Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why You Should Care About the 2020 Census

The Census may seem unimportant compared to current big headline issues. Yet it's fundamental to our democracy. For me, it's personal, political, and based in my deep roots in community nonprofit work.

The basics: The census counts each resident of the country every ten years ending in zero, as per the U.S. Constitution. This has included citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, homeless folks, and undocumented immigrants.

Some history: The first census was in 1790. 1860 was the first year women, children, and slaves were included. Individual data is legally protected for 72 years – but from 1941 to 1947, the War Power Acts repealed this protection, thus facilitating the internment of Japanese, Italian, and German Americans.

Census data is used to:
  • Determine the distribution of Congressional seats to states
  • Draw electoral maps as well as maps for school and local government districts
  • Make planning decisions about community services including where to provide services for the disadvantaged, build new roads, and establish new schools
  • Decide how to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funds to local government programs and services
What’s up now: John Thompson abruptly resigned as Census Bureau Director in June 2016 and has not been replaced. The acting deputy director is a meteorologist. Funds for the bureau have been cut by 10%. To save money, staff has been cut, the internet will be the primary response option, and followup will focus on technological systems and third-party data rather than census workers knocking on doors. The Justice Department has requested that a question about citizenship be added to census forms. Requests to add questions about diverse populations and gender orientation/identity have been denied.

Here’s my personal story: 
     For decades I ran a small nonprofit community center in a small town in rural western Marin County. One of my very first ventures in fundraising was at a foundation serving disadvantaged populations. That program officer simply laughed at me, because, according to her, nobody was poor in West Marin, and everyone was white – it was simply a weekend destination for tourists and wealthy second-homers. I knew this wasn’t true. The folks I worked with were low to middle class; our programs included a free weekly senior luncheon, kids programs (with lots of scholarships needed), a holiday gift and food program. The workers on local dairy ranches were all Latino, and my son’s kindergarten class was 35% non-English speaking (today it’s 50%). And I myself was a full-time single mother struggling to make ends meet on a part-time nonprofit salary. But I had no data to prove this.
     So I embarked on a mission – to collect that data, and put together comprehensive information about the demographics of my community, for my nonprofit and the local nonprofits I worked with. And the primary source of this data was the U.S. Census. In 1990 and 2000, we became an official census center, providing census forms to everyone we could find plus recruiting and hosting trainings for census workers, with a focus on making sure the Latino community was counted. This wasn’t easy – folks were worried because many were undocumented. But we were able to assure them the information would help bring more services into town, and their responses would remain completely private. Given today’s climate, the proposed citizenship question would absolutely decrease participation among non-citizens and those from mixed-status families concerned about putting their relatives at risk of deportation. And the emphasis on internet response will disadvantage those who cannot afford or have limited access to broadband service.


Here’s what I urge you to do: Urge your state government to designate funding for census outreach and planning. Make plans to provide census information and forms to folks in your community. Encourage your coalition of local nonprofits to support the census in whatever way possible. Call your Congressional representatives and tell them to support and fund a full and fair Census process. Do it now.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

What Worked, What Didn't: Evaluating Your Fundraising

Your fall fundraising campaign is done; you've taken your holiday break. Now, pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath, and schedule time to analyze what worked and what didn't.

Here are some things to scrutinize:
  • Total amount raised: Did it increase, decrease or remain the same? How does it compare to the past five years? Did you meet your goal?
  • Number of donors: Ditto.
  • Donation amounts: How many folks increased their donations? How many decreased or remained the same? A gift chart is a helpful aid to visualize your results; it should look like a pyramid, with larger numbers of small donors at the bottom, big donors at the top.
  • Donor retention rate: What percentage of last year's donors gave again? The average rate is around 50%. Did you do better or worse? Any ideas why?
  • New donors: Were you successful in cultivating new donors? Did their numbers/dollars exceed those who did not return?
  • Lapsed donors: Did you do a specific appeal to lapsed donors? Did lapsed donors return? 
  • Ways of giving: Are folks giving online, or by check? Through your website or Facebook or email appeals forwarded by Board members? Do you have a monthly giving program (if not, you should), and is it growing? How much was unrestricted (i.e. available to fund ongoing operating expenses)?
  • Appeal response: Which appeals raised the most money? Look at emails, letters, phone calls. Consider timing - did you get a better response around Thanksgiving or at year's end? Consider messaging - was there a particular email that delivered? Did folks respond more to photos and/or videos? What was the content of the words/visuals that evoked the best response?
  • Thank you letters: Were thank you letters (or emails or postcards) sent out to every donor, whether for $5 or $1,000? Were they sent within ten days of receipt?
  • Donor demographics: Do your donors represent a diverse mix of ethnicity, age, geography, and economic backgrounds?Are your volunteers making contributions?
  • Staff report card: Did everyone on staff contribute in some capacity, whether by making asks or designing emails or sending out thank you letters?
  • Board report card:  Did every Board member make a donation that was significant for them? Did your Board members make all their asks? Who got more responses? Take some time to talk with those who were successful, find out what worked for them, and have them share their insights with your Board.
Next, analyze this information in brainstorming sessions with both your staff and your Board. After that, document everything. Be sure to add any information you have gathered about significant donors to your database including how much and when they gave, whether they wish to remain anonymous, specific comments they made, and who solicited their donations. Finally, use this information to create your 2018 fundraising calendar and plan.

And then you start all over again, older and hopefully wiser, raising the money you need to continue your good work in this new year.

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.