Gratitude and Misgivings . . . editor notes issue #75

Gratitude can be what gets us through a bad day. Or now, as the year comes to an end, gratitude can help us see the good in the past year and look at the coming year with hope. We at Blue Avocado are so grateful to all of you who read Blue Avocado, comment on articles, criticize us and praise us, reprint articles, and send us notes.

Let me take a moment, too, especially to thank our advertisers (see right and at bottom of page), our founding sponsors -- the Nonprofits' Insurance Alliance Group and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services -- and the 200+ individuals who have donated to Blue Avocado (we're like public TV: free to read but there are pledge breaks).

But this season comes with misgivings as well. The recent flurry of activity over the proposed cap on charitable deductions made many of us feel drowned in urgent calls to action pressing us to write to our Congressional representatives to make sure that the most affluent among us don't pay any more taxes as a result of making donations. (Some of the email and OpEd campaigns implied that all charitable deductions would be reduced, not just those in the very top tax bracket.)

Is there something off when the nonprofit's sector biggest campaign of the year is about defending the top 1% because otherwise they won't donate as much?

In fact, the whole exercise felt something like a Kabuki play about Chicken Little . . . mannered, rehearsed movements predicting doom when just about no one really thought the deduction reduction would ever take place.

We support the charitable deduction at its current level, but we couldn't help but have misgivings about the cry-wolf hyperbole and the characterization of nonprofits as charities that rely on donations from the wealthy rather than as economically robust drivers of social change, innovation, and prosperity. Just saying.

So with a mix of gratitude and misgivings, a very merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone, and a peaceful and prosperous new year.

* This issue is a fun mix: a harrowing update on the Vanguard Foundation story, a hair-raising story of how one nonprofit got through an IRS audit, a helpful (if slightly boring) article on interviewing candidates for the board, and a hilarious "Nonprofit Salary Calculator" just before you get your W-2 for the year. Plus a wonderful, unique gift you can give one of your co-workers . . . for free.

* See you in 2012 . . . Jan Masaoka

The Philanthropic-Consultant Industrial Complex . . . editor notes issue #74

You've probably heard of the 5% payout requirement for foundations . . . but most people mistakenly believe this means that foundations must grant out 5% of their assets each year. Actually, foundations must spend 5% of their assets each year . . . which can include their own salaries, office rents, and so forth.

But perhaps the least examined of all foundation spending is what they spend on consultants, such as consultants to themselves and their initiatives, contract staff, consultants to nonprofits (the $200K strategic planning grant that goes 100% to the consultant, none to you), and so forth.

In fact, in the blink of 15 years, we've gone from a time when there was hardly any nonprofit infrastructure support to one where it feels as if the infrastructure -- we coined the term Philanthropic-Consultant Industrial Complex -- outweighs the nonprofits doing the actual work.

Even more than the money, the philanthropic-consultant infrastructure is changing who's running the show: rather than supporting nonprofits, foundations and consultants are increasing telling nonprofits what nonprofits should be doing.

(Of course we recognize the value of infrastructure . . . Blue Avocado is even part of that infrastructure. It's the relative size and the shifting center of gravity we're concerned about here.)

These days when a foundation announces it is starting an initiative for low income seniors, we now assume that much of the money will go to regrantors, researchers and consultants rather than to on-the-ground nonprofits and the seniors themselves.

And doesn't it sometimes seem as if the best and the brightest young people in the nonprofit sector want to be foundation program officers, consultants, or donation app makers? To tell the truth, we have enough program officers, enough (so often unsatisfying) consultants (really!), and enough start-up apps. We don't have enough people who aspire to run homeless clinics or foster care homes, to raise money for ethnic theaters or rights for prisoners, to be teachers rather than program officers making grants in education.

Our sector is in danger of hollowing-out. In fact, innovation comes from the ground up, and that's also where the real work takes place. Let's start by honoring, celebrating, and paying more to the people on the ground above how much we honor and pay the people in the infrastructure. Grantmakers and consultants: are you listening?

  • This issue you'll find an executive director evaluation form, an update to the Vanguard Foundation story, 3-Minute Vacation to Nonprofit AcronymLand, a legal guide to the latest in nonprofit social media,
  • How corny . . . but let's be grateful this month of Thanksgiving. I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to work on Blue Avocado. -- Jan Masaoka


We are the 99% . . . editor notes issue #73

We are the 99%. And we who work and volunteer in the nonprofit sector know more deeply than most the suffering that so many people are experiencing, and the frustration that young people in particular are feeling.

The authenticity of this movement is as moving to me as its successes. The Occupy Wall Street movement doesn't have the characteristic lacklusterness of campaigns produced by the political parties or the usual players in the anti-poverty movement. Take a moment to look at the wearethe99percent website to see the real stories of the mostly young 99%ers.

And the outburst has succeeded in changing the narrative. This narrative is particularly refreshing given a high-profile narrative that's all too present in the nonprofit sector: that the wealthiest (the 1%) and philanthropy will be the ones to change the world.

Despite the absence of high-profile individuals, it's clear that there is smart, experienced leadership in the movement. Only when there have been advance, sophisticated talks with the police can large demonstrations and arrests occur without violence and mayhem. A Southern California organizer tells us that many of the New York organizers have backgrounds in unions and in nonprofits.

If you make less than $593,000 per year, you are part of the 99%. (And did you know that the wealthiest 1% of the population owns more than the bottom 90%?) The nonprofit sector has always been about the 99%. Let's embrace this narrative and movement, talk about it, build upon it, join it. I'll see you there.

* This issue we have a high-value set of articles: one on nonprofit staff voting patterns, one on Contract Wizardry, one on executive director evaluations, and an Accounting Procedures Manual Template (now you don't have an excuse for not having one). Enjoy.

* If you'd like to attend a book party for my new Nolo Press book -- The Nonprofit's Guide to Human Resources -- and you'll be in San Francisco on November 15, please email Blue Avocado's project manager Susan Sanow at susan at blueavocado dot org and she'll send you an invitation.

* Changes for me and Blue Avocado: I am pleased to announce that I have accepted the job of CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, starting in January 2012. I'm very happy that I'll be able to continue to publish Blue Avocado, although we'll have fewer issues per year. I see my new job as an extension of working with the wonderful community of people that read and use Blue Avocado . . . we are the 99% of the nonprofit sector doing the heavy lifting on the ground in our communities. --Jan Masaoka

Only Bad Restaurants Go to Scale

We in nonprofits are good at taking on myths and sacred cows. But perhaps the least examined of these myths is the one about "going to scale." This OpEd takes a closer but brief look at the conventional wisdom in this area:

Myth #1: Nonprofits don't go to scale (get a lot bigger) because they lack the vision or the ambition

The reality here is that the dominant capital markets for nonprofits -- government and foundations -- actively work against nonprofit growth.

Regarding foundations, the common funding policy of "one smallish grant per organization per year" means increased volume doesn't lead to larger foundation grants. In fact, when nonprofits grow, many foundations become less interested in them. A commonly stated reason is "we want to feel where our size grant can really make a difference" . . . which often translates to: "we feel better funding organizations where we are one of their most important funders."

Government -- overall the biggest funder of nonprofits -- is not only the biggest engine for growth but also the biggest barrier to growth. Most community nonprofits . . .

Get A Lot More Out of a Conference . . . editor notes issue #71

Autumn is coming . . . which means we nonprofit folks will be either putting on a conference or going to a conference. Here are some unconventional tips on getting the most out of a conference:

1. Choose the sessions you know the least about. If you're a community organizer, you might feel you ought to go to the breakout sessions that focus on that. Instead, go to one on writing grant proposals. If you work with young people, go to the session on working with seniors. You'll learn something you can apply to your work -- you will. And you won't be bored and/or disgusted with the people speaking.

2. Instead of listening for good ideas (only), listen for things you can quote in your next grant proposal or monthly report. For instance, suppose you hear a speaker say something really stupid. Instead of ignoring it, write it down! In your next grant proposal you can say, "The extent to which this subject is misunderstood was demonstrated by a speaker's recent remark at a national conference . . . " Or somebody might say something obvious, like "it's really important to be flexible when it comes to public policy." Now you can quote: "As nationally recognized expert ___ said at a recent conference, 'It's really important to be . . . '" Get it?

3. Skip at least one session. Go outside. Take a taxi to the River Walk, or go shopping. From the inside of a hotel, you could be in Paris, Kansas City, or Jupiter. Go out and get a croissant or some barbecue. (Works best if you do this by yourself.)

4. Fail-proof way to meet someone: If you're an introvert or just sensitive, you might beat yourself up for not doing enough networking. Instead: get to a session early; other introverts will be sitting there playing solitaire on their cell phones. Sit near one of them, then lean over and say, "Would you mind if I introduced myself? I'm supposed to meet at least five new people at this conference and I haven't met any so far!" The other person will be so grateful that someone has made the first move he or she may even forget to move the six of diamonds up.

5. If you're bored or irritated by a session, walk out.

6. Put up a sign on the bulletin board: "If you want to go out for Thai food and talk about triple diagnosis approaches (or meet other Gen-Xers, or talk about trends in contemporary Native American art, or want to go to the XClub for dancing), meet here at 6:30! Worst case: no one shows up but you. But don't worry . . . no one will know!

And if you're putting on a conference, here's a tip: There's a relaxed camaraderie among staff working together at a conference. Take advantage of this to get to know a co-worker who intrigues you. Talk to the head of a different department, or someone in accounting: "I've always wanted a chance to chat with you . . . isn't it funny it turns out to be at a conference?"

This issue we are publishing a provocative article on Foundation-Nonprofit Partnerships simultaneously with the wonderful National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Also a sample Parental Waiver form when you have kids who volunteer, and Dennis Walsh on getting the most out of your audit. Dennis is the author of Blue Avocado's all-time most popular article: a bookkeeping test to give to prospective employees.

Thanks to so many folks who sent in their executive director evaluation forms. Next issue we'll have an article on the subject. And don't forget that subscribing to Blue Avocado is free . . . so encourage your co-workers to do so! -- Jan Masaoka

I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues . . . editor notes issue #70

Sometimes it seems like the bad news is big (the debt deal, global warming) and the good news is little (one little kid inspired). But our constant focus on the bad news can lead some people to mistake our depression and anger for cynicism. We like to quote the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe: "When I have stopped criticizing Africa, you will know I have given up on Africa."

In a similar way, we in the nonprofit sector demonstrate our hope for the future by criticizing the present, and our idealism about America by our criticisms of America. And here at Blue Avocado we would add: when we have stopped criticizing the nonprofit sector, you will know we have given up on it.

Four substantial articles this issue, including the scoop on Getting a Foundation Job, Advice for Boards with New Executive Directors, and an Ask Rita column on Personnel Files. And Kim Klein contributes a Nonprofit Tax Quiz . . . take it with your friends!

Plus a new batch of Blue Avocado webinars coming up and a 2-Minute Vacation. Quick reminder: if you find Blue Avocado useful or fun, encourage others to subscribe? --Jan Masaoka

P.S. Another favorite quote: "Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed to be undecided about them." (Laurence Peter)

Listen to the Music . . . editor notes issue #69

Several recent articles have clearly struck a nerve -- or pushed buttons -- for readers. The First Person Nonprofit story by a founding executive director whose board fired her incited nearly 100 people to write responses. Last issue's piece on the charitable deduction and John Killacky's "Regrets of a Former Arts Funder" got many people riled up -- either cheering or razzing.

For a moment, let's listen to the music and not the lyrics in these responses. What's surprised us is the harsh tone of so many critics ("put on your big girl panties") and the disagree-ers ("pseudo intellectual liberals know what is best"). Even the agree-ers are full of vinegared self-righteousness.

It's great to see strongly felt, colorfully said comments . . . they fit right in with our goal at Blue Avocado to be less jargonistic, less tiptoe-y, and less full of abstract platitudes like so much of the noise in the nonprofit sector. What strikes us in this instance is that this kind of harshness often comes from people who haven't had many conversations with people who disagree with them.

How many of us have recently had a conversation with someone with a truly different point of view? If we support reproductive rights, have we talked about it with someone who is "pro-life"? Have we discussed our presidential vote with someone who voted the opposite? Have we argued about taxes with someone of a different viewpoint? As for me? Guilty, guilty, guilty.

It's more fun to yell insults, especially anonymously. It's hard for me to sign my name to everything I write in Blue Avocado. But it's a discipline that makes me think harder about convincing someone. (I save my anonymous insult-making diatribes for whoever is playing against the San Francisco 49ers.) -- Jan Masaoka

* This issue: a board member talks about firing a founder, we discuss how to limit staff contact with the board, there's a review of all the "donate buttons" available to nonprofits, and a cooling visit to a hotel in Norway made completely out of ice.

* Query: For an upcoming story on executive director evaluations, we'd like to take a look at the the form or process document your organizations uses for your executive director evaluation. We'd like to collect several dozen as part of our research. To include yours, click here. Please include your contact information so we can properly thank you.

Luminosity . . . editor notes issue #67

Wow! The last special issue of Blue Avocado had more than 1,000 people sign up for free webinars, dozens of folks using the discount on Exceed fundraising software, and many taking advantage of big discounts for IdeaEncore and The Nonprofit Quarterly. Thank you for such a warm response!

Stories: we all know the importance of telling the stories of our clients, constituents, and community leaders. And we hear perhaps a few too many stories about wealthy donors ("Mrs. X donates to us!"-- note to community foundations: no more of these, please) and celebrities who start charities (never any follow-up by the way). But we seldom read the stories about ourselves: people working and volunteering in community nonprofits. (Also see Nonprofits in Popular Culture.)

That's why we like the First Person Nonprofit stories in Blue Avocado so much. This issue we hear from a still-bleeding founding executive director who was fired by her board. Other stories have included Our Executive Director is Embezzling, how a nonprofit pulled through the "shadow of failure," Six of Our Board Members are in Prison, an Air Force captain who changed careers to fundraising, and more. You can read them all by clicking here, and if you have a First Person Nonprofit story to tell, let us know about it by clicking here.

We also welcome a new advertiser: NTEN . . . see their ad across the bottom of this page . . . sign up for their free journal on smart technology use in nonprofits. We especially liked "Five Free Tools for Social Media Listening" in the March issue, and their upcoming free webinar on "Navigating the Nonprofit Cloud."

Finally, "It may be that you are not yourself luminous," said Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes). "But you are a conductor of light." In a similar way, nonprofits are not themselves bodies of light, but they conduct the luminosity of the people who make use of them to change the world. Keep on shining. --Jan Masaoka

Taking On the Big Stuff

A fast look at just four critical areas facing American society today: poverty, race, environment, and democracy:

1. What is the definition of "poor"? In the United States, for the government to consider a family officially poor, a household of four people must have total income of less than $22,050. Repeat for emphasis: a family of four must live on less than $22,050 or they aren't certifiably poor. And even with such a stringent guideline, one of every six children in America lives in poverty.

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