Friday, March 3, 2017

Nonprofits: Why We Do What We Do

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and value of nonprofit work, especially in our current chaotic national climate.

It’s good to remember right now what a nonprofit actually is: a tax-exempt organization that serves the public interest, with a defined purpose that is charitable, educational, scientific, religious or literary. It’s about doing meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Here’s what nonprofits can do:
  • Provide essential services and support locally or nationally for people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds
  • Exercise prudent fiscal management, using budget surpluses to improve and expand your services
  • Provide education about and advocate for legislation and causes that are consonant with your mission – this is not only legal but some of our country's most important social gains have been won through nonprofit policy work including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (blood alcohol limits), the ACLU (discriminatory hiring practices) and Communities for a Better Environment (air quality standards)
Here’s what a nonprofit legally cannot do:
  • Operate for the benefit of private interests or individuals
  • Participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates
  • Use substantial amounts of your resources on lobbying (though the IRS is quite vague about what that actually means)
Here are a few things you should do:
  • Go back and read your mission – this is the cornerstone of your work, and I’m always amazed how many nonprofit volunteers and staff members have no idea what it is
  • Continue building, assessing, and strengthening your programs and your outreach in support of your core mission
  • Establish a policy that sets guidelines to determine if, how, why, and when you would choose to advocate publicly 
  • Speak out to your community, to your representatives, and to your local media outlets on issues that affect your constituents and connect to your mission
I founded a small town community center in 1971, back in that period of tremendous naïve idealism and hope and rebellion against the norm. I wanted to create community through music and dance; I wanted to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together. I wanted to do my part in this small microcosm to make the world a better place.

The bottom line: we all do this work because we want to make the world a better place (we certainly don’t do it for the money or the perks). I’m grateful for all the years I have spent in the nonprofit world. And I’m grateful for all the many nonprofits out there that are fighting the good fight right now.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These are the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty. She wrote this poem in reaction to anti-Semitic pogroms in 1881 that drove thousands of Ashkenazi Jews to emigrate from the Russian Pale of Settlement and come to America.

My great-grandparents fled another round of pogroms in Russia and Poland in 1905, seeking freedom and opportunity and a better life for their children. I am the descendant of immigrants who arrived in this country speaking no English and espousing what was a very foreign faith.

The core principle of that faith resonates and guides me today as I try to walk and work in this world, as I seek tikkun olam – to heal the world – in the best way I can through my nonprofit and volunteer work: You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This, in various forms, is the most repeated phrase in the Old Testament.

It is because I hold my family history, and these words, in my heart, that I am so deeply appalled at the immigration ban levied by the new administration. That’s why, rather than writing this month about fundraising or governance or nonprofit policy, I feel compelled instead to talk about why and how we, as nonprofit leaders and American citizens, need to speak up and act on our principles.

If your organization provides services for immigrants or refugees or those adversely affected by presidential executive orders, whether that be art classes or counseling or food provision, you need to make your voice heard. You need to know that strong advocacy for sound and compassionate policies is something you can legally do as a nonprofit organization (though you cannot speak for or against a partisan political candidate, which it appears would apply to our new President who has already filed officially as a candidate for 2020). You should be working with your staff and board to be ready to respond quickly to help and support your clients. You should provide a safe place for your community for civil dialogue, education, inspiration, activism, and connection.

I’m hoping these two quotes will raise your spirits and help carry you forward:
Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. Woody Allen
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose. Dr.Seuss

And this one, that I return to over and over again, for reassurance and strength:
It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot

The gravity and extent of the task – all the tasks we are facing right now – may seem overwhelming; I know it does for me. But we cannot give up. This is our country, this is our faith, these are our people; now is the time.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ready, Set, Go: 5 Nonprofit New Year's Resolutions

It's time for new year's resolutions - is one of yours to be more organized and productive at work? Here are a few suggestions for how to start 2017:
  • Map out the coming year: Take the time to look at your commitments for 2017. This includes events, programs, fundraisers, fundraising campaigns, grant application and report deadlines, performance evaluation schedules, annual reviews of policies and procedures, facility maintenance, equipment upgrades, and required inspections. Map all of it on your calendar. Consider not just the dates of events and programs; work backwards and mark when you have to start your planning process. Notice if you have several major time-consuming commitments scheduled around the same time; there might be a simple fix to make your year flow better.
  • Use your calendar program effectively: When I discovered that I could program my computer's calendar to send me email reminders of important deadlines, it was a hallelujah moment - because I spent many fewer days waking up in the middle of the night in a panic about whether I had sent that grant report out on time. It's a pain in the ass (and really time-consuming) to do this the first time around, but I promise you'll be thanking me for this tip. And if you've already done this, take a moment to make any necessary edits as well as brainstorm anything you should add into your calendar for 2017.
  • Review your Policy and Procedures Manual: First of all - I hope you have one. If not, this is your first order of business. If you do, take the time to read it thoroughly. Because you've probably forgotten much of it, yet this manual provides the basis for prudent governance. Note policies that need to be updated; note policies that your board and staff need to be reminded of. And note if there's anything that's missing or needs to be added to help your organization address new challenges that have arisen in the past year.
  • Read your mission statement: Yep - I highly recommend that staff and board actually take some time at the beginning of every year to read your organization's mission statement out loud, together. These words are at the core of what you do and why you do it - and it constantly surprises me how many folks who work in nonprofits can't remember what it says.
  • Resolve to take care of yourself: Remember to breathe before you speak defensively or in anger to a client, donor, volunteer, or staff member. Take time to schmooze, joke, and laugh with your colleagues. Be sure to actually take a lunch break. Don't sit in a chair staring at your computer all day - at the very least, take a walk around the block or do five minutes of stretching periodically. And take time to mingle with your clients, get to know them, and actually see what your nonprofit work is accomplishing.
Happy newly organized and productive new year to you all!