Volunteerism FAIL

The Town and Country Inn and restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA), was a for-profit business. Then it laid off 14 of its paid staff, who were being paid minimum wage ($7.25/hour) and room and board. It then asked these former employees to sign papers formalizing their transition from employee status to “residency volunteer status” with the newly formed Town and Country Foundation, and agreeing to undertake tasks in return for their housing — tasks that are the same as what they were being paid to do before. The motel claims to have organized a nonprofit foundation, but there’s no listing of a board of directors anywhere for the public to read, no mission statement, no volunteer recruitment strategy, and the owner of Town and Country, David Bernstein, seems to believe he still owns the organization, even though, as a nonprofit, it’s now owned by the board of directors — whomever they are.

I have talked about the appropriateness — and inappropriateness — of increasing volunteer-involvement in response to budget cuts before, most recently in this blog, Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution, which focuses on local volunteers in a small community in the state of Washington that mobilized to get a national forest center operating again, staffed entirely by members of the local community. While the national forest center went all-volunteer for all the right reasons (though I still had a lot of cautions about that), the Town and Country Inn and restaurant is exploiting volunteers and its nonprofit status, period.

An organization should involve volunteers because the organization wants to involve the community in its work and give people without a financial interest in the organization a firsthand look at how things work. It should involve volunteers to reach constituencies/demographics not current reached among staff and clients. And, most importantly, it should involve volunteers because volunteers are more appropriate to undertake certain tasks, rather than paid staff, not to save money, but because clients prefer to deal with volunteers, because it gives the community ownership of the program, etc.

Give certain nonprofit organizations all the money they need to hire all the paid employees they need and the Girl Scouts of the USA, the American Red Cross, and many other organizations, large and small, would still deliver the majority of their services with volunteers. Why? Because there are many services that are best delivered by volunteers, and because the strength of these organizations comes from the volunteers being the primary owners of these organizations.

The US Department of Labor is, supposedly, investigating what’s happening in Chattanooga. One question on the IRS form to establish a nonprofit in the USA asks whether the new entity is the successor of an old entity and, if it is, the business must explain that transistion — I think we all should see that answer.

Let’s hope these federal agencies are, indeed, investigating. Because this is wrong in every way.

More at the Nonprofit Quarterly and Chattanooga Free Press.

3 thoughts on “Volunteerism FAIL

  1. David Bernstein

    The new entity was not the successor to the Town & Country Inn and restaurant. That was the misperception of the reporter who did not check facts provided by someone who took issue with what we were doing, but later changed his opinion. His retraction and apology was sent to the paper but not published. I followed the Secretary of State’s instructions in registering the Foundation to the letter. There was no place to put the information you are interested in on the required form. The program had the support of the twenty or so that participated in it. The mission statement and residency agreement was worked out with the participants. They knew who was on the Board, why we were doing this and, I believe, appreciated the sacrifice the owners were making to keep them housed during a transition. Had the property not sold, the Foundation would have continued to function as a community service. As it turned out, we supported our management and staff as long as we could while they found other employment and housing. It was more expensive than closing the motel down, but I was hoping the new owners would hire more of our people. The sale was not contingent on keeping the business open. We were busy working on finding everyone housing, unemployment and jobs. We took care of them as long as we could. Some did some work around the property, but if all they did was look for employment or work for others, we didn’t turn them out. That’s the truth, not the story you read.The owners suported the hotel and the homeless shelterfor six years at a expense of over $1,000 a day. We provided an important community service by offering room and board to homeless families (also individuals). Other shelters had restrictions by gender or by the hours residents could stay, making it impossible for families to live there. Contrary to what you may have heard, I did defer to the Board on Foundation matters. You are making a lot of assumptions about our Foundation when you never once contacted us and requested any information. In all of my communications with the US Labor Board, it has never once shown any interest in the Foundation — so I would assume it is not under investigation. I can well understand how you have drawn the conclusions you have based on what has been published in the Times Free Press. But, these articles are inaccurate, unfair and defamatory. Even former staff that support the wage and hour claim refer to them as "pure B.S."Your points about volunteerism and nonprofits are very well taken. They just doesn’t apply to our situation. If you really want to find out what was going on at the Town & Country, I would be happy to put you in touch with some of the Foundation participants. I have also written a response to Free Press articles that I would be happy to share with you.David Bernstein

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  2. Martin J Cowling

    Jayne and David, I would be very interested in knowing more about the facts of this case. So whats the truth…innovative community agency model or unfair and opportunistic exploitation or something in between the two?

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  3. Anonymous

    I would love to hear more too, Martin, but I can’t find anything else online. Wish I were funded to spend the time necessary to make the phone calls, send the emails, and ask the questions that would get this situation clarified! Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to be a volunteer to do so…

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