Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Some Reflections on Tzedakah (a.k.a Charity - Sort of)

I’m writing this in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays – ten complex, intense and powerful days that start with Rosh Hashonah and end with Yom Kippur. The concept of Tzedakah is part of the big three of the High Holidays, along with t’shuvah (repentance) and t’filah (prayer), and it is central to Jewish law and liturgy.

A cursory search for a definition of the word yields “giving charitable contributions.” But that’s not really accurate. The root word (tzedek) literally means justice, fairness, righteous behavior. And tzedakah is decidedly not considered a matter of generosity; it is an obligation. It’s something you are required to do. You are required to help both Jews and gentiles. You are required to help those in need, even if you yourself are in need. You are required to seek justice.

This biblical imperative was the basis for all kinds of voluntary societies to care for the ill, for newlyweds, for travelers, for preparing and burying the dead; for the Jewish law that farmers are required to leave aside crops for the landless; for organizations that provided interest-free loans; for the tzedakah box kept in the town square to collect money for good causes.

The Jewish National Fund revolutionized Jewish giving in 1904 by providing small tins (pushkes) for Jewish families to collect spare change at home, with a focus on supporting Jewish institutions and the state of Israel. These days, the parameters have expanded beyond local, ethnic and religious issues -- to support for nonprofit organizations that promote peace, environmental causes, social justice, equal rights, and a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.

The Jewish sage Maimonides famously delineated the eight “ladders” of tzedakah, from the least meritorious to most. The bottom two are giving begrudgingly, and giving less than you should or could but doing it cheerfully. I do love the idea of cheerful giving; and note that a new neurological study just found that generosity literally makes you feel happy. The next two up: giving after being asked and giving without being asked. This would indeed be a great time to make an unsolicited contribution for a good cause, whether that be hurricane relief or support for immigrants. The top two: being a completely anonymous donor followed by giving that enables the recipient to become self-reliant. My definition of a self-reliant nonprofit is one with diverse income sources including robust ongoing support from Individual donors at all levels - one that exercises prudent fiscal management, builds relationships, communicates regularly, reaches out widely, and always sends prompt well-written thank you notes. And what these nonprofits need are unrestricted gifts for those not so sexy but essential ongoing operating expenses that make the work possible. 

In this time of great reflection and turbulence, I am using these ten days of awe not only to make amends, to resolve to be a better friend and parent and grandparent, but also to re-dedicate myself to supporting those causes I hold dear, both as a Jew and as an American citizen, with words and deeds and dollars.

Friday, September 1, 2017

In Fundraising: Less Is Not More – & Vice Versa

I want to address two constant refrains I hear from nonprofit staff and board members that are real barriers to fundraising success:
  1. We only ask our donors for money once a year; we couldn’t possibly ask more often, because they will get pissed and stop giving.
  2. So many nonprofits are asking for money, especially right now with anti-Trump stuff; we can’t possibly compete for fundraising dollars in this climate.
Both of these are so wrong. Here’s why:
  1. Asking just once: The most basic principle of fundraising is this: if you don’t ask, people won’t give. If you ask them only once a year, those who are inclined to support your organization will do just that – and only that. If you ask them more often, they will give more dollars, and give more frequently. Statistics consistently show that very few of them will be deeply offended, or stop giving – and that you’ll raise more money. If you have a particular major donor who has specifically stated that they will only give once a year, then by all means make a clear note of that and respect it. Otherwise – have at it. In fact, in these days of constant communication, it’s important to use every opportunity you have to stay in touch with your supporters, and to ask them to be involved – and writing a check (or making an online donation) is one of the easiest ways for them do so. You should be asking them to volunteer, to support a petition that is consonant with your mission, to make specific in-kind gifts that you need based on a published wish list, to write a bequest to your nonprofit in their will, to watch a fun video of one of your programs, to support your scholarship fund, to help raise money for specific facility and equipment needs, and to contribute unrestricted funds in support of your ongoing operating expenses.
  2. Fear of competition: Although folks seems to think this one is new and specific to the current political climate with all the needs and asks out there, I’ve been hearing this one for decades. People would say, there are so many nonprofits in West Marin (where I live - and there are indeed an extraordinary number for such a small region), and use that as an excuse to avoid fundraising. But I never found it to be true. This is what I found, and what I believe – fundraising is not a competitive sport. People will respond to current emergencies, whether it be hurricanes or Trump storms, and they will also give to small local organizations. Those who care about your nonprofit will choose to support you if you continue to do your work well and if you continue to build relationships with them.

 So - don’t let these unfortunately enduring but completely wrong-headed myths about fundraising stop you from regularly reaching out to your community, clients, volunteers, members, and donors for support.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Nonprofits: Saviors or Slackers?

In today's public discourse, nonprofits are frequently portrayed as white knights that can provide all the social services the country needs -- or unprincipled villains who waste government funds. 

So: saviors or slackers? Here are some of the misperceptions that are floating out there:
  • Nonprofits don't pay taxes. The fact is that while nonprofits are exempt from standard property tax bills, they absolutely pay sales tax, payroll tax, and special property tax assessments.
  • Nonprofits pay their CEOs exorbitant salaries. Many big national organizations do pay salaries in the six-digit range, though these salaries rarely compare with corporate salaries in the for-profit sector. But 66.4% of nonprofits have annual budgets under $500,000; their employees are paid modest salaries and put in many extra hours of unpaid time just because they care about their nonprofit mission.
  • Nonprofits are rolling in government and grant money - and wasting it. Actually, most funding for nonprofits (80% according to the Urban Institute) now comes from earned income. Plus government and foundation funding comes with extensive restrictions, paperwork, and reporting - and rarely covers the full cost of programs.
  • Nonprofits have the capacity to do everything that government does, just better and cheaper. Nope. The time when small community based nonprofits with volunteer staff could tackle big issues like poverty, unemployment, and childcare without government support is long gone.
  • Nonprofits are rife with scandal. Media reports of misbehavior in the nonprofit sector, from sexual abuse to gross fiscal mismanagement, make great headlines but don't actually reflect the solid grassroots work that most nonprofits do.
  • Nonprofits have simply found a sneaky way to make big profits without any public benefit. There are indeed so-called nonprofit hospitals out there making lots of money without using it directly to benefit their community. But it's not the norm. Most nonprofits are barely squeaking by financially.
  • Nonprofits can function with all volunteer workers. Nonprofits do indeed rely on volunteer labor 25.3% of American adults volunteer over 8 billion hours (valued at $175 billion) each year. But with increasing demands both in terms of programs and governance, the sector has moved towards professionalism, and it's not going back.
  • Nonprofits need more oversight. Yes and no - given that the NHL, designated hate groups, and faith-based agencies owning property not used for faith-based purposes have nonprofit status, I actually believe there should be more oversight in the approval process. But the amount of scrutiny of nonprofits has increased significantly since the 1970's, and with this scrutiny has come accounting and legal requirements that are already a significant burden on small agencies.
Nonprofits provide over $900 billion dollars to the economy (5.4% of GDP) and employ over 11 million people (10% of our workforce); But they cannot take the place of government services. We can't go back to that golden-tinged past of volunteer-run organizations working out of church basements. For better or for worse, the world and the nonprofit sector have changed.