Posts Tagged ‘recession’

No good deed goes unpunished

November 22, 2011

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

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

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

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


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.

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?


On Wisconsin! Part II*

August 9, 2011

Boy, this guy is the gift that just keeps on giving:  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, not content to interfere with the provision of public services by destroying public-sector unions, has now decided to refuse to sign off on nonprofit grant applications to the Federal government that might “lead to ongoing programs that would need money from state taxpayers later.”   The first wave of grant applications deprived of the state’s endorsement would have supported health services, including programs to reduce binge drinking, an unhealthy activity in which Wisconsin leads the nation.

The hard Right has long argued that government services were unnecessary because nonprofits could step into the breach.  This claim was always nonsense; but at least its exponents didn’t also take on themselves the task of interfering with the charities’ overwhelmed attempts to do so.  Wisconsinites will pay the same Federal taxes whether or not the state receives Federal grants to support its nonprofit sector.  So clearly the point is not to shelter the state’s citizens from confiscatory taxes but to punish people who need help.   Governor Walker’s ideology apparently requires not just that people in need of assistance seek private charity but that private charity be deprived of the means of assisting them.

And let’s be clear about the legal antecedents of what’s going on here.  Groups of citizens of a single state are being deprived of access to something available to all other citizens of the United States—just as groups of citizens of the states of the Old Confederacy were once deprived of the vote.   Then, “states’ rights” was a buzz-phrase meaning “the opportunity to mistreat black people without interference from those durned Feds.”   Now, in Governor Walker’s view, the phrase is even more expansive, meaning “the opportunity to mistreat unhealthy and/or poor  people of every color to make the point that those durned Feds have no right to interfere.”   Anyone who’s enthusiastic about the states’ rights claims in the governors’ lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act should check out Wisconsin for a foretaste of what states’ rights really mean to the rights of states’ citizens.

The good news is, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made clear that states’ rights are trumped by citizens’ right to vote.  Thus—and despite many recent efforts to enact barriers to that right-there’s a reasonable chance that Governor Walker will lose his legislative majority in the next few weeks, whereupon the appropriate state-federal balance can be restored.

Or, should I say, the Constitution can be restored.


On Wisconsin! Part I appears here.

Social Enterprise and Its Discontents

November 17, 2010

A new study—poignantly titled “Social Enterprise: Innovation or Mission Distraction?”—reports that nonprofit agencies which choose to support themselves with for-profit businesses end up serving their clients less and worse.  Moreover, when the businesses thrive the profits go back into the business, while when the businesses falter the losses are taken out of the hide of the agencies.  (So glad to see nonprofits acting like businesses!  This “heads I win, tails you lose” approach is just what the investment bankers did—en route to destroying the economy.)

Gloating is unattractive, and unwarranted.  After all, any friend of the nonprofit sector would be delighted to learn there was a way to strengthen it without having to stretch every penny into a copper wire, or grovel to wealthy people who understand the situation less well than the people they may or may not deign to help.  But a bit of schadenfreude directed at the prophets of social enterprise really can’t be avoided.

It’s always seemed obvious to the Nonprofiteer that if there were money to be made in ending poverty, poverty would long since have been ended.  The challenge is to provide services and alleviate suffering when it isn’t profitable.  It seems equally obvious that any system which must allow for a private person to make money before the clients get served is one that reduces the resources available for those clients.

Now, lots of things that are obvious also happen to be false.  And certainly there’s a reasonable discussion to be had about whether, once you factor in all the costs of raising donations, it would be cheaper or more efficient—even with a profit margin—to organize charities as business enterprises.  But a decade’s worth of experimentation suggests that the answer is “No.”

Are services provided by social entrepreneurs better than no services at all?  Sure, but it demonstrates the poverty of our current mindless anti-tax political discourse that those seem like the only two choices.  The real alternative to entrusting the provision of public services to for-profit groups is having them supplied by the public.  Anyone familiar with the history of the private subway franchises and private lending libraries and private schools of the 19th Century will be grateful that our predecessors decided to eliminate the middleman markup and run subways and libraries and schools as the public goods they are.

Have social enterprises ever succeeded?  Certainly, and more power to them.  But anyone who claims they will supplant philanthropy, charity or social change movements is selling snake-oil.

The most thoroughgoing enthusiasts of the market seem to forget that Adam Smith himself recognized areas in which it would, and did, fail.  Those of us caring for people who can’t make profits for other people are dealing with the consequences of those failures.  So let’s face it: we’re outside the market economy.  Let’s stop contorting ourselves to fit into it, and concentrate on figuring out how to make our own systems function more fairly, transparently and effectively.

Well, duh!

October 26, 2010

England’s Financial Times reports concern that cuts in government grants to charities will impair the charities’ ability to provide services, and particularly to pick up the slack produced by cuts in direct government services.  The Nonprofiteer wonders what this is doing in the newspaper, as it falls into the category of Dog Bites Man.

Defenders of the cuts argue that they’ll provide incentive for government-dependent charities to raise money from the private sector and individuals.  While the Nonprofiteer yields to no one in her insistence that charities become less dependent on grants of any kind and spend more time asking for money from individuals, she also knows that this defense is crap—at best irresponsible, at worst deliberately false.

No one can realistically suggest that charities which have essentially been created by the government to provide services it funds (probably for the purpose of evading unions) can somehow instantly replace 95% of their operating budgets with contributions of a pound or ten, or even a hundred. It takes time to develop individual donors, and surely no one would seriously suggest that charities have neglected this task for lack of “incentive,” because government grants keep them in the lap of luxury.    There’s never enough money, as a result of which there’s also never enough time to raise money if you’re also going to serve your clients.

So which is it, Mr. Cameron?  Do you want charities spending their time providing services that your government now won’t, or do you want them spending their time raising money to provide those services?  “Both” is not a realistic answer.

Conservative governments should really have the courage of their convictions.  If you’re going to cut public services, then say to the public, “We’re not going to provide these services.”  It’s just dishonest to say, “We’re not going to provide them, but don’t worry, someone else is,” when no one else has anything like the resources necessary.

Apply as appropriate to the American situation.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Can I borrow working capital from a Board member?

August 30, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

One of our current issues is lack of short-term working capital. As with many organizations, our expenses always precede our revenue by weeks, sometimes months. We were carrying some debt into the recession, which worsened as the economy imploded. We’ve grown fairly organically through the recession and thankfully we have paid the debt down; however, that has left us without much in the way of cash reserves. Which leads us to a short-term crunch on working capital to bridge the gap between the time frames for our expenses and for our revenue.

With the current banking climate credit can be tough to come by so one of our Board members has offered to lend our organization some money to help smooth out our short-term working capital issues. We want to make sure, though, that we are not skirting any legal issues before we proceed. Should an organization accept a short-term loan from a Board member?

Also s/he had a secondary question about interest if we were to accept the loan:

One question I did have is regarding the IRS interpretation of not profiting from board activities.  I should be able to do that as a no interest loan; though, would I still be able to do it as a below market rate loan?  (Not that there is much of a distinction at the moment with interest rates pretty close to 0.5%)  My thinking is that I could lend something around $3-5000 for no more than one year, and I would certainly want fund raising to continue in the meantime, but what would the IRS’s rules direct for this?

What would you advise?

Signed, Board-rich but Cash-poor

Dear Cash-poor:

It would be hard to provide a better summary of the pluses and minuses of borrowing from Board members than the one on Blue Avocado last year; it lays out all possible iterations of such borrowings, along with pros and cons of each type.

As you’ll see, there’s no legal obstacle to your accepting a loan from a Board member (see also this legal guidance, which makes explicit that what’s prohibited is Board members borrowing from nonprofits, not the other way around).  But doing so may alter the dynamics of your Board in a way you don’t particularly want.  S/he who has the gold makes the rules, of course, and a lender is apt to feel that s/he has a greater stake in the financial success of the organization than other Board members.  This may lead to conflicts about whether, e.g., to do something artistically daring or commercially safe, with the creditor putting a heavy thumb on the “safe” side of the scales.  The borrowing doesn’t create a conflict of interest, exactly, but it creates the potential for one.

Given the relatively small sum involved, it might actually be better to have a Board member, or members, co-sign a line of credit at a bank or credit union.  Many reluctant lenders are willing to lend with personal co-signers, and this keeps the day-to-day financial decisions where they belong—with the staff—while keeping Board members in their proper fiduciary role.

As to the interest-rate issue, Nonprofits for Dummies notes that loans from Board members are only legitimate if they are at or below market rates.  The goal is to prevent Board members from looting their agencies by charging exorbitant interest.  To be sure that there’s no question about the validity of the interest rate, the full Board should approve the loan by a vote from which the lending Board member recuses him/herself.  Under those circumstances, the IRS will not question the transaction—though it must be reported on the agency’s 990 form, and of course any interest income must be reported on the lender’s own tax returns.

Again, your difficulties are not legal, but managerial: if there’s truly no other way, you may borrow from a Board member.  But the less you let Board members serve as your creditors, the better governors they will be.

Also—though there’s nothing wrong with borrowing for a defined short-term need like the one you’ve described—if there’s a chronic delay between expenses and revenues, you probably want a longer-term solution (like the credit line) instead of a Board member’s temporary willingness to tide you over.

And please make sure the lending Board member knows that, in the unlikely possibility that you go bankrupt, his/her loan will be the last paid.  As an “insider,” his/her loan will be subordinated to everyone else’s, almost as though s/he were a stockholder.  In short, make sure everyone on both sides of this transaction understands the risk.

None of these gymnastics would be necessary if there were a Nonprofit Business Administration which would lend to nonprofits the way the Small Business Administration lends to small businesses.  But this hobby-horse of the Nonprofiteer’s doesn’t seem to be making any more headway in the Obama Administration than in any previous White House.  Maybe there’s a reason—but she can’t imagine what it is.

Dear Nonprofiteer, What to do when foundations slam the door?

July 21, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer:

We are a small non-profit music school. We have been running into a problem with grants strategy–as in, we aren’t getting any.

I am consistently getting feedback:

1.    “Lovely program but we are only funding projects that can promise to reach 500-1000.”  We are small with 350 students and while I can conceive of a program that would reach a larger audience, I don’t feel I can creditably offer that in a proposal.


2.    “Great ideas but we only fund people who we funded before.”

Previous executive directors in more generous times had decided that grant seeking was not worth the effort. I  think we need to make a big push but I am starting to wonder if they were right.

We have a subsistence existence with only earned income and I feel we are desperately in need of a more diverse income stream if we are ever going to grow or prosper. Operating at less than break-even is not an option with my board.

What’s the small non-profit to do?

Signed, Stymied at Every Turn

Dear Stymied,

The Nonprofiteer suspects, as you’re starting to, that your predecessors were right when they gave up seeking foundation support.  At the best of times, foundations have the attention span of fruit-flies, which means even agencies receiving support spend the whole grant term sweating blood over whether they can get it next time–nonsensical program-officer-speak  to the contrary notwithstanding.  (What kind of response is, “We only fund those we’ve funded before,” anyway?  It’s barely lucid, let alone reasonable–unless it’s just a bald-faced lie.)

And these aren’t the best of times.  (Like you hadn’t noticed.)  Some foundations are stepping up and spending a larger percentage of their income on grant-making to make up for a loss in their portfolios; others can’t, or won’t.  And as aggravating as it is to have a foundation ask you to provide services on a scale beyond your capacity, the Nonprofiteer will defend that point of view: foundations are in the business of trying to have broad impact with narrow means, and your program simply doesn’t meet their needs.

So you have to seek funds from another source.  Earned income is all very well, but of course you’re required to raise one-third of your budget in contributions simply to maintain your 501(c)(3) status.  How?

Well, as the Reverend Mother did not say, “When a foundation closes a door, somewhere an individual donor opens a window.” Stop pounding your head against the foundations’ doors and get thee to an individual gifts program.  This may be your only option; it’s certainly your best one.  Seek small gifts through an annual campaign, and big ones through individual appeals made by you and members of your no-deficit Board.  (They made the rules, now they have to play the game.)

The annual campaign: Ask your students and their families, as well as any alumni you may have, to help you make up the difference between what it costs to provide this first-rate music education and what you charge in tuition.  (If you don’t know that number, figure it out: it’s magic.  Not only does it encourage contributions, it makes future tuition increases easier to swallow.  Why do you think colleges keep repeating, “Tuition covers only a fraction of the cost of educating a student”?  Though at $40,000-plus a year, one might begin to wonder what fraction, exactly.)

Ask at “Back to School” time, and again around Christmas, and again before or during recital/graduation season.  Also, ask at performances.  Don’t be shy: remember that most people say they give because “Someone asked me.”  Your school is just as deserving as any other charity, and with 350 people in the program someone connected to you should be willing to cough up some dough.

Major gifts: Identify anyone who’s already been giving you money and take him/her out to lunch and ask for more.  If your Board members aren’t already giving, conspire with your Board president to get them to do so–and once they’ve given, ask each of them for the name of one person who could be asked.  Remember the Nonprofiteer’s rule: Board members don’t ask their friends for money–they ask each other’s friends for money!

Individual gifts come in smaller chunks than foundation gifts (though not in your case, actually).  Moreover, they’re infinitely renewable and will sustain your school for years to come.  Good luck, and let us know how you do.

Buy land. They’re not making any more of it. But on second thought . . .

May 28, 2010

Everyone in the sector–no kidding, everyone!–should read this Nonprofit Quarterly piece by Clara Miller of the Nonprofit Finance Fund about the practices most likely to make nonprofits vulnerable to financial disaster.  Pay particular attention to Ms. Miller’s skepticism about the value of owning one’s own building.

The Nonprofiteer has argued for years that the likelihood of a building’s being a good investment is significantly smaller than the likelihood of its being a money pit, particularly for arts organizations who make over-optimistic estimates of their likely rental revenue.  But now someone who actually knows what she’s talking about is saying the same thing.

So listen up!  Please.

Hand-wringing over what Kresge hath wrought

April 22, 2010

If the Kresge Foundation isn’t giving matching grants for brand-new arts buildings anymore–and it’s not–the arts-building bubble is over as surely as the housing and financial-industry bubbles.  Granting funds instead for renovation and repair means the new Kresge posture will benefit the arts groups that got while the getting was good (or, perhaps, have some other basis for grantworthiness, e.g. re-purposing of an historic building).  But arts groups which have been thinking about building from scratch are now stuck contemplating Max Bialystock’s mantra: “He who hesitates is poor!”