Posts Tagged ‘Conflict of Interest’

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, . . . 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.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Can a donor dictate the use of her gift? How about if she’s the Executive Director? How about if she’s also on the Board?

October 11, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I was wondering if it is ethical for an Executive Director to donate to the organization she runs, designating her donation to bonuses or pay raises for the employees that work for her.  She is not paid, thus can remain on our Board.  Seems like a conflict to me.

Signed, Wondering

Dear Wondering:

The Nonprofiteer sees a conflict of interest in the situation you describe, all right, but it doesn’t have to do with the donation.  Any donor can specify the use to be made of his/her gift, and if those terms strike the recipient organization as too onerous it can simply refuse the gift.  A donation from a foundation restricted to paying the salary of a particular staff member—or to giving salary increases to staff members across the board—would be unexceptionable, and in fact would represent a refreshing understanding by the foundation community that people who work for nonprofits need to clothe their kids and pay mortgages, too.


When the donor is the Executive Director, a gift of this kind might be seen as a way of buying (as opposed to earning) loyalty from the staff.  On the other hand, who’s in a better position than the ED to know that her staff members are overworked and underpaid?


It’s the job of the Board to create and implement the agency’s budget, a budget which presumably includes a line item for staff salaries.  It isn’t really kosher for the Executive Director to unilaterally override this governance decision by whipping out her checkbook.


If there’s a consensus on the Board that the staff is underpaid, and/or that it’s time for a raise if only there were money,  the Executive Director’s decision to alleviate that situation (and capacity to do so) should be as welcome as a similar decision by any other donor.


The Nonprofiteer doesn’t understand “She is not paid, thus can remain on our Board.”  The Executive Director, regardless of her compensation status, should serve as an ex officio member of the Board—that is, a Board member by virtue of her position and not in her individual capacity.   If the Executive Director was on the Board first, she should have resigned when she took on the duties of Executive Director.  The Board’s power is concentrated largely in its ability to evaluate, hire and fire the Executive Director, and if necessary to go into executive session to do so—that is, to kick the ED out of the room.  But if the ED remains a Board member, she can’t be removed from the room, therefore she can’t be discussed frankly, therefore she probably can’t be removed, therefore the Board has no power at all.

So the conflict is between the ED-qua-ED and the ED-qua-Board member.  These two roles cannot coexist, and the balance of the Board should demand that the ED choose one or the other.  This is why it’s not even a good idea to permit a Board member to serve as ED on an interim basis—because the “interim” tends to become the “interminable” without anybody’s noticing.


Now we’re back to the question of the gift.  If the ED remains on the Board, her contribution should be counted toward her mandatory give-or-get; but first the balance of the Board should vote on whether to accept the gift with the conditions she’s attached to it.  The ED-Board member, naturally, would recuse herself from this decision on the grounds that she—what?—has a conflict of interest, in this case between her role on the Board and her role as an individual donor to the agency.

By the same token, if the ED leaves the Board but remains at the agency, the Board once again has the right (and the obligation) to vote on whether to accept the gift she’s offered with the conditions she’s attached to it.  Naturally, this discussion would take place in executive session, with the ED excused from the room.  If Board members think this is a great opportunity to enhance compensation, they should accept; if they think this is a sneaky maneuver to undermine their budget authority, they should reject; but in any case the ED has no right to have her gift accepted unless and until the Board approves it.

To review: the question of the ethics of the donation doesn’t even arise unless the Board neglects its fiduciary obligation to evaluate gifts for unacceptable conditions.  The questionable ethics here are those of all concerned—Board members and ED/Board member alike—in permitting one person to fill two roles.

Once you’ve given someone a disproportionate share of power, you can’t be surprised when she makes a play for a further disproportionate share of power, in this case by brandishing a checkbook.  But the power to prevent the gift lies in the hands of the remainder of the Board, and if they fail to exercise it, they’re the ones whose ethics are questionable.

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

July 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed, Daughter in High Dudgeon

Dear Daughter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

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

The Executive Director

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

The Board

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

The Numbers

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

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

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

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

Concerned in Carolina

Dear Concerned,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I look before I leap, or not leap at all?

January 25, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I recently joined the board of directors of a small nonprofit (4 staff, $200k budget). Within a month of my joining, our executive director announced she would be leaving as her partner has a new job in another state. In addition, while she won’t move for a couple of months, presumably giving the board plenty of time to find a successor, she wants to study for the bar exam in the new state and requested to work half-time until she leaves.

There are a couple of complications (aren’t there always). I was approached by two board members about taking the ED position. I initially said no, but reconsidered and have let the board know of my interest. I have recused myself from any discussions of the search and said I would resign from the board if selected.

The current ED has said that one staff member is interested in the position as well. Since going part-time, the ED also said this same employee is fulfilling many of her duties, and requested a bonus for the employee equivalent to the 20 hours a week the ED is not working. She said he is, in effect, an interim executive director, and should be compensated. I and other board members doubt that the current person is actually doing the extra 20 hours a week, and/or doubt he can sustain it. (I was present for this discussion, but said nothing and abstained from the vote on his compensation).

I feel I cannot make many obvious suggestions to the board (like that we hire an outside interim ED, either full or part-time) without it appearing that I’m trying to better position myself for the job. It could appear that I don’t want a competitor to have the interim job for fear that it would give him an advantage. There is also the matter of whether I take the interim position. I can’t bring it up, of course, but what if someone else does?

I guess the big question is that having even expressed an interest in the ED job, should I resign until the search is complete and a new ED hired? That means I would stop all my board work for a period that could be months. And if I’m not selected, do I come back on the Board and pick up where things left off? Obviously I’m concerned about all the lost time on major initiatives. Having a half-time ED is bad enough. We don’t need to lose board members, too.

Signed, Conflicted

Dear Conflicted:

The short answer is “Yes.” If you’re going to be a candidate for Executive Director, you must resign from the Board of Directors–not if and when you’re selected, but right now. There is no other way the Board’s search committee can consider you without favoritism, or at least the appearance of it. And in a circumstance like the one you’ve described, in which a current member of the staff is interested in the Executive Director position himself, the appearance of fairness in the process is absolutely essential to the continued functioning of the organization.

Imagine the staff member’s spending the couple-three months minimum required for a search grumbling to his two remaining fellow employees about how unfair it is for you to compete with him for the favor of a group of your peers.  The effect on morale would be disastrous. And if you got the job under those circumstances, you would walk into a hornet’s nest: hostile employees, shame-faced Board members, and thus a host of troubles you don’t need while the agency is working on the new initiatives you mentioned.

You’re already experiencing the extent to which your Board duties and your hoped-for staff duties embroil you in conflict of interest, and it will only get worse. Either withdraw your name from consideration or submit your resignation to the Board chair–-today.

If you don’t get the job, the question of whether you can return to the Board of Directors is one to be decided by the Board of Directors, not including you. That is, you are rolling the dice that your erstwhile colleagues will want you to return after you’ve failed to impress them sufficiently to get the job. And even if they do, won’t you feel awkward under those circumstances? Won’t you be looking around the Board room wondering who voted against you, and why?

So the question becomes whether you in fact wish to become Executive Director enough to make a do-or-die fight for it, knowing that your relationship with the organization will most likely be at an end if you lose the fight. That’s up to you–you haven’t told the Nonprofiteer anything about your current professional situation but it’s presumably unsatisfying if the Executive Director post beckons so strongly–but consider the costs to the agency no matter what the outcome, and maybe think better of it.

If you do think better of it, and decide to remain on the Board, you could do two things that would strengthen the agency immeasurably: first, persuade your colleagues to hire an actual interim Executive Director, preferably someone who’s been trained in the particular tasks of that very difficult role and certainly someone who is not under any circumstances a candidate for the permanent job. A trained interim ED can make sure necessary initiatives move ahead, clear up any personnel issues that may have been festering under the ex-ED (such as, why is she so concerned about his getting a bonus? More favoritism, perhaps?), and relieve the time pressure the Board would otherwise feel while filling such an important spot. In most major cities the Executive Service Corps operates an interim ED training program and will be glad to provide you with the names of candidates. Choose one to spend between six months and a year guiding the agency while you and your Board colleagues figure out what you want in a new leader and how to go about finding it.

Second, whether or not you hire such an interim ED, persuade your Board colleagues not to confer that title on the candidate-staff member. The title makes him heir-presumptive, which if true means you won’t be conducting a thorough and genuine search and if false means you’ll have a justly disappointed employee in a position to do a lot of damage.

If you decide to pay the current ED only half her salary for working only half-time, fine; that has nothing to do with whether any- or everyone else on staff deserves extra compensation. It may be that their burdens are lightened rather than increased by having a less-engaged ED.  That may be why you distrust the ED’s claim about how hard this guy is working.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t understand at all the concept of bonuses in the nonprofit world. If your Executive Director does a great job, reward her with a raise. If she does a lousy job, don’t. But bonuses are based on outcome metrics, and those are rarely a direct reflection of an ED’s skill. If you tell an ED you’ll give her a bonus if she puts on five concerts this year, she’ll make sure to do so–-whether or not they’re any good. Or if she expects a bonus for serving x number of clients, you can be sure that x clients will go through the agency’s doors; but whether they’ve been served is a whole ‘nother question. A Board which gives bonuses to nonprofit executives is mistaking what’s measurable for what’s valuable.

So, to recap: if you want to work for the agency, quit its Board to level the job-hunting playing field. Be prepared for the likelihood that you won’t be able to return. Consider whether you’d all be better off if instead you withdrew your name from contention and focused on helping to find someone else to provide the able leadership, both interim and permanent, the group requires and deserves.

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.

A remarkably clear statement of what’s wrong with L3Cs. . .

November 29, 2011

for which the Nonprofiteer can take no credit.  Rather, thanks to her friend, Baltimore tax lawyer Stuart Levine, for laying out so clearly the problem with low-profit limited-liability companies, the latest fad in efforts to do well by doing good.  Stuart’s argument appears in response to, among other things, a recent New York Times report that foundations have increased the proportion of their “grants” which are actually program-related investments, that is, grants for which repayment is expected to a greater or lesser degree.

Words from the wise:

Look, there are numerous “good cases” where one can see that infusion of capital that doesn’t really have to be repaid at market rates makes good sense.  (Actually, government loan guarantees of, say, solar power start-ups falls into this category.)  The problem with allowing 501(c)(3)’s to make these sorts of investments is that the process is subject to abuse.

Say that I want to create “Stuart Levine’s Good Works Foundation.”  The Foundation attracts $10M in tax deductible contributions.  The Foundation uses the cash to “invest” in projects operated either by me or my Aunt Minnie.  While Minnie and I invest our own funds in these businesses, our capital position is ahead of the Foundation’s and gets a higher return, so that the first profit out goes to pay us and, if the deal craters, the biggest part of the hit will fall on the foundation.  (Did I mention the $250K a year consulting fee paid to me by the investment entity?)

I don’t for a minute believe that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is engaged in double-dealing of the sort that I described.  I have less faith in the “Stuart Levine’s Good Works Foundation.”   Has everyone forgotten the Pallottine Fathers?  See here:

Or, as one might say, everything old is new again.

The burden of proof rests on those who believe L3Cs are essential.  They must demonstrate that the entities’ potential for abuse is outweighed by their capacity to meet needs that are otherwise unmet.  But all that’s unmet so far is that burden of proof.

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.

The Joyce Foundation, the Independent Sector and the facts

November 2, 2011

Ellen Alberding’s interview with the Chicago Tribune in advance of the Independent Sector‘s meeting in Chicago earlier this week pressed nearly every one of the Nonprofiteer’s buttons.  Ms. Alberding, head of the Joyce Foundation, described the Foundation’s approach to what even she characterizes as a perfect storm of increased need and reduced resources in the nonprofit sector:

We do what any good business person would do when faced with reduced resources. We have become very focused on first maintaining support of our core grantees. Foundations are required to spend a minimum amount — 5 percent of our assets. On occasion, we will overspend that in order to keep our grantees whole.

In other words, business as usual.  Most likely the Joyce Foundation’s governing documents prevent its Board from spending its assets down to zero, but there’s no reason why the Foundation shouldn’t use more than the statutory minimum 5% of its $800 million in assets to sustain the work it exists to support.  Foundations are NOT businesses; they exist to give their money away, and only in some vague theoretical sense is an institution with $800 million facing constraints preventing it from giving away more than $40 million.

If Joyce gave only 6% instead, that would be another $8 million available to nonprofits in its areas of concern—a not-insubstantial 20% increase.   What is stopping the Foundation from doing this, other than a misguided sense that preserving its capital is more important than doing its job?

And then the cherry on the sundae:

It’s the position of the Independent Sector that a cap [on charitable deductions] will reduce charitable contributions across the board and diminish support for nonprofit organizations. I believe it’s the administration’s view that the 28 percent cap might have some impact, but it wouldn’t have a dire impact. (But) I think we have to listen to the organizations themselves, who feel otherwise.

In other words, notwithstanding reality, the prejudices of self-interested parties will dictate the organization’s behavior.    Their minds are made up—don’t confuse them with the facts.  But as President of the organization, doesn’t it behoove Ms. Alberding to make sure her members don’t make their decisions based on fantasy?