Friday, December 1, 2017

Death, Taxes, Politics, Religion & Nonprofits

How can we count the ways that the Republican tax plan is bad for nonprofits and for our country? Here’s how:

Charitable giving is likely to decrease: The plan doubles the standard deduction. Experts predict this would cause a $14 billion decline in giving because the number of Americans who itemize their deductions and take a write off for their gifts would decrease precipitously.

Contributions from rich people will dominate: The plan focuses on increasing rewards for charitable giving aimed at rich people, rather than all income levels. Those who still itemize would get an even bigger charitable deduction (up from 50 to 60%), while the repeal of the estate tax leaves even more dollars for the well-to-do. The charitable deduction would become a tax benefit that specifically privileges the rich, and allows them to become the biggest voice in determining the focus of the nonprofit sector.

Churches will have license to become vehicles for politicking without accountability: All nonprofits can already speak out about political, social, and moral issues; repealing the Johnson Amendment would expand this to endorsement of partisan political candidates. Churches are 501(c)(3) nonprofits with a special dispensation; they don’t have to file IRS form 990. This means that donations made to churches for partisan political purposes would be both tax-deductible and anonymous. Note that 4,200 faith leaders, 5,500 nonprofit organizations, and 103 religious organizations have told Congress they oppose the repeal of current law.

Barriers between church and state will be eroded: The loudest voices in support of the repeal of the Johnson Amendment are Christian nationalists who believe our laws should be specifically guided by their very conservative Christian principles, movie towards a theocratic state. Full disclosure: I am not a Christian, and this view scares the neck out of me.

Nonprofits will be politicized: Nonprofits would be allowed to endorse and support political candidates, while still keeping their tax-exempt status. Political parties, candidates and wealthy donors could use tax-exempt organizations as tools or pressure them for endorsements. Consider this: Roy Moore’s charitable foundation (Foundation for Moral Law) has been actively promoting his candidacy. But the focus of nonprofits should be on doing good work in the community based on their charitable missions, not entering into our charged and divided political discourse.

I hope you will continue to press your congressional representatives to these dangerous consequences of the tax plan.

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.