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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Seven Ways to Energize and Engage Your Supporters

Okay - so you're asking folks for donations. But are you also asking them to get actively involved? Here are seven ways you can invite them to participate:
  • Ask them for feedback. Send out a survey, soliciting suggestions about your programs and services. Invite comments through an organizational blog. Hold an open public forum. Have personal meetings with key donors and stakeholders. Thank them for their feedback, incorporate ideas that make sense (asking them to help out as you do so!), and quietly discard those completely off-the-wall suggestions.
  • Get them to follow you on social media. Include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat - wherever your organization has a presence. And be sure to ask them to share your posts with their networks.
  • Ask them to take an action. Right now, people really want to feel they are doing something to make a difference. Ask them to sign a petition, forward an email, and/or make a phone call about an important issue that is consonant with your mission. If you're an arts organization, ask them to support funding for the NEA. If you serve kids, ask them to support funding for afterschool programs. If yours is an environmental agency or you work with immigrants, there are so many bills out there to oppose. And everyone can be urging Members of Congress to uphold the Johnson Amendment.
  • Invite them to volunteer. Are you publicizing volunteer opportunities on your website and enewslettersIf not, start now. Take the time to brainstorm ways you can incorporate volunteers. This could be assisting with senior programs, making phone calls, maintaining your outdoor space, selling refreshments at an event. Schedule an annual volunteer day with lunch provided, and take photos to post on your website.
  • Solicit their expertise. Do you need some advice about personnel issues? Help proofreading? Someone with technical know-how who can evaluate your website? The answers to a couple of quick legal questions? There are lots of retired folks out there who are happy to help nonprofits; you just have to ask.
  • Ask them to join a committee. One of the best ways to get folks involved is through an ad hoc committee - one with a specific focus and a short time frame. Could be a fundraising campaign, brainstorming about programs, or a review of your policy manual.
  • Invite them join your board. Everyone who volunteers time and expertise is a potential new board member. Keep a list, stay in touch, and if they are the right fit, ask them to join.
Volunteering is fun - it makes people feel good. And volunteers are more likely to make charitable gifts, because they feel personally invested. Plus you're broadening your networks, lightening your staff load, and strengthening your organizational capacity. It's a win-win.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Nonprofits in Trump Land: So Many Questions

There are so many questions about the impact of these complicated political times on the nonprofit sector:

Re the relationship between government and nonprofits:
  • Will this administration discard the nonprofit/government partnership forged in the 1960's to provide direct federal funding for social services? There has long been a push/pull between conservatives who believe the less government the better (and the only good nonprofit is a religious one) vs. progressives who feel government has a moral imperative to support social services. Right now the balance looks to be tipping conservative.
Re the impact of new government policies on clients and communities:
  • How can those who serve immigrant populations find the resources to address pressing issues while being mindful of the risks for those populations and at the same time just what they normally do? There is tremendous fear in the immigrant community  - this means that nonprofits need to be cautious and discreet, as well as respond to whatever is the current crisis. This means more work for your already underpaid and overworked staff.
Re nonprofit finances and fundraising:
  • How would the proposed loss of funding for NPR, NEA, and NEH impact the sector and the nation? These agencies receive a minuscule amount of federal funds but support programs that serve rural, suburban, and urban communities throughout the country.
  • What will be the impact if funding is slashed for government programs that provide legal aid, food, health services, afterschool programs, environmental protection, and financial assistance for low-income folks? There will be tremendous pressure to maintain these programs - but no secure funding.
  • Will foundations that fund arts and community organizations prioritize political advocacy and decrease support? It's already happening. So your focus needs to be on increasing individual contributions big and small, encouraging monthly contributions, and winning back lapsed donors.
  • After streamlining services and budgets following the 2008 recession, will nonprofits survive another round that could be even more severe? Every nonprofit in the country rolled up its sleeves, upped its fundraising game, slashed budgets, and became more strategic back then - because they had to. There's not much left to cut. But note that agencies completely dependent on one primary source of funds, whether from the government or foundations, fared the worst. Hopefully, you learned that putting all your funding eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster.
  • How will big national campaigns impact charitable giving to smaller nonprofits? Donations to the ACLU have increase 8,000%, and 1,000% for Planned Parenthood. Yet smaller organizations have also experienced donor bumps. And it is my experience that donors are capable of thinking both big and small, and being very loyal to organizations they care about. 
And now for our last question:
  • How can your organization make itself heard over the din of petitions and requests for money, and make the case that your nonprofit still matters? You do it the same way you always have - by staying in touch regularly and authentically, building relationships with donors, writing those thank you letters, and using every means at your disposal to reach out to your community for support.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Johnson Amendment: Religion, Politics & Nonprofits

I just signed a community letter from the National Council of Nonprofits opposing the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. And I'd like to urge you to do so as well.

This is an issue that hasn't risen to the top of the tweet and media chart. I'm guessing most of you don't even know what the Johnson Amendment is. But it's vitally important to the health of the nonprofit sector and to our preservation of the line between church and state.

Here's a basic summary: the Johnson Amendment states that in exchange for the privilege of tax-exempt status (along with the ability to receive tax-deductible contributions), 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations including religious congregations and foundations cannot participate in "any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." This amendment was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, apparently to squelch groups in his home state that opposed him.

President Trump has emphatically stated that he wants to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." He also said this could be his "greatest contribution to Christianity."

Public support has come from folks in the religious community who want their ordained religious leaders to be able to endorse partisan political candidates from the pulpit. Their rationale is that this is a First Amendment right.

But - the federal tax code already allows these organizations and their leaders to engage in public discourse. Nonpartisan voter education activities, church-organized voter registration drives, issue guides for voters, and sermons about social and political issues are all allowed. Religious leaders have shaped public debate since our nation's founding using these tools, advocating from both left and right (from civil rights to abortion). What the amendment does prohibit is campaign intervention - endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, publishing and distributing statements for or against them, and using tax-deductible resources to support partisan political activities.

So is this about free speech? Nope. The real objective is to allow wealthy donors like the Koch brothers to make tax-exempt contributions for partisan political purposes - and remain completely anonymous. Religious and nonprofit organizations would become central in the world of money and politics. This would be contrary to all the values I hold dear about the nonprofit sector and about American democracy.

I urge you to support the integrity of the nonprofit sector by signing this letter at And let your Congressional representatives know where you stand; despite Trump's promise to destroy the Johnson Amendment, he can't actually do it on his own - it's a law, and only Congress can repeal it. The nonprofit community needs to be a place where we can work together in a nonpartisan way to make this world a better place.

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!