Saturday, February 28, 2009

Giving an "F" for "Big Fat Failure" to....

2009 OSCAR WINNERS. This year's podium was surprisingly devoid of political statements. With a national stage and an international audience, in an era ripe with need, this is a true shame. Kudos to Sean Penn for bucking this trend. Next time cross your fingers for a Brangelina win, because you know they would have put something out there...

Giving an "A" for "Effort" to....

BRISTOL PALIN. Her recent disclosure that abstinence is "not realistic at all" was a huge hit. Let's take it to the next level and support sex education that prevents! Take this report card home to mom, kid...

(Photo copyright: bpende)

I Give because I Get

President Obama's recently released budget has generated a lot of angst, even among the nonprofit community. One of the contentious parts of the president's proposal is a cap on charitable tax deductions by the wealthy. Many argue that the limit will reduce the amount of money wealthy people give, thereby shrinking the already shrunken coffers of many NGOs.

If this turns out to be true, could we safely assume that most people only give large sums to charity because they know they'll get it back?

In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Robert Reich - one of my favorite economists - argues that in the long run, there are trade offs to be made: can a better funded (and reformed) healthcare system better take care of our nation's populace than the nonprofit sector, which relies on the generosity of the wealthy?

He also raises a great point, while I make regular (albeit small) donations to charitable orgs, I am not eligible for deductions because my gifts have never exceeded $5,000. Perhaps our president is simply making equity more of a priority? I'm waiting for Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to use their socialism cry as a relaunching pad.

Addition: Thanks to one of our readers who sent us this link to the March 2, story in the Wall Street Journal. Would Bill Gates be concerned about getting $700 less on his $10,000 donation?

Picture: U.S. Government Printing Office

Friday, February 27, 2009

You're Invited

I have reached the point where my friends no longer want to hear my opinions on my pet nonprofit issue areas. Either that, or they have heard me so many times that they can recite my soliloquies back to me, sometimes word for word. It has gradually occurred to me that I need a new audience. And so, true to form for my type A self, I made a list of folks to invite to lunch, accompanied by a few talking points that I feel would segway the conversation nicely towards my agenda. Here are the three that presently top this list:

Colbert I. King
-- Sitting with this Washingtonian at the counter of Ben’s Chili Bowl would set the stage for my high school drop out speech. I know Colbert would hear me out, since he steadfastly devotes his weekly columns in the Washington Post to slamming the DC Youth Rehabilitation Service office and its historic claim to fame, the Oak Hill Detention Center. Colbert understands that leaving high school is a recipe for a cycle of decline-- both individual and community-- and that our city and others should engage every nonprofit that endeavors to staunch the flow of students leaving the nation’s pubic schools without their diplomas.

Bill Gates
-- Nonprofits need money, and Bill Gates has some. Surprisingly, he seems to have committed himself to giving it away. However, his donation strategy is clouded with layer after layer of subject matter experts, scientific studies, and high profile staff with heavy hitting resumes. I would not ask Bill to change everything, as there is validity underlying portions of his strategy. However, there are limitations to this approach, and I would definitely endeavor to make Bill see that to truly serve the sector, he needs to distance his money from what I believe to be the cult of authority.

President Barack Hussein Obama
-- Obviously I would have to be strategic here. With a finite lunch hour and seemingly infinite number of issue areas where our President possesses expertise, I will need to select a topic that is advantageous to my priority areas. Off the cuff, I think I will ask him to talk to me abut his time spent as a community organizer. Although I read his stories in Dreams of My Father, I want to engage his passion for his current work, which I fervently believe must have started with his front line service work. I want to talk to him about more explicitly setting his presidential decisions within this framework--and in doing so, push more front line service workers into politics and maybe, just maybe, push politicians and law-makers into service work.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thank You Nonprofit Worker (and Wise Roomie)

For the last month or so, my morning routine has been the same: I wake up, go upstairs to the common area and find my wonderful (and wise) roommate reading the newspaper. She always makes a statement to the effect of the economy being "in the crapper." Some days her descriptions are more family-friendly, other days they are not. Some days I nod in agreement, other days we engage in a discussion about the economy - a depressing way to start the day!

On a recently cold day, I thought of my morning conversation with Wise Roommate. I started to ponder how in certain seasons (like winter), people are in more need of emergency services; at the same time because of the poor state of the economy, not only are more people than usual in need of social services, more social service agencies than usual have to do more with less.

All indications are that the economy is not getting better anytime soon. This means that nonprofits and their staff will have to continue to stretch themselves thin in order to meet the needs of their ever-growing clientele. Unfortunately, I don't think nonprofits get enough credit for the work they do (and are doing) in these difficult times.

My goal for the next week will be to make a conscious effort to appreciate friends, family and acquaintances who are in the business of helping those who really need it the most. I urge you to do the same. Perhaps the spirit of goodwill can help revitalize our ailing economy (the economic stimulus might help too?)

(Photo copyrightfranco folini)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another nonprofit? Make it stop, please!

"I care about poor people and I have this great idea that will make a difference!"

Translation: I'm going to start a nonprofit, get registered and add to the proliferation of 501(c) 3s in the sector.

As a self-proclaimed lover of the nonprofit sector, even I find myself often wondering why there are so many nonprofit organizations, many of which are actually doing the same thing. In a small town in New Jersey, you can find several organizations geared at mentoring youth, several geared at providing services for the homeless, several geared at organizing parents to become advocates. The list of duplicities continues.

I admit that with a population of 8 million, New Jersey is a fairly large state. However, I still wonder why the first inclination when we have a bright idea is to start our own organization. Admittedly, most of the organizations that already exist are certainly not perfect. Perhaps what they need are people with bright ideas to join them rather than compete with them.

Of course economists tell us that competition is healthy and may help attain better results. I will not argue against that point - I think it is often true. However, as the economy continues to shrink and funders continue to tighten their coffers, the proliferation of NGOs has resulted not only in competing to provide the best service, but also competing for scarce funds. As a result, Jane who had a bright idea is now fighting Kareem, who also had a bright idea.

What would happen if Jane and Kareem jointly decided to create a mentoring program? Is starting an NGO about me feeding my ego or figuring out the most efficient way to make a difference in the lives of others? Does there have to be an economic crisis to force collaboration within the sector? Is more really better?

For a somewhat alternative opinion, check out Nathaniel Whittemore's piece on

Nonprofit Baggage

Today I've been trying to decide whether or not I carry with me a certain amount of "nonprofit baggage." I suppose all of us who have an ongoing relationship with the sector, no matter how positive or how tortured, do.

I was struck by this last night and linger on with my shame today. Naturally, since I'm too cheap to buy a TV, I simply watch all my TV online on This way, I get to shock people into thinking I have "values" and that I spend time "reading" when really I am watching 30 Rock.

But onto the point: During a short commercial break, after I thanked God for the third week in a row that Salma Hayek was still a guest star, I suddenly realized that I was not watching a preview for an upcoming teen horror film or for a new line of fuel-efficient sports cars, but that was trying to sell me their "product" during the short ad slot. In fact, it was a clip of one of the greatest salesman of all-time, President Bill Clinton, telling me about the wonders of kiva, which allows individuals to "lend to a specific entrepreneur in the developing world."

Now, kiva certainly has great brand recognition. And from all accounts, they are doing amazing work turning an old model of philanthropy effectively on its head. So why could I not shake an overall feeling of ickiness and mild repulsion when I saw this ad? I know it wasn't just the shock of seeing ol' Bill look, well, old, but that somehow that ad and the venue it was running on made the mission of kiva seem ironically cheapened to me.

Am I just carrying nonprofit baggage? Is this my issue? Do I need nonprofit therapy?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Balancing Checkbooks

"Nonprofit accounting is designed to ensure that the recipients of grants from the federal government and other benefactors are held accountable for the funds they receive. Regrettably, the big banks that have been granted billions from the Troubled Asset Relief Program are less transparent in their financial reporting than the local soup kitchen that gets federal support."
Today's op-ed in the NY Times, offered up by a pair of accountants, brought me back to the ranch. I instantly thought back to year after year of spending nights and weekends frantically pulling together the necessary details to complete the financial reports required monthly/weekly/quarterly/annually to keep the grants that kept my program running. It was a time suck and an energy suck. It was a distraction of resources to an infinite degree. And yet, somehow, financial documentation was correlated with program success for our nonprofit. And so I obliged.

Explain, please, how financial institutions, with very hard bottom lines and very tangible products, are not held to this same process. Explain why my MBA counterparts in the private sector were not up at nights with me, matching their dollar for dollar revenues and expenditures, always making sure that in the end, they were working with the amount that they were given, no more and no less. For me, finances were secondary to program mission. For banks, finances are their program mission. I did both. TARP recipients, and many of their private sector and banking peers, apparently are not being required to do either.

Here's hoping that the Prez, with his obvious passion for the nonprofit sector, puts a spotlight on the many soup kitchens and the like, that manage to produce balanced budgets, even while doing their real work of feeding the hungry. And here's also hoping that in the same vein, the Prez hands TARP recipients a basic checkbook balance sheet-- with a mandate to use it. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

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