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.

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!