Thursday, June 23, 2005

Large national importance

I will admit I haven't read the book Martin Morse Wooster reviews here, but take a look at this comment:
Whether CEOs of large establishment groups such as the San Francisco Foundation or the Ford Foundation are white or black, male or female, they present themselves as pasty grey people who have long shed any passions or quirks that would make them interesting. Consequently, many people have quit listening to them. It’s been decades, for example, since the president of a major foundation has written an article or given a speech of large national importance.

If I were Sandra Hernandez or Susan V. Berresford, my response might be, "This from a conservative hack toiling in the book review section of Philanthropy? You write much material of 'large national importance' sneering at the work of others?"

But I'm not them, you see, and I think he's got a point. So all I see is a challenge.

Not just for the wealthy

From Philanthropy Magazine:

Most observers now recognize that lifetime giving understandably increases as people move up the economic ladder. For instance, the richest 1.2 percent of American wealth-holders contribute 28 percent of all charitable donations according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy (CWP).

But CWP research also suggests that it’s not just the objective size of people’s pocketbooks that matters but also their subjective sense of financial security.


A sense of financial security has a strong positive relation to charitable giving. Why? At the least, these findings reflect a growing ability and desire among people who have settled the economic question for themselves and their heirs to discern their discretionary resources and to invest that surplus in socially and spiritually purposive ways. For this reason, a growing and vibrant economy that fulfills the desires for family well-being is an indispensable ally of philanthropy.

Charts not included in the online feature seem to show that people don't just give because they can but because they feel they can. Even with more modest wealth, people give when they feel financially secure. It's not about whether or not you are rich; it's about whether or not you feel rich.

Key to democratizing philanthropy, to making philanthropy a viable option for everyone, then, is a "a growing and vibrant economy." In such an economy, philanthropy is not the exclusive privilege of the rich but the promise held out to anyone who seeks to better the conditions of others.

Happy Birthday

There's a cute story in the Minneapolis Foundation's Spring issue of Catalyst (good name for a magazine).

A woman donated $18,263 to a group called YouthLink in honor of her husband's 50th birthday. 18,263, one dollar for each day of his life.

It makes you wonder what you might accomplish even with modest wealth as long as you do it over time and with a few like-minded friends. When you can feed the Queen of England for a buck-twelve a year, what else might we achieve?

Bite the Hand that Feeds

After conservatives criticized Amnesty International for calling Gitmo "the gulag of our times," conservatives are now targeting the Red Cross. In a report titled "Are American Interests Being Disserved by the International Committee of the Red Cross?," the Republican Policy Committee questions whether or not the organization "has lost its way." From the Los Angeles Times:
The ICRC is the only organization mandated by international treaty to monitor the observance of the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners, and it has the right to visit prisoners. But the GOP report charges that the group has exceeded the bounds of its mission by trying to "reinterpret and expand international law" in favor of terrorists and insurgents; lobbying for arms-control issues that are not within its mandate, such as a ban on the use of land mines; and "inaccurately and unfairly" accusing U.S. officials of not adhering to the Geneva Convention.

I'm amazed that the government can tell this organization that it's lost its way. I'm pretty sure they're very clear on what their mission is. If you don't like what they see, don't criticize the organization - look in the mirror. When ICRC, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups are reporting on North Korea, China, or Sudan, they're lauded as courageous organizations who speak truth to power. We can't suddenly wonder about their credentials when the spotlight is turned on us; we should be worried about our own.

It's a disturbing trend to see this kind of rhetoric. One of the more dangerous recommendations the Senate Finance Committee included in its July 2004 white paper on charitable reform was having the tax-exempt status of every charity and foundation reviewed every five years. Adam Meyerson, President of the Philanthropy Roundtable, called this "a serious threat to philanthropic freedom," saying:
This automatic power, unless it is very carefully circumscribed, would be an open invitation for presidential administrations to use the IRS as a weapon against charities and foundations they disagree with philosophically. Even if tax-exempt status were not revoked, a serious IRS challenge to the exemption would tie up in administrative knots a politically disfavored charity or foundation, making it much more difficult to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal held a discussion in November of last year entitled Philanthropy and the American Regime: Is It Time for Another Congressional Investigation of Tax-Exempt Foundations?, in which Hudson scholar John Fonte advocated another Congressional investigation into American foundations and whether or not their grantmaking served to undermine the American regime. I don't mean to say that any of these occurrences are related, but I do think they contribute to an atmosphere in which it becomes possible to shut down charities not for any financial indiscretion or instance of self-dealing but for what they try to accomplish. If people can go after the Red Cross, of all groups, what marginal grassroots nonprofit stands a chance?

The Costs of Compliance

I've never accepted "it's hard work" as an excuse for noncompliance or underperformance, but I wonder if the regulatory atmosphere in the third sector doesn't make the nonprofit CEO's job unnecessarily difficult. Not only does overly burdensome or unclear regulation divert precious charitable resources but such regulation prices the people out of the charitable marketplace.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Business executives who worry about meeting growth targets every quarter may think they would have fewer headaches running a nonprofit. In fact, the job is more stressful than ever as more nonprofit groups compete for limited funding. And while juggling myriad personnel and other duties, heads of nonprofits also feel pressured to strengthen governance practices and codes of ethics. In this post-Enron era, many nonprofits, including Juilliard, have adapted the governance practices laid out in Sarbanes-Oxley, the 2002 corporate reform law.

"Sarbanes-Oxley doesn't apply to nonprofits, but like ink in water it's changing the way they operate," says Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. "Suddenly you've got accounting firms that audit nonprofits clamoring for the same financial controls now in place at for-profits." And nonprofit trustees want more transparency. Although they're exempt from financial liability in most states except in cases of fraud, they worry that in this climate their reputations could be hurt if money is misused or the organization falters.

Charities worry less about actual instances of abuse and more about the appearance of abuse. It's understandable. Public trust is their stock-in-trade. On the advice of professionals, they adopt a regulatory framework that doesn't even apply to them, which increases the compliance headache, which pushes them back to professionals, and you get the idea. I don't have anything against the accountants, lawyers, and financial advisors who, to a great extent, have made the good work of this sector possible. Instead of or in tandem with the contemplation of creative, carefully crafted regulation and figuring out ways of installing the proper safeguards, we turned those professional energies to how to make compliance easier for nonprofits. If we want to do more to make the sector more effective and accountable, we should be exploring ways to make it easier to be such. Expanding e-filing programs and the capacity of the IRS come to mind. As Thomas Paine once wrote, "Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


I caught the American Film Institute's top 100 movie quotes last night.

I'm not about to engage in what should have made the list (what? not one quotation from a Quentin Tarantino movie?). Any list is bound to have omissions. The whole list isn't as much about ranking as much as it is about pointing out just how much these words have become part of our culture, part of our lives.

I was in England as an exchange student for a semester in college with a group of about twenty other college kids. We hopped on a charter bus in Oxford and went to Bath and Stonehenge to see the sites. We took these trips as part of a month-long British history, culture, and civilization orientation course. We'd been to Stratford-upon-Avon, to London, and one of the trips was Bath and Stonehenge. I don't remember much of the trip, except posing for pictures, but on the long way home, the bus had television and a VCR and, for reasons I don't understand, we end up putting in a beat-up VHS tape of "A Few Good Men."

The movie's winding toward its finale as we wind our way back to our destination near the Bodleian. We arrive, the movie's cut off right before the final confrontation, and we're told it's time to go. Of course, Jack Nicholson lecturing Tom Cruise at the film's end is the only reason to watch this movie, so we convince the driver and our teacher guide to let us stay and watch. Finally, we all got what we stayed for:

"You want answers!?"

"I want the truth!"

"You can't handle the truth!"

The whole bus explodes into applause. It's total pandemonium. We were cheering, yelling, screaming. It was one of the most incredible movie-watching experiences I've ever had, and it happened one September evening on a bus in Oxford with a Tom Cruise movie.

Are you crying?

This is absolutely ridiculous:
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) yesterday offered a tearful apology on the Senate floor for comparing the alleged abuse of prisoners by American troops to techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge, as he sought to quell a frenzy of Republican-led criticism.

Durbin, the Democratic whip, acknowledged that "more than most people, a senator lives by his words" but that "occasionally words will fail us and occasionally we will fail words." Choking up, he said: "Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies."(my emphasis)

"A tearful apology."

"Choking up."

What is going on here? Here's what the man actually said:
"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings," Durbin said. "Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

I don't see anything to apologize for. Torture isn't something you'd expect from Americans. True. This is something we're supposed to be above. True. Suddenly, instead of answering the charge, he's made to answer for his rhetoric. We go after Durbin for what he says instead of others for what they do?


This quotation gets at the heart of this:
Then, Chicago's Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley, declared: "I think it's a disgrace to say that any man or woman in the military would act like that."(emphasis mine)

Note that. It's not a disgrace to do such things; it's a disgrace to say somebody did those things.


And, then, after holding out for a time, he apologizes. Tearfully.


Senator Durbin, you had no reason to apologize, and you gained absolutely nothing for yourself, your party, or your cause by doing so. You work among people who have apologized for nothing. They don't apologize for being asleep at the wheel, for dropping the ball on Osama bin Laden. They don't apologize for largely abandoning Afghanistan. They don't apologize for a bungled Iraq war, the deficit, anything. There are things in this world for which you should be made to answer, but you didn't do them, so why are you apologizing?


UPDATE: See Eric Zorn's "What Dick Durbin Should Have Said."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Strong and Weak Accountability

I'm skeptical of accountability as a concept because of the coercive social control apparatus I see at work behind it. The charitable sector is allowed to take risks, to be innovative, to be different precisely because it doesn't answer to constituents or stockholders. As long as there are convictions that aren't up for a vote or sale, there ought to be a sphere in which we are largely able to act upon them, and that sphere is the philanthropic world.

So the problem for nonprofit and philanthropic accountability is: to whom do we answer? The quick answer for me, in the interest of absolute and perfect freedom, is: no one.

But how do we account for the fact that we employ accountability as a concept?
Perhaps, introducing a new distinction in to our notions of accountability might help. I'm aware of procedural/legal (filling out your 990) vs. substantive (do you fulfill your mission?) distinctions that have been drawn, but I don't know of any that specifically highlight the coercive element. Actually, in the notion I'm about to talk about legal accountability is the only accountability there is. In my mind, you're only really accountable if you can be either stopped (strong thesis)... or bested (weak thesis):

Strong thesis: Person X is accountable to Person Y if and only if:
1. Y may question the activities of X.
2. X must answer to Y to the satisfaction of Y.
3. Y can legitimately compel X to cease and desist his/her activities.

Weak thesis: Person X is accountable to Person Y to the extent that:
1. Y may question the activities of X.
2. X must answer to Y to the satisfaction of Y.
3. Y can engage in competing activities that neutralize the effects of Y's activities.

This demonstrates the alternatives available to those who want to see the sector become more accountable. In an attempt to make philanthropy as free as possible, the only notion of accountability I can admit is one which minimizes the amount of coercive power brought to bear on the sector. Therefore, I endorse the strong thesis, and I'm incredibly skeptical of most regulation of the charitable sector. This, however, leaves a lot of room for abuse of the sector. What good is this freedom of ours if it's squandered? This is where the weak thesis ought to come in. Accountability is about competition, pushing someone to compete with you, to answer to you.

We make the tools of philanthropy available to as many people as possible so if someone comes in to the sector and creates a think tank we don't like, we are able to answer them in kind - we start our own think tank and neutralize the overall effect they might have. If people are funding harmful groups, we fund the helpful. They counter with more refined efforts; we anticipate their actions and push ourselves to innovate.

Accountability is often about the less powerful demanding more from the powerful or vice versa. Viewed in the way we just described, however, accountability can become about equals demanding more from one another and pushing one another to greater heights.

Conrad responds

In response to an email I sent, I just now received a response from Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota. He writes (apologies, no scanner, must type):
Thank you for contacting me regarding Washington, D.C., property taxes. It was good to hear from you.

The homestead deduction is a reduction in the assessed value of a home, prior to tax computation, for a property owner claiming Washington, D.C., as his principal residence. I maintain a residence in Washington because I have been elected by the people of North Dakota to represent them in the nation's capital. However, since my principal residence is North Dakota, I have repeatedly asked the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue not to give me this deduction. Enclosed is a copy of a letter I wrote the D.C. government, and a copy of the letter I received in response.

Again, thank you for contacting me... (emphasis added)

He encloses a copy of his handwritten letter, which begins "As I explained last year..." and includes this great passage:
Although we apparently qualify for the homestead credit, we choose not to receive it.

The letter from the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue reveals that Conrad "neither applied nor qualified" for the deduction in question.

I sent all the Senate Finance Committee members who received the DC homestead deducation an email and Conrad is the only one to have responded with a letter. I did get a few confirmation, you-sent-us-an-email-thanks-very-much responses. I don't begrudge the others' not responding to me. I am a Virginian who works in DC, emailing about a DC issue to a senator from North Dakota, among others. While senators' decisions might affect me, technically, they don't answer to me, so I don't expect the thorough response Conrad gave to my email. Thanks and kudos to Conrad for taking the time out to answer a concerned citizen's questions.

It's good to know that this is an error.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Keeping Hopes Hi

An Atlanta-area nonprofit that serves developmentally disabled adults stands to lose federal funding for meals due to how the federal grant guidelines define the services such a grantee can provide. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Some of the developmentally disabled adults who spend their days at the Hi Hope Service Center in Lawrenceville have been dining for free in the agency's cafeteria since they were children, but that's about to change.

Starting this month, the 46-year-old nonprofit center, which offers training services, work programs and housing for its clients, will lose about $65,000 a year in federal grants. Hi Hope officials say replacing that revenue will require the agency to charge clients $75 a month for meals in Hi Hope's cafeteria. The food subsidy paid for breakfast and/or lunch for about 100 Hi Hope clients.

Other recent cuts in the agency's funds may require the center to assess clients' families other charges for services, Hi Hope's executive director said Monday.

"Everybody is going to have to pay something. At the rate we're going, there's going to have to be an assessment fee," said Alice Cunningham, the executive director. "It concerns me because without doing the assessment fee to families, it's going to be very difficult to stay open."

This is pretty standard nonprofit news fare as nonprofits whose services often depend on receiving such subsidies face budget cuts on the federal and state level. This forces them to pass the expense on to families that may not be able to afford them. What isn't so standard about Hi Hope is why they stand to lose out:
Mentally disabled children who started coming to Hi Hope when it was a school in 1959 are now adults who do part-time work in the center's workshop — putting nuts and bolts together, stuffing envelopes or labeling packages — for less than minimum wage.

The goal of the workshop is to make participants productive people in the work force.

And it turns out that's bad for Hi Hope.

The center has been disqualified from the federal meals subsidy because it doesn't meet the definition of an adult day care center, said Todd Blandin, spokesman for the Bright From the Start, Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning, which administers the program money.

If the workshop were being used to maintain mental alertness and motor skills and not to train clients for future employment, Hi Hope would qualify for the food subsidy, Blandin said.

"There are guidelines and clear definitions, and based on that information, they're not eligible," Blandin said. "It has to come down to something, otherwise it's just all a gray area."

But the way Cunningham sees it, that means that if the center's clients sat around and watched TV all day, rather than work, they would qualify for the meals subsidy.

"That's the government," she said. "That's the law, so it would be a matter that the Legislature would have to look at."

It's simple. Where the government ought not, cannot, or does not provide adequate social services, it falls to the philanthropic sector to pick up the slack. Often, philanthropy claims that it cannot do this. It's simply not up to the task; the philanthropic sector doesn't have the resources the government does. However, organizations like Hi Hope don't need $2.338 trillion; they need $65,000 per year to serve meals to their clients. That's not out of the realm of possibility for Atlanta's generous.

The following ten foundations are among the biggest givers in the Atlanta area. Contact them, refer them to the story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and ask them to contribute to this nonprofit that has been doing good work in their backyard for the past 46 years.

Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, Inc.
50 Hurt Plz., Ste. 1200
Atlanta, GA 30303
Telephone: (404) 522-6755
FAX: (404) 522-7026

The UPS Foundation
55 Glenlake Pkwy., N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30328
Telephone: (404) 828-6374
FAX: (404) 828-7435

Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Inc.
50 Hurt Plz., Ste. 449
Atlanta, GA 30303
Telephone: (404) 688-5525
FAX: (404) 688-3060

J. Bulow Campbell Foundation
The Hurt Building, Ste. 850
50 Hurt Plz.
Atlanta, GA 30303
Telephone: (404) 658-9066
FAX: (404) 659-4802

The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
3223 Howell Mill Rd, N.W.
Atlanta, GA 30327
Telephone: (404) 367-2100
FAX: (404) 367-2059

The Goizueta Foundation
4401 Northside Pkwy., Ste. 520
Atlanta, GA 30327-3057
Telephone: (404) 239-0390
FAX: (404) 239-0018

The Marcus Foundation, Inc.
1266 W. Paces Ferry Rd., No. 615
Atlanta, GA 30327-2306
Telephone: (404) 240-7700

The Coca-Cola Foundation, Inc.
1 Coca-Cola Plz., N.W.
Atlanta, GA 30301
Telephone: (404) 676-2568
FAX: (404) 676-8804

Turner Foundation, Inc.
133 Luckie St., 2nd Fl.
Atlanta, GA 30303
Telephone: (404) 681-9900
FAX: (404) 681-0172

The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation
1201 W. Peachtree St., Ste. 5000
Atlanta, GA 30309

This isn't just a job for big foundations though. Please consider getting involved yourself. Contact the Center:
The Gwinnett County Association for Retarded Citizens, Inc.
Hi-Hope Service Center

882 Hi-Hope Road
Lawrenceville, Ga 30043
Telephone: 770-963-8694
Fax: 770-963-0038

Friday, June 03, 2005

Could Thomas Paine have written today?

Great post by Digby via Atrios.

If the true test of the vitality of a culture is whether or not it could, in principle, reproduce the forces that brought it into being, produce such people as those that made it great, then I think we've got some serious thinking to do.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Vision for Philanthropy

I want a democratic philanthropic sector.

I want a sector "of the people, by the people, for the people."

I want a world in which anyone with a personal computer, an Internet connection, time to spare, money to burn, and a desire to make a difference can become a philanthropist.

I want to be able to walk in to a public library tomorrow, sit at a public terminal on a public network, and, from there, at little or no cost, start my own giving vehicle - be it giving circle, donor-advised fund, or private foundation.

I want, with a few taps on a keyboard and a few clicks of a mouse, to make investment decisions, make grants, and report on my efforts to the appropriate authorities and to the public at large.

I want a national conference, sponsored by the nation's largest philanthropies and attended by its smallest, to examine how this vision might be realized.

And I want the nation's wealthiest ten foundations to commit substantial sums over the next twenty years to the promise of this new democratic philanthropy.

The people are to be given a place to stand and a lever long enough, and, together, we will move the earth.

From this day forward, the legacy of Prometheus is to be the birthright of all who aspire to it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Emmett floats the idea

The transcript for the April 21, 2005 Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership Issues Forum "The Cost of Caution: Advocacy, Public Policy, and America's Foundations" is now available.

I didn't get the chance to attend the event, but, before I talk about the thrust of the argument that seemed to have gone on, I was interested to see that Emmett Carson floated his $1-million floor at this presentation.

His comments, at least, in the transcript, seem to come out of nowhere on page 18. It's such a non sequitur that the panelists don't respond until two pages later and promptly move on.

Here's how the panelists respond:
Bill Schambra: I think Emmett Carson’s proposal is a terrible idea, the notion of banning foundations under $1 million. If we are going to have a grass roots agenda in this country that does, in fact, cut across the political spectrum, it's going to come not from the large foundations that are entrenched in the technocratic agenda, but from the folks who have set up a very small foundation, who are moved by some very small, particular concern on some issue, who are focused on their locality. Those smaller foundations, I think, are the hope of the future.

I think Emmett made a telling remark, that if you were to ban those foundations, it wouldn't affect the membership of the large philanthropic associations at all. This is part of that general process of eliminating amateurs by professionalizing and credentialing and raising the barrier to entry for new start-ups. I think this is happening in the foundation world. I think that the philanthropic associations are very likely to game the Senate in such a way that they actually manage to get restrictions that are more onerous for new struggling start up organizations of all sorts, and that is a dangerous thing.

Emmett Carson: For those of you who are listening to what I am saying, let me be quite clear: These individuals can continue to give, continue to be effective, continue to have whatever values that they have, but there are 48,000 entities that don’t have annual reports, that don’t have any access to professional information, to ideas, to research - to a whole range of things. The structure of a foundation is very complicated, but it offers no inherent advantage to individual giving. There are other ways that donors can be just as effective, not have a tax return every year, not drain resources. The issue is the structure. It’s not the giving.

Pablo Eisenberg: Emmett, I would feel a lot more comfortable about your suggestion if, in fact, there were a minimal payout requirement for those funds under community foundations and other financial institutions to make sure that the small donors actually pay out some of their money.

I think Schambra's comments clinch the issue: "Those smaller foundations, I think, are the hope of the future." Carson's vision of philanthropy is threatened. It should be.