Posts Tagged ‘Benefit events’

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.


Giving Tuesday: A Holiday Tradition Worth Creating

November 27, 2012

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

Existing forever versus doing some good

March 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spend it now.

Dear Nonprofiteer, 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

The power of thanks

October 28, 2011

So here’s something the Nonprofiteer heard yesterday: if an agency’s response to every initial donation is to have a Board member pick up the phone and call the donor to thank him/her, the likelihood of a second donation increases by something like 80%.

What’s terrific about that (other than the obvious, donor retention) is that picking up the phone is often the biggest hurdle Board members need to clear to become effective fundraisers.  So if they get used to picking up the phone in a completely non-threatening situation–when their only task is to say, “Hi, I’m a volunteer Board member of agency X and I just wanted to thank you for your gift–we really appreciate your support”–you’re halfway (well, maybe one-third-way) to getting them to pick up the phone and ask their friends to come to a benefit event or a fundraising lunch.

Sounds like the ultimate low-cost high-yield endeavor.  Has anyone tried it?  Is it as good as it sounds?

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, Victory on points?

April 22, 2011

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I recently saw an offer to serve on a non-profit board where there was a monetary donation requirement each year, but the amount could be substituted by service or other activities through the scale pasted below. Here’s the way they phrased it:

To ensure active participation, members earn points for financial contributions and volunteer service. We ask that a contribution of $250 be made in order to remain as an Associate Board member. You can, however, combine a cash donation of $100 with your fundraising and volunteer efforts by earning these points:

Sample Opportunities to Earn Points
Opportunity Points
Additional cash contribution of $50 50
Plan a Board Social or Fundraising Event 50
Serve in a leadership role 50
Secure $100 event sponsorship 15*
Represent [agency] at a public fair or presentation 15*
Sell a ticket to a fundraiser 10*

I was wondering, is this a common practice? I’m actually thinking about recommending it for another board where I’ve been asked to donate money.

Signed, Victor on Points or Technical Knock-Out?

Dear Knock-Out:

The Nonprofiteer knows that some larger organizations use this point system, but for smaller organizations she thinks the record-keeping and arguments about “what counts” are more trouble than they’re worth.  Obviously it depends on the size of the required contribution, but in general everyone on a Board should be expected to give AND participate, and in roughly equal measure.

This is expressed in a number of different formulations: Board members offer the three Ws (Work, Wealth and Wisdom) or are expected to provide the three Gs (Give, Get and Govern). Whichever initials you use, the point is the same: Board membership is not an either-or proposition but a yes-and one. The best way to assure fulfillment of these expectations is to adopt a clear statement of them for Board members, and go over that statement with every Board recruit. “Every Board member is expected to make a $500 contribution, and buy a ticket to the annual gala, and attend monthly Board meetings, and serve on a committee . . .”. That way, no one agrees to join the Board who isn’t prepared to do all those things.

People are fond of making exceptions to this in two cases: for Board members perceived to be significantly poorer than the rest of the group, and for those perceived to be significantly wealthier or better-connected than the rest.

In the first case, the Nonprofiteer’s advice is: don’t count the money in other people’s pockets. Poor people are more generous than rich people generally, and thus are often less upset by minimum Board gifts than their wealthier counterparts. If a rich Board member can just write a $500 check while a poorer one has to ask 10 friends for $50, well, that’s just another example of ways in which poor people have to work harder than rich people. And, as $500 per year is less than $10 per week, most working people—regardless of their assets—can afford it.

In the second case: if someone tells you s/he’s too busy to actually do anything but s/he’ll be glad to be on your Board, remember this motto: if they can’t do the time, they can’t do the crime. Someone willing only to lend his/her name and write a check should be placed on an Advisory Board (create one if you have to, or dub the person a “Special Advisor” and put him/her on the stationery), not on the Board of Directors. If you do put such a person on the Board proper, s/he will have all the legal responsibilities of Board members without being there to discharge them—a recipe for disaster and hard feelings, should the agency be socked with a bill for unpaid withholding taxes or a lawsuit from an injured client.

In short: the Board is a governance institution, and governance includes assuring that the agency has the resources it needs to fulfill its mission You shouldn’t have to negotiate with your governors about their tasks, which is what a point system suggests. Rather, they should be the ones setting their own goals and meeting them, and attracting others who will do the same.

And that’s the final reason not to use this point system: no one wants to serve on a Board of lazy people. Your group is more attractive to prospects if everyone’s revved up and ready to go on every possible front. You can find such people, provided you don’t declare defeat and stop looking.

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, How can we reduce the effort of acknowledging event-based donations?

January 6, 2011

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I have been a long time reader, and appreciate your blog tremendously!

I have a question, and if you choose to publish it, I would prefer to remain anonymous.

My organization is the fundraising agent for a couple of state funded organizations (the state only funds salaries & utilities—and the foundation I work for was founded a long time ago to raise funds for educational programs, content, etc.).  Recently, as a means to save ourselves ample amounts of time, energy, and overhead in administration, we began contracting with another local NPO that is first and foremost a performing arts space, but also the most comprehensive ticketing agent in our town.  This has become vastly beneficial because our own staff is so limited that we just don’t have the time and support staff to administer ticketing for ALL of the events for ALL of the organizations we support.  This saves us a great amount of time prior to these events, but we still have to process funds transferred to us from the ticketing agent post-event, and then send letters for any tax deductible value to the patrons.

So, here’s the question that has arisen in our office—can we just put something on the ticket itself that states the tax deductible value of the ticket to save ourselves from having to also send letters? Or, is it just best practice to send those letters post event to the event patrons?

Signed, Overwhelmed and Understaffed

Dear Overwhelmed:

Without being sure of the details, the Nonprofiteer recalls that actually tearing tickets is considered best practice in the management of for-profit events as a protection against employee theft of proceeds: the stubs are compared to the sales numbers and everything has to balance out at the event’s conclusion.  So it seems like a mistake to put the tax receipt or other acknowledgment on the ticket itself, when you’re going to want to physically retrieve at least part of it.

Of course, it’s possible to print a detachable ticket stub and leave that in the hands of the donor, and that stub could contain the necessary language for tax purposes.  (“Ticket price: X.  Tax-deductible value: X minus value of event’s benefit to patron.  Helping [nonprofit’s] clients: Priceless.”)  And if you’re using electronic tickets, which can be scanned and then returned in full to the patron, that same language can appear anywhere on the ticket’s face.

But the Nonprofiteer is a little puzzled about your role in the process.  Given that you’ve transferred ticket-processing to another nonprofit, why not transfer the entire fiscal agency to that nonprofit?  Does being the fiscal agent confer some other benefit on your foundation?  If not, it may be that a relationship that once made sense no longer does, now that the agencies you’re shepherding have become so active in their event-based fundraising.

Even if your foundation needs to remain fiscal agent for the purposes of state contracts, it should be possible to transfer fiscal agency for events to the ticketing nonprofit.  In that case, the task of sending tax-receipt acknowledgment to the patrons would fall to it.

In either case, of course, the task of actually thanking the patrons falls to the nonprofit whose event it is.  If the Nonprofiteer understands the situation correctly, donors have no particular interest in you: by their attendance at events, they intend to benefit the nonprofits for which you’re the agent.  Therefore, they don’t want to hear acknowledgment from you—they want to hear it from the benefited agency.  That’s what’s priceless!

Dear Nonprofiteer, How do I turn Board generosity into Board requests for generosity?

May 26, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m the ED of a growing nonprofit doing bridge-building work on a highly divisive social issue. Our work is getting rave reviews. Our Board, however, is really struggling with its role in fundraising.

All of the nonprofit literature I’ve read says that the Board of Directors is largely responsible for raising funds for the organization, and that they typically do this through their own individual contacts and influence. But everyone on our Board was chosen for their commitment to our cause and understanding of the sensitive nature of our work, not for their contacts or influence. They’re wonderful, passionate people, but they have no fundraising experience and no wealthy or influential contacts to speak of, and they’re all geographically separate from one another. When fundraising comes up in Board meetings, everyone agrees that it must be done, but no one is sure what exactly they can do.

Our Board does have a “give or get” clause, and our Board members meet and surpass that requirement by giving generously of their own money. There’s no question of their devotion! But I’m concerned that relying too heavily on our Board members’ personal finances rather than external fundraising is a dangerous long-term proposition, and I feel like we could be doing so much more if we had a real fundraising strategy. (We have been raising other funds, but those projects have been primarily overseen by our staff.)

What say you? Are there situations where a nonprofit Board shouldn’t focus on fundraising? Or do we need to rethink things?


Empty Pockets

Dear Empty,

Of course the people you recruited to your Board were chosen for their passionate commitment to your cause–who else would you choose for such a task? That doesn’t mean they can’t raise funds; in fact, it means they’re the people best positioned to raise money for the group, because they understand it so profoundly and can speak about it with such depth and conviction.

And they’re going to be especially wonderful fundraisers because they’re so generous themselves. Many agencies struggle with fundraising because the Board thinks someone else should put money on the line while its own members fail to do so.

But Board members have to take on the fundraising task, and there are no exceptions–not for particular kinds of organizations, nor for particular Board members whom others may think can’t afford to be involved. There’s a misconception floating around the nonprofit world that fundraising can only be done by certain kinds of people, ones with those mysterious “contacts” and “influence;” when in fact, everyone can identify prospective donors, everyone can ask, and everyone can thank.

Here’s how you get started: bring to the next Board meeting a list of five prospects whom the staff has identified through your fundraising activities to date–the people you think are most likely to be convertible into serious major donors alongside your Board members. Then divide your Board into pairs and get each pair to contact one of these small-givers-who-are-big-givers-in-waiting. The pair should take the prospect out to lunch and ask him/her for money.

How? Please see the Nonprofiteer’s never-fail luncheon ask. And, because everyone you’re dealing with is so new to this activity, spend the rest of this Board meeting practicing the never-fail ask, doing in 10 or 20 minutes what in the real world you’ll do in 60. You practice by dividing the Board into groups of three, and then having two people ask the third; the second time, you have the prospect join the asking team.

Stay on your Board members between Board meetings to assure they actually take the prospects out and ask them for money, and then have them report back at the next Board meeting. Also tell everyone to come to that next Board meeting with the name of one–one!–person they know whom they can persuade to come to lunch to talk about your agency. Reassure them that they’re not going to be required to ask their friends for money–they’re going to ask EACH OTHER’S friends for money. You can practice that at this second Board meeting.

Then keep noodging and supporting them, but let there be no doubt that this is the main thing with which they should occupy themselves now. No matter how passionate–for that matter, no matter how rich!–no Board is able to support its agency single-handedly through its personal wealth. Fundraising is essential; it’s the job of the Board; and if the people you’ve got now refuse to do it (which the Nonprofiteer doubts), go get some people who will.

And if the guidance the Nonprofiteer has just molded into a brick and thrown at your head seems daunting, hire a Board development consultant [like, say, the Nonprofiteer; but plenty of people do this] to come in and train your Board–and read the fundraising Riot Act to its members, if need be. Often Boards will hear from a consultant what they won’t hear from their employee/Executive Director, namely, that they have a clearly-defined job; that the name of the job is “fundraising;” and that they have to do it.