Tag Archives: credibility

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Also see:

Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

Don’t shoot the questioner

logoGovernment agencies and nonprofits HATE my questions on social media. I ask them publicly because, often, I don’t get a response via email – or because I want my exchange with the organization to be public. Questions like:

  • Where is the list on your web site of your board of directors?
  • Where is the bio on your web site of your executive director/program director, etc.?
  • Where is your latest annual report of finances (income and expenditures) on your web site?
  • I saw your quote in the newspaper, and wondered: where is the evaluation that says your program lead to a 30% drop in juvenile crime? Is there a link on your web site to this study?
  • You have a form on your web site for people who want to volunteer to fill out/an email address for people that want to volunteer, but you never say what volunteers actually do. What do volunteers at your organization do?

Responses, if they come at all, rarely thank me for pointing out missing information on the web site, or apologize for not having such. Rather, most responses are one of these:

  • We’re not required by law to provide that. 
  • Our web site is being redesigned. It will be a part of the new web site. (no date is provided on when the web site will be re-launched)
  • That information is confidential. 
  • That information is on our web site (with no link to where it is).
  • Why are you asking?

I admit that I sometimes ask a question because I’m annoyed that the organization isn’t being transparent, or because a newspaper reporter wrote a glowing story I read about the organization or program didn’t ask these questions – just took every quote from the representative as fact. But I also ask the questions because I’ve sometimes considered donating to an organization, or volunteering with such – and I’m then stunned at the lack of transparency.

None of these questions should bother any organization or agency. None. They are all legitimate questions. Often, they are questions you yourself invite, by talking at civic groups or in the press about the quality of your leadership, the impact your organization is having, the services your organization provides and your value to the community.

If you say you don’t have time to provide this basic information on your web site, one has to ask: what is it that you are spending your time on?

Also see:

Use Tech to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit Sector!
Mission-Based groups are under growing scrutiny. What you put on your web site can help counter the onslaught of “news” stories regarding mission-based organizations and how they spent charitable contributions.

Campaign to End the Overhead Myth

Guidestar CEO, Jacob Harold, published a letter condemning the use of administrative expenses as a measure of nonprofit performance. You can read the entire message at www.overheadmyth.com.

The letter was co-signed by Art Taylor, president and CEO of BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator—making it the first time the three leading nonprofit information providers joined together to share the same message: the percentage of a charity’s expenses that go to administrative costs, the “overhead” ratio, is not appropriate to consider when determining if the nonprofit is effective or efficient.

You can get involved!

For nonprofits: visit www.overheadmyth.com to print the letter, and include it in your postal mailing to supporters. Include a summary and link on your web site, your blog, on your Facebook page, on Twitter, and in any email newsletters.

Publicly commit to ending the focus on overhead by signing the pledge at www.overheadmyth.com.

Spread the word about the Overhead Myth campaign to your own networks online. Guidestar has created a communications and social media tool kit with turn-key content that you’re welcome to use: www.overheadmyth.com/press. But don’t just send out canned messages – say why you are particularly interested in this campaign.

Get your supporters, including volunteers, involved. Encourage them to share info about the campaign via their social media networks, and to blog about it, as well.

Nonprofits: Share your data and information with Guidestar. “We need nonprofit leaders to provide more public information about their missions, programs, and results so we can move past the overhead ratio once and for all. Our GuideStar Exchange program allows nonprofits to share data with stakeholders for free!”

And here’s the freaky part: I whined about the misplaced focus on overhead costs at nonprofits just a few hours ago on TechSoup.

This is an issue that’s very near and dear to me.

Also see: Survival Strategies for Nonprofits , a guide for nonprofits facing critical budget shortfalls.

Why I’m not outraged at the IRS

Each year, the IRS reviews as many as 60,000 applications from groups that want to be classified as tax-exempt.

501(c)(4) tax-exempt status is a different nonprofit category than organizations like homeless shelters, arts groups, animal groups, etc. The (c)(4) status allows advocacy groups to avoid federal taxes, just like 501(c)(3) orgs, but the status doesn’t render donations to the groups tax deductible. The primary focus of their efforts must be promoting social welfare – and that can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity. Also, these groups do not have to disclose the identities of their donors unless they are under investigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 “Citizens United” ruling lead to a torrent of new 501(c)4 groups: the number of applications sent to the IRS by those seeking 501(c)4 status rose to 3,400 in 2012 from 1,500 in 2010. MOST of these applications were from conservative groups. And many of these organizations flout the law in terms of not being involved in political-campaign activity – if you saw the whole process where Stephen Colbert oh-so-easily formed his own 501(c)(4) organization, you know what I mean.

So what was the “extra scrutiny” by the IRS? Good luck trying to find out specifics beyond the phrase “extra scrutiny” again and again. It took me an hour on Internet searches to find out enough to make this list of what the “extra scrutiny” was:

  • more details on what “social welfare” activities the organizations were undertaking
  • speakers they had hosted in meetings
  • fliers to promote events
  • list of volunteers
  • roles/works of volunteers
  • lists of members
  • list of donors
  • positions on political issues the organization was advocating

Some groups have claimed they were asked who was commenting on the group’s Facebook page, but I can’t find any confirmation of this claim.

Of course, this “extra scrutiny” is a fraction of what many of these same people outraged at the IRS were demanding regarding the now defunct nonprofit group ACORN. It’s the same scrutiny these conservatives were screaming about wanting for arts organizations back in the 1990s, in their attempt to eliminate all government funding for arts organizations. And probably most importantly: no organization was prevented from engaging in the activities it wanted to, not even those with pending status. None. Zilch.

This scrutiny is not only what I have been asked for in every nonprofit and government-related job I have held in the last 15 years (yes, I have been asked by a government agency to provide a list of paid staff and volunteers – they wanted to see if our arts organization was involving “enough” volunteers”); these are details I have long encouraged nonprofits to provide on their web sites, to show transparency and credibility.

So, I’ll be by usual blunt self: any nonprofit organization, no matter what their designation, that can’t easily provide details on its programs – who, what, where, when – as well as information the number and role of volunteers and information on any activities that might be considered political advocacy, shouldn’t be a nonprofit. And if that organization is a political group, it should have to provide a public list of all financial donors. Period.

But, no, I’m not going to provide a list of volunteers. Their roles and accomplishments, yes, but not a list of volunteers.

In fact, let’s get rid of (c)(4) nonprofits status altogether. You want to form an organization that engages in political activities? Form a PAC

My sources:






Nonprofits *are* job creators!

Recently, I heard a man on the TV ranting about why people without private sector experience are bad to serve in government offices. “They’ve never balanced a budget, created a job or had to struggle to make payroll!” he said.

And my head exploded. KAPOW.

When you are working in government, or a nonprofit, balancing budgets and struggling to make payroll is often MOST of what you do!

In the nonprofit and public sectors, the pressure to balance a budget – one that has often been cut drastically with no input from you, the person expected to balance that budget – is far greater than the for-profit/business world. And the struggle to make payroll is something I’ve seen far too often in nonprofit organizations, often because a corporation has slashed its own budgets and cut funding to the organization or initiative that had been promised for months, or a government agency suddenly had its budget cut and, therefore, had to cut the budget of nonprofits it was supporting.

And nonprofit organizations are job creators. Funding nonprofits, which are focused on improving or preserving communities for EVERYONE, are not only job creators, but also, the people that make communities places where people actually want to live and work – which helps those that start businesses. Nonprofits:

  • help improve education (which creates better workers),
  • help preserve and improve environmental health (which helps organic farmers and fishermen have better products)
  • help improve children’s health (which allows parents to have the time to work instead of caring for sick children – time, perhaps, even to start businesses)
  • help promote bicycle use (which helps create more business for bicycle shops, creates more ways for workers to get to their jobs, contributes to a healthier workforce, and creates more parking spaces for cars)
  • build and promote community gardens (which helps those that sell gardening implements and other supplies)
  • fund and manager arts organizations (which create jobs for actors, production staff and administration staff, as well as enhancing the community and making it more attractive to employers to locate businesses there)
  • build, sustain and grow universities and colleges (which train people in various areas of expertise – and these people become workers, even job creators, themselves)

and on and on.

The amount of misinformation being promoted by so many pundits and even elected officials in the USA regarding the realities of the third sector is startling, disheartening and destructive. I have worked primarily in the nonprofit and government sectors, and in those sectors, I most certainly HAVE had to balance budgets, create jobs and struggle to make payroll. In fact, I have had to be far, far more creative with resources and efficient in the use of time and resources than I have ever had to be in a for-profit setting. By contrast, most people I’ve known who have worked primarily in the corporate sector have little understanding of how to do a lot with a limited amount of resources: they can’t believe most nonprofits don’t have fully staff IT departments or the latest computer technologies, and are stunned that volunteers are, in fact, not free at all.

Nonprofits and government agencies have GOT to do a better job of talking about what they accomplish, what it takes to make those accomplishments possible, and how they make those accomplishments happen. Every nonprofit has an obligation to show their transparency and credibility, and to teach the media and general public about the resources and expertise needed to address critical human and environmental needs. The Internet has made it oh-so-easy to do that!

Also see:

Three Cups of Tea Fallout

The media and nonprofit world is abuzz regarding the allegations against Three Cups of Tea author and Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson. And they should be. There is no question that Mortenson has done a pathetic job of managing donor money. There is no excuse for his lack of financial accounting – I’m annoyed by his aw-shucks-I’m-not-a-nonprofit-professional-I’ve-never-done-this-before-therefore-I-get-a-pass attitude as anyone.

But that’s where my condemnation ends, at least for now. I think this is a nuanced story of misunderstanding, mismanagement and exaggeration – not just on Mortenson’s part, but on some others’ as well, including Jon Krakauer. Many of the accusations by 60 Minutes and Krakauer are as in dispute as Mortenson’s claims.

That facts and recollections are in dispute regarding events described in Three Cups of Tea, that one person’s kidnapping is another person’s hosting of a foreigner, isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s not even alarming. I worked in Afghanistan for six months. In that region, reality is in flux. Many people will tell you what you want to hear. That approach has kept many Afghan and Pakestani individuals, families and villages alive – but can make evaluation and reporting a massive challenge. This village member says such-and-such happened yesterday. Another says it happened last year. Another says it never happened. A perpetual real-life Roshoman. Although, really, I can’t single Afghanistan out for this behavior – have you ever watched Judge Judy?

It’s been revealed that a school Mortenson’s organization funded is being used to house hay instead of educate children. Some schools may not have been built. Some are claimed by other donors. None of that is surprising – I knew of a school funded by the Afghan program I worked for that was housing the local village elders instead of holding classes. I knew of a local employment project that had paid everyone twice – once by our agency and once by a military PRT, for the same work. Not saying it’s right, not saying you shouldn’t be upset when you hear those things, but you should know that in developing countries with severe security problems, widespread corruption and profound poverty, this happens ALL THE TIME. Humanitarian professionals are told again and again: give local people control over development projects. And we do. And a result is that, sometimes, local people double dip, or don’t do what they were paid to do, or exploit others. How do you stop that? Are YOU ready to go on site visits in remote regions of Waziristan every three months? Are YOU ready to be called culturally-insensitive or overly-bureaucratic in your efforts to ensure quality in development projects in remote places?

Let’s also remember that many people have criticized Krakauer’s own “facts” in his best selling non-fiction book Into Thin Air. 1. 2. I remain unconvinced that many of his accusations are true.

Do not confuse incompetence with corruption. It sounds like Mortensen was and is completely out of his depth of competency in running a nonprofit, and he deserves every ounce of blame for not remedying that situation when this was made clear to him – repeatedly! But I have yet to read anything that makes it sound like he, and his work, are completely fraudulent. Or even mostly fraudulent. By all means, call into question Mortensen’s accounting and call for a verification of results. I look forward to further investigations. But to dismiss everything Mortensen has said as fallacy is ridiculous.

Absolutely, let’s demand Mortenson and his agency adhere to the basic fundamentals of financial transparency and program evaluation. Let the line between his personal, for-profit activities and his nonprofit activities become thick and very tall (something Bob Hope never did, it’s worth noting – his USO tours and his Christmas TV specials were underwritten by the US government, and Hope profited handsomely from the television broadcasts). Let the Montana Attorney General’s office to do its job of investigating the finances of both Mortenson and the organization he founded. Maybe Mortenson should resign as Executive Director and become an unpaid spokesperson. Maybe he should pony up the salaries of one or two super-nonprofit-fixers to get the organization back on track (yes, those people do exist), and the board should hire a seasoned nonprofit, NGO or humanitarian agency manager to lead the organization.

Maybe when all the facts are in I’ll be calling for Mortenson’s head as well. But I’ll be waiting for the facts first.

Why does this concern me so much? This quote from Joshua Foust’s blog captures my feelings well:

Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

I care about Afghanistan, and I not only chide Mortenson for putting support for children there in danger, I chide people and publications like 60 Minutes and the Nonprofit Quarterly for making a judgment without all the facts yet.

UPDATE: New York TImes‘ NIcholas Kristof also offers a caution on claims that everything Mortenson has done has been a lie. “I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.”