintain perspective about the relationship of your work to its audience.

In other words, as the Nonprofiteer has said in other contexts: nonprofit and 501c3 status are not mere legal trivialities to permit you to collect donations tax-free.  They’re statements about the kind of organization you are, namely, one answerable to the community through its Board.  You’re trading a certain amount of freedom for a certain amount of stability.  If you’re not ready to do that, skip nonprofit status and live hand-to-mouth til you’re ready to be a full-blown community institution–or until you figure out how to support your art entirely at the box office.

Are you a tax-exempt charity? Sure about that?

August 18, 2010

While it’s not yet true that “Illinois Does A Few Adult Films To Make Ends Meet”, the state has begun to cast lascivious glances at its nonprofits.  Those property-tax exemptions look mighty comfortable.  Why don’t you push that  cushion over to my side of the bed? And with most interactions taking place behind closed doors, don’t expect a warning before the moment of truth arrives—or to be kissed while you’re getting screwed.

Unlike other localities re-evaluating nonprofit tax exemptions, Illinois has bypassed the legislative process, allowing county assessors and the Department of Revenue to take the initiative.  And this spring the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the state’s constitutional provision exempting charities from property taxes applied not to all nonprofits but only to genuine charities.

When the Court ruled that Provena Covenant Hospital didn’t merit a property tax exemption because it failed to provide adequate charity care, there was a brief frenzy of press speculation about the decision’s impact on hospitals—but hospitals only.  Rarely do the media connect the dots between the budget crises of state and local governments and their relationships with nonprofits, and then generally the focus is on the governments’ failure to pay nonprofits for contracts they’ve already performed.

But revocation of property tax exemptions poses an even bigger and longer-term threat than governments’ failure to pay.  And it’s a threat of which few nonprofit executives—let alone members of the public—are aware.

Two cases of denied exemption, one in nearly-bankrupt Chicago and the other in one of its suburban counties, are now working their way through the Illinois courts.  Each concerns a luxury retirement community, and either could break new ground by clarifying what qualifies as “charity” and how much of it a nonprofit has to provide.

The state legislature hasn’t specified a percentage of charitable services required to support continued property-tax exemption.  And though the Provena court ruled that the hospital’s practice of charging fees for nearly all patient care meant it could not be considered a charity, it too stopped short of prescribing when enough charity will be enough.

“The property-tax assessors out there are going to be aggressive, because they need you back on their rolls,” said Elaine Waterhouse Wilson, a partner at the Quarles & Brady law firm. “They’re going to make you come in and prove” charitable work.  Ms. Wilson said the charities that may be at risk “include organizations that are supported primarily by fees . . . . It was very clear [under the ruling] that you had to be giving things away rather than providing general charitable benefits,” she said.

It’s not a tragedy that people are asking whether Illinois nonprofits are worthy of favored tax treatment.  What would be a tragedy is if the challenge came as a complete shock, catching agencies unaware with the sudden need to prove their charitable nature.  Yet that’s what seems likely to happen.

Executives at several Chicago-area nonprofits seemed incredulous at the idea that Provena would be applied to them.  “We provide human services and all our activities are nonprofit,” said Karen  Singer, Executive Director of the Evanston/North Shore YWCA.  “So it’s not on my radar screen at the moment.  It probably should be, but there are only so many things I can think about.”  William Ratner, Executive Director of Lawyers for the Creative Arts, and Alvin Katz of Mayer Brown LLP, the attorney for Victory Gardens Theater and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, both expressed confidence that the organizations they represent are secure in their exemptions.  “They’ll keep going after the hospitals because it’s easy, and because that’s where the money is,” Mr. Ratner said.

But there’s also money in, or rather under, many other nonprofits.  The Chicago retirement development sits on prime Gold Coast real estate.  Can YMCAs in gentrifying neighborhoods withstand challenges to their exemptions when they look and feel—and charge—so much like for-profit health clubs?  Can settlement houses be considered charities if they get paid, by government or clients, for all the services they provide?  Can arts organizations be considered “charitable” just by offering art, or do they have to give out a certain number of free admissions?  (Churches and schools are immune from this calculus because the Illinois constitution separately exempts them; but the educational programs of arts groups aren’t considered “schools.”)

Perhaps the charities will organize and persuade the Illinois legislature to clarify the amount of “charity” necessary to retain tax exemption.  But Professor Phillip Hablutzel of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, co-author of the Illinois Not-for-Profit Corporation Act, doubts it.  Though he predicted Illinois nonprofits other than hospitals will soon find themselves battling efforts to withdraw their exemptions, “In the twenty years I’ve been involved, there hasn’t been a coherent front among charities in facing the legislature.  It’s hard to get these people to make common cause–the museum people don’t see what they have in common with the churches.”  Nor, apparently, do many human services agencies or arts groups see what they have in common with the hospitals.

If and when a Provena-style loss of exemption hits another nonprofit, the impact on its operation will be substantial.  “In the current economy,” said Professor Hablutzel, “it would be hard to do fundraising for another one-third of your budget so the taxes could be paid.”

Maybe there’s something to be said for making adult films after all.