Featured Articles

The rich deliciousness of Blue Avocado . . . in-depth stories that give you the inside scoop.

Six of Our Board Members are in Prison

Do you have a hard time getting board members to meetings? Justice Now, a California organization working in women's prison issues, has ten board members, of whom six are imprisoned. There is much to learn from them about involving board members in strategic decision-making, about board member mentoring of staff, and about how board members can raise money from their peers in unexpected circumstances. In this issue Board Treasurer Misty Rojo and Co-Founder/Executive Director Cynthia Chandler talk with Blue Avocado.

Blue Avocado: Misty, I understand that you were released three months ago after nearly ten years in prison, and you've been on the board for six years. How did you get involved with Justice Now?

Misty: When I was just starting my time in prison, I had some health problems. I met two women who were fellow inmates who were founding members . . .

Alligators in the Boardroom and Urban Legends About Nonprofits

An influential but under-the-radar form of popular culture is the urban legend. Like the mythic alligators in the New York sewers or the man who woke up in an ice-filled bathtub without a kidney, nonprofits are the victims of urban myths and legends. Common assumptions -- just by being passed along through so many people -- gain a measure of credibility just by their frequent telling and longevity. This Board Cafe article may be useful for your fellow board members, your neighbors, and others.

Urban Myth #1: Nonprofits can't make a profit. Truth: In fact, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines do not say that nonprofits can't have profits, but they do clearly state that any profits can't be simply distributed to board members (as corporate profits are to shareholders). The IRS requires surpluses ("profits") to be reinvested in the organization's work. Such cash reserves -- built through . . .

Nonprofits Portrayed in Popular Culture

Thanks to dozens of Blue Avocado readers who sent in examples of nonprofits in popular culture, here's a look at the mostly-fake world of nonprofits on the big and small screens.

Queen Latifah in "Life Support" is a refreshing exception to how nonprofits are typically portrayed in popular culture. As Ana in this 2007 film, she works her butt off at Life Support, an AIDS education nonprofit, but neglects her family and endangers her own health (sound just a little familiar?). Through Ana, we catch glimpses of what we know community nonprofits to be: fiercely committed,under-staffed, and essential life support to their clients and the community writ large.

In contrast, nonprofits are more usually invisible, stereoptyped, or off-camera employers of minor characters. For example, in "The West Wing," Mary Louise Parker played the director of a women's rights group deeply enmeshed in policy work. Several "Curb Your Enthusiasm" characters interact with NRDC, a nonprofit where producer Larry David's ex-wife is active in real life. References to the real-life Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center as well as to the fictional California Arts Center pop up in "The L Word."

Nonprofit issues . . . but not nonprofits

But mostly what we learn about nonprofits in popular culture -- and not just in mainstream culture -- is wrong twice over. First, while the issues that nonprofits . . .

Low-Wage Workers and Nonprofits 6.1.09

Our Opening article this issue focuses on an often-overlooked, critical part of the nonprofit workforce: low-wage workers. We also have two great articles on another neglected part of the workforce, volunteers: Our First Person Nonprofit story comes from a frustrated, would-be volunteer, and Susan Ellis contributes a provocative Board Cafe column on the board's responsibilities for volunteers. And don't miss our signature Take a 3-Minute Vacation Right Now. We also want to thank new donors . . . like public radio, we depend on you! (See "Join and support Blue Avocado in right column to donate.) Now, on to our lead article for this issue: Low-Wage Workers and Nonprofits.

Let's look at two uncomfortable facts:

1. Many, many jobs in the nonprofit sector are low-wage jobs: child care workers, intake workers, database clerks, nonprofit housing custodians, door-to-door canvassers, elder care workers, support staff in the arts, home health care aides . . . in short, a very large proportion of jobs in human services, in advocacy, in education, in the arts, and in health care.

2. While raising salaries would be, by far, the best way to support these important staff, doing so isn't possible for most nonprofits: certainly not in the short term, and often impossible for the long term given business models and funding constraints.

And, perhaps most uncomfortable of all for nonprofit leaders, the discussion about salaries and job retention has focused on the people at the top of organizations: the executive staff and program . . .

Survival Strategies for the Arts

John Killacky, artist and arts funder, not only knows that we need the arts now more than ever, but gives us ten survival strategies for arts organizations and one for audience members -- and reminds us that all of us are audience members.

The arts are where hope lives. And right now, as the very tenets of civil society are being re-written, and as health and human service needs rise, there is legitimate concern about whether the arts will survive, how the arts can thrive.

The arts, like every other nonprofit sub-sector, are being challenged by significant contribution losses from government, corporations, foundations, and private donors. Box office and gallery admissions are also eroding as discretionary dollars evaporate. Almost everyone agrees funding problems will become more acute in the upcoming three to five years. Adaptability is replacing growth as a barometer of success. There's no question to me but that the arts organizations that have dynamic, interactive, authentic relationships with their constituents, audiences, and neighbors are the ones that will come out of this maelstrom stronger. Here are ten . . .

Fundraising Confessions of a Former Camp Fire Girl

Carrie Avery is both a foundation president and a volunteer fundraiser. In this First Person Nonprofit article she looks at fundraising from both angles:

Growing up in Southern California, I loved being a Camp Fire Girl: the beach camping trips, my uniform with its red neckerchief, earning beads by doing science experiments and helping elderly people . . . it was all good. Every year our group leader told us that if we wanted to continue to enjoy these privileges, we needed to do something for the Camp Fire Girls: sell candy. So each spring, I would trundle around the neighborhood pulling my brother's red wagon behind me, peddling Mint Sticks (yum) and Fruit Jellies (kind of gross).

Like Camp Fire Girls on a spring day, many board members can think of many things they would rather do than . . .

Too Many Nonprofits? Yes - At Least Too Many AIDS Organizations

Mark Ishaug has been the CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago for 11 years, and serves on the board of the National AIDS Fund as one of the two elected partner representatives. He has worked and taught in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and is on the national board of Funders Concerned About AIDS. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago is both a grantmaker/funder as well as a grantseeker.

There are more people living with HIV and AIDS than at any time in our history. As just one example, the statistics recently released for Washington, D.C. are in the same league of infection rates as in sub-Saharan Africa. The need is greater than it has ever been.

But at the same time, resources are not only failing to match the increased need, they are . . .

Too Many Nonprofits? Yes! Clueless in Seattle

Elizabeth (Liz) Heath founded and directs the Nonprofit Center in Tacoma, Washington, which serves the South Puget Sound region, and is membership co-chair for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, a national professional organization. Last year Liz hosted and produced "Reaching Out," a community television program featuring local nonprofits.

On the way to work this morning I saw a liquidation sale sign in the window of one of my neighborhood coffee shops. This triggered my thinking about the impact of the economic challenges on the nonprofit sector.

This coffee shop has been there for about three years. When they opened I wondered what kind of business planning they had done. A block away is a Starbucks with fantastic staff members who make a point of connecting with their customers. And one more block to the south is an upscale, locally owned market with a great coffee shop. They also have a loyal following.

I live south of Seattle, so three coffee shops in a two-block area might seem to . . .

The Car Donation Controversy and the Right Way to Donate Your Car

Why is there a slightly sleazy vibe around car donations? Could it be the tacky, misleading-sounding billboards posted around town? As one example to the left, the "Outreach Center" (see news report) is reportedly a for-profit car liquidation firm (registered as a church) that receives thousands of cars a month, sells them (often for scrap), and gives a fraction of what it earns to nonprofits.

Five years ago, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) set forth helpful new regulations to guide car donations after Congress grew concerned about abuses of this practice. Let's take a quick look at abuses and the new regulations, with some tips on how you can donate your old car, and how to solicit and make use of a few great car donations a year.

Why regulators are watching

Right now my 1998 Honda Odyssey sits in front of my house with 167,000 miles on it and about that many nicks, still running great. The dealership where I was shopping for a new car offered an insulting $100 for it. Before 2005, if I had . . .

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