Friday, March 31, 2017

NPR, CPB, a Coal Miner and a Single Mother

In speaking to the media about the Trump administration 's proposed budget that includes zeroing out funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the director of the Office of Budget and Management Michael Mulvaney asked: "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mother in Detroit to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?"

His statement  reveals a familiar posture of Republican conservatives, namely the assumption that NPR/PBS' programs are too elite for the "common man" (the same applies, of course, to the arts and humanities endowments). Mr. Mulvaney must have missed the searing documentary "The Mine Wars" aired on PBS in January of this year depicting the efforts beginning in 1901 of West Virginia miners to unionize. He also has bypassed any episode of Sesame Street, made available on PBS to all mothers, single or not, and their children since 1969. But we are not talking about reason here.

Like children, eager to avail themselves of the contents of a candy store where they previously could only get to the samples on the counter, conservative Republicans now have plundering access to all the goodies, with control of the Congress and the White House. For years they have been trying to undo CPB, NEA and NEH. I remember all too well the "culture wars"of the '80s and '90s from my vantage point in DC serving as executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ('80-'84) and Director of Government Affairs for the American Association of Museums ('87-'92).  I was deep in the trenches then and not alone by many means.

The first real threat to funding came in 1981 when president Ronald Reagan and his budget chief David Stockman tried to cut NEA funding by 50%. Provocative images by artist Andres Serrano ("Piss Christ') and the homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that appeared in NEA-supported museum exhibitions in the late '80s provided plenty of grist for the mills of far right senators, such as Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Year after year since , the attackers have been storming the ramparts; the defenders have been managing to beat them back, but not without sustaining heavy losses. The budget of the NEA today only equals 70% of what it was in 1979.

Advocates for federal cultural  funding have years of battle-hardened experience and an army of supporters ready for the fight to come. My guess is that these agencies will survive, given the picayune size of the agencies' budgets, the comparisons to which have already produced good ammunition (nine presidential visits to Mar-a-Lago will cost $30 million, equal to the annual salaries and expenses of the NEH) and the fact that, for instance, NEA funding can be found in every Congressional district. But survival at what cost?

The issue is really not so much about the money. Symbolism is at the core. Opponents call federal cultural funding a "frill" (George Will used that term the other day in the Washington Post, not for first time I bet) and charge the work of the agencies is geared to elitists. Supporters, such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, value the cultural agencies both for the content and the symbolism of federal tax dollars, though mere, being expended in support of the arts and humanities.

In a March 30 column Kristof  wrote: "The arts humanize us and promote empathy.We need that now more than ever." Amen to that.

p.s. You can reach any congressional office by calling 202-225-3121.

Comments on this or any other of my 60 blog posts (see archive), are welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com





Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Appealing to Donors: "Think Small"

A New York Times op-ed piece last December by the social scientist Arthur C. Brooks made an impression on me. Entitled: "To Make the World Better - Think Small"  he argues that we are so  bombarded by reports  of various events where the main news is presented as a statistic - "50,000 homeless in earthquake-torn ________", "Hundreds of thousands without power in snowbound Northeast" that we lose sight of the real story - the human one. He cites the term coined by social psychologists: "psychic numbing." We  become inured to core meanings by the emphasis on numbers.

The antidote to psychic numbing he suggests is to think small. He  references an old fundraising axiom: "One is greater than one million." We know that is true by the humanization of disasters through photography - a firefighter carrying a small child out of burning building, a 5 year old   Syrian refugee boy's body washed up on a Greek beach. These images make up the difference between a statistic and a human story. They inspire the viewer to action.

Bringing this concept down to everyday nonprofit fundraising, too often I find appeals for funds,  publicly or privately made, are number-oriented. "We had 000,000s visitors, 000s schoolkids in classes." A cynic might  say "so what?" but that's not fair to the nonprofit staffs and boards who are proud of  the organization's public draw and have reason to crow about it. But think how much more effective the appeal would be if it had a human story attached to it.

I have been impressed by TV ads from  New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City where former patients give personal testimony about  the hospital's healing and care. These are testimonials with impact. Smart politicians know the power of personal stories. There has hardly been a State of the Union speech where the president doesn't recognize an invited guest in the Gallery - a wounded veteran, an heroic policeman, a child who has recovered from cancer - and speaks to why they are present. During campaign seasons, candidates never fail to call out personal anecdotes about constituents, recognizing them if they are present or reading aloud from their heartfelt letters.

Some nonprofits have an easier time mining sources of personal testimony. Social service agencies, and hospitals come to mind because their work has a demonstrable effect on people or, in the case of the ASPCA, animals. Museums and performing arts organizations have to be more creative.

Where I have seen success there is in profiling donors and their motivations for giving in order to find common ground with others for focused philanthropy. Mr and Mrs. X explain in personal terms why they have made a bequest to museum Y. The viewer/reader might respond: why yes, I feel the same way and if this couple found it rewarding, why wouldn't we? (The described rewards might also include reference to tax benefits).

So "think small." Find and celebrate stories with heart. And, in fashioning an appeal, remember what the English novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Howard's End: "Only connect! ... only connect the prose and passion and both will be exalted."


Comments on this post and others in my blog, are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com.
Previous posts may be found in the archive to the left or by scrolling down from this page.



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Preparing to push back Trumpism - A Modest Proposal for Nonprofits

The depressing inauguration and the uplifting Women's Marches are over. Now we face the future with its inevitable challenges, forecast in the chaos of President Trump's first weeks. There will be many challenges and they will come at us fast and furious: budget cuts, de-funding Planned Parenthood, the arts and humanities endowments, public broadcasting, scale back of environmental regulations, etc. The Trump administration will undoubtedly utilize a "shock and awe" strategy to confuse and catch opponents off-guard. It will be like the anti- missile technique in military aircraft, releasing many chaff targets (proposals to say nothing of tweets) to  divert accurate attacks and divide the opposition.

In November 2012, after the election that returned Barack Obama to the White House (ah, those calmer days!) I posted a blog entitled "Either Way You Get your Dog Back" urging readers to get to know their elected officials at all levels of government, heeding the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill's admonition that "All Politics Is Local." I repeat that today LOUDLY.

On November 6, 2018, a date just around the corner, all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 33 Senate seats, and 14 Governorships  will be up for election. Those should be the prime and ultimate targets for the ordinary citizen - the voter- who wish to set back Trumpism.  In the meantime, how to block initiatives that you find inimical to your beliefs and that injure institutions and programs you hold dear?

The answer is vigorous advocacy. Writing and calling legislators and attending meetings and rallies, joining your voice to those of others. Taking action, in other words, personally reaffirming your part and belief in our democracy.

The challenge is the many demands on your time from various organizations. suggesting means and content of sending messages, some of which  may be contradictory  I have a suggestion that might help. It is based on my belief that nonprofit boards and their supporters generally represent the best in their communities - people of substance and influence. To the extent that is true, how to harness that energy and civic strength in the cause of advocacy?

The answer can be found in organization and information. And so I propose each nonprofit board name what I would call, for the sake of this argument, an Advocacy Captain. This person or team would be responsible for the following:

First,  assess the interests and institutional allegiances of members of the board. Those may well include issues outside the mission of the organization on whose board they serve.

Then, based on that information, track the initiatives of the government that might have an impact on those interests and identify the legislative committees and executive departments that have the decision-making and/or oversight roles. It is important to discover the outside national groups that represent the specific interests  of local organizations. For instance, for a museum board,  it would likely be the American Alliance of Museums. Those national groups will already have much of the information needed in your own advocacy effort.

Finally, the Advocacy Captain needs to inform board members of the contact avenues for action intended to influence outcomes for their respective issues, as well as the most effective communication techniques. In the past weeks as the groundswell for civic action has grown there have been many helpful recommendations from, for instance, former congressional staffers, on how best to have your voice heard.

An inevitable question that will be asked: as a nonprofit can you engage in advocacy or, to use a more loaded term, lobbying. The answer is yes, with some limitations. What you cannot do, and what would endanger your tax-exempt status with the IRS, is to engage in a political campaign by endorsing or funding a candidate. Likely you have a lawyer on your board who should be consulted to provide guidance and peace of mind on the lobbying question..

But my "modest proposal" (no relation to J. Swift) is really directed at empowering individuals on your board, not necessarily the board itself as a corporate entity. It is intended to help those board members, as citizens and constituents, to become more effective advocates.

For advocates, whatever the issue, focus and stamina will be needed in the months ahead, supported by good and timely information. Try out the Advocacy Captain idea on your board. You might well find it welcomed. And recall from Shakespeare's As You Like It:

 “Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” 

Comments on this and other blog posts to be found in the Archive to the left are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com















Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Roundup

Last evening we had some excellent Barbecue from a local spot in Cold Spring NY called Roundup Texas. Its name prompted me to do a brief review of blog posts I wrote in 2016. That's what everyone in the media does at the end of the year - look back, right? Besides looking ahead just might be a bit scary, given the current climate, in spite of my "Be Not Afraid" admonition last month.

I posted nine pieces, including this one, bringing to 57 I have written since I began in April 2011.  I am sometimes asked, how do I choose my topics? There is no rhyme or reason. Whatever strikes my fancy is the best answer, keeping in mind my audience is folk involved in guiding nonprofits. Most posts are didactic in nature, hoping to  provide useful advice for those deep in the daily struggle. Others are more general, even written to entertain.

In this latter category may be found  the most read : February's "Over The Top Criticism"- although there is a message ultimately about time reversing initial reactions. (All these posts may  be be read in the archive section to the left of this screen). I used examples from Nicholas Slonimsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" as examples. For instance a  contemporaneous review of Beethoven's Second Symphony declared it a "crass monster."

March's "Block Gobbledygook - Save The Humanities" - addressed the need for and importance of clear writing as evidence of clear thinking.  I had fun quoting examples of outrageous gibberish, especially from academia.

I looked at  several management issues. The need for careful administrative organization before embarking  on a capital campaign was addressed in September's ""For Want Of A Nail" - Campaign Infrastructure." In May, I tackled what has almost become a fad in a piece called " "A-Branding We Will Go." Look before you leap was the message before embarking on an expensive  branding or re-branding exercise.

 I have an ongoing interest in non profit boards and governance in general. The critical importance of having board members who understand and commit to their duties was discussed in January's "Board Member's Oath of Office." The sensitive  and tricky question of length of tenure of leadership in nonprofits, both staff and board, was explored in "Been On The Job Too Long" posted in June. This post had a lower readership than most. Did the title scare some away?

Finally I  could not avoid writing about the presidential  election and its outcome in October's "Nonprofits and A Toxic Election" and November's "What's Ahead for Nonprofits -The Looming Trump Era." In the latter, I ended by quoting the poet Seamus Heaney's last message to his wife in a text shprtly before his passing:  "Noli Timere"  - Be Not Afraid.

That was 2016, perhaps an "Annus Horribilis"  (Horrible Year) as Queen Elizabeth II stated about  the year 1992, when Charles divorced Diana in addition to other Royal family troubles. Will 2017 be better? Surely it will be challenging. I will look forward to the journey, along with you,  and hope my musings will be of some use. Happy New Year!!

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What's Ahead for Nonprofits - The Looming Trump Era

"Seismic" is too mild an  adjective  for the event of  Donald Trump's surprising election to the presidency. Maybe even"cataclysmic." I will leave it to others (and there is no shortage of them) to analyze why and how it happened. Here I want to suggest what a Trump administration, along with Republican control of the Congress,  might mean for nonprofits, both for their own welfare  and the roles they might play in our society in  the coming years.

We don't know of course exactly what form legislation, executive orders (or rescissions thereof) or other initiatives will take. But broadly there will be some that directly or indirectly will surely affect nonprofits. In the indirect category revisions of the tax code stand out, particularly any significant  change in the maximum allowable write-offs for charitable giving, which might reduce incentives for donations. There is a theory too that projected tax cuts for the very wealthy might further dampen giving.

As for direct effect, e,g. cuts in federal support that goes primarily to social service agencies and education, the declared intention to cut federal spending by 1% annually  (exclusive of entitlements such as Medicare and the military) if enacted, would hit hard. Also at risk are the organizations long on the hit list of conservatives: Planned Parenthood,  the arts and humanities agencies and others - all now perilously exposed with  right wing Republicans sitting in the catbird seat. The unwritten partnership between the federal government and the nonprofits that look after many of the needs of our society is now likely to unravel.

There are almost countless scenarios, likely of the dark variety, that can be written because of this shift in power, especially because of the rhetorical groundwork in the campaign laid by Mr, Trump that demonized  those who are not white, Christian, physically and mentally able, among others. There is a deep unease, and indeed fear, abroad in the land. Nonprofits will have to continue to  do their best work  in spite of facing the likelihood  of reduced resources. But collectively there is something else they can do.

As a group, notwithstanding some bad apples, nonprofits represent what is best in our society. They exist to help others, with health care, education, spiritual growth, community development, public safety, etc. They are largely funded by voluntary gifts and guided by volunteer boards with their work made possible by the donation of  millions of  volunteer hours.

It seems possible, and there is evidence emerging to support the worry, that the toxic atmosphere spawned by the Trump campaign will encourage discriminatory and even hateful behavior by members of the public, to say nothing of any actions that may be taken by the incoming government itself. Nonprofits and their leaders should be vigilant in their own communities for such instances, regardless of their respective missions. Recently at  the annual conference November 17 held by the umbrella organization for nonprofits Independent Sector as reported in The Chronicle for Philanthropy, several speakers made points that we need to consider.

From Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way Worldwide: " Civil society is our business. We can take a pass on the economy - that's not quite our business; we can take a pass on politics- that's not quite our business; but we can't take a pass on culture."

David Smith, director of the Presidio Institute hoped the nonprofit world could create a "brave space" where those marginalized could come together.

Finally, Michael Steel, described as a Republican political strategist, was asked how nonprofit leaders might "listen to racists without getting angry at them." He replied, "I don’t think we should talk to racists without getting angry at them" This remark was greeted with sustained audience applause.

We are entering a scary and unknown world.  Here is my coda message, best said as always elsewhere, At his father's funeral in 2013, Michael Heaney, the son of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney,  revealed in his eulogy a text message Heaney sent to his wife just hours before his death. It was in Latin : "Noli Timere": Don't Be Afraid.



Comments on this and any other blog post found in the site archive are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com









Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nonprofits and a Toxic Election


It seems that even I can’t resist joining the Election Pundit Cavalcade, although I am small potatoes compared to the hundreds of writers of reputation who have spilled buckets of ink about this astonishing presidential contest.

My entry into the fray is prompted by a recent article (9/29/16)  in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The heading was “Nonprofits Worry about Election’s Impact on Public View of Charity.”  The anxiety is focused on the candidates’ attacks on each other’s foundations- the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation. Will the political charges that each lacks transparency and involves questionable use of funds affect the public’s view of charities in general? Will the media scrutiny, seeking out a “story,”  create a ripple effect and result in negative perceptions of the role of nonprofits overall?

Before I weigh in on those questions, some facts (a bit rare these days). The two foundations are quite different in organization and purpose. The Trump Foundation is classified as a private non-operating foundation, whereas the Clinton Foundation is a public charity. The distinction is that that a public charity derives its support from a variety of sources – such as individuals, corporations, governments and even other foundations  and uses those funds to advance its mission through its own in-house programs. A private foundation on the other hand usually is funded from a single source, a family for instance, and fulfills its charitable purpose by making grants to other organizations.

The Clinton Foundation is very large, with assets in 2014 of $354 million, expenses of $91 million and a staff of 486, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Trump Foundation had assets of $1 million, expenses of $600,000 and no staff. The Clinton Foundation’s programs are based on defined strategic initiatives (global health for example), whereas the Trump Foundation’s grants have been to various organizations with no unifying purpose. The Tumpies accuse the Clintons of raising money from those who expect access to the Clintons in return (“Pay for Play”), the Clintons point to dodgy Trump Foundation outlays, including one to a charity auction where the Foundation paid for Mrs. Trump’s bid of $20,000 for a six foot tall portrait of her husband, now located in one of the Trump golf clubhouses. 
 
A few weeks ago the office of the New York State Attorney General Eric Schnedierman, responsible for oversight of nonprofits, ordered the Trump Foundation to stop raising money in New York for lack of certification to do so.  Mr. Trump has regularly boasted of his philanthropy, but without access to his federal tax returns, which he repeatedly refuses to release, it is impossible to ascertain the amounts.  Warren Buffett, clearly a billionaire many times over, in his challenge to Trump’s “smart” avoidance of tax payments whereby he claimed almost a billion dollars in losses in 1995, released his 2015 federal return. There it showed Buffett gave over $3.6 million to charity. The last donation Trump made to his foundation was in 2008.

It’s an election year and charges fly back and forth. I am not sure the fracas about the two foundations necessarily tarnishes the reputation of the work of nonprofits in general, the worry of some in the field. What is more troublesome in my view is the potential damage the tone of this election has done to the outlook of Americans. 

It’s been years, in time and attitude, since JFK declared in his inaugural address in 1961: “ My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”   The idea of making personal sacrifice for a greater good is the farthest thing away from many voters’ minds. They have been conditioned over the years by politicians’ promises of what they can do for the voter. This year especially, thanks to the drum- beating, hateful narcissism of Trump that glorifies “I” and “Me,”  the taking far outstrips giving.

The work of successful charitable nonprofits is based on the concept of voluntary giving. Donors give of their treasure (and time) to an organization so, in turn, the organization can give back services to the community. One definition of philanthropy is “the desire to promote the welfare of others” (from the Greek word translated as “love of humanity.”)  What I fear is that most people will remember from this campaign the miasma of hate created by Mr. Trump and espoused by many of his supporters.  If misanthropy – the hatred of humankind – the desire to denigrate the welfare of other, a trademark of Trumpian rhetoric becomes the standard, then not only the nonprofit community, but our nation, is in trouble.

Regardless of the election outcome, there will be a bad taste in the mouth of the electorate that will linger for some time.  The remedy for this  damaging aftertaste and any potential  impact on nonprofits is for every organization to focus on its mission and continue to do good work. Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House (1977-1987) once said “All Politics is local.” Such may be said about the work of nonprofits. Negative attitudes and opinions about nonprofits created by this toxic national election can be mitigated in time by the good work of charitable institutions at home.
So, to employ the message developed by the British Ministry of Information to buck up the populace during World War II: “ Keep Calm and Carry On” – with philanthropy.

Comments on this and other posts always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Friday, September 9, 2016

"For Want Of A Nail" - Campaign Infrastructure




This post is suggested by two observations gleaned over my summer break. (By the way, I hope you had a good and especially restful one.)   Both have to do with campaigns. The big campaign, of course, is the presidential one, dominating the news by  its often bizarre twists and turns, with major navigation from the Republican nominee, the idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) Donald J. Trump.  The other one(s) are suggested by developing capital campaigns by two nonprofits with which I have some familiarity.

A conventional wisdom often found  in commentary about the Trump campaign is that one of its weaknesses is the lack of a strong infrastructure. That term, most often associated in the public mind with bridges and roads, is more broadly defined as the foundation or underlying framework supporting any organization or enterprise.  Observers have noted, for instance, how thin the Trump campaign’s staffing is in key states as well as his erratic media buys, to say nothing of the turnovers in top campaign leadership. State staffing (the so-called “ground game”) is important for getting out the vote and identifying likely supporters. The Trump team seems to believe, likely emanating from the candidate himself,  that his large rallies will suffice. One writer observed the Trump campaign resembles more a concert tour than an organized campaign for the nation’s highest office – at least in the traditional format.

The other observation comes from a conversation I had this summer with a friend who has been a donor to a local nonprofit for years before moving away.  I took the opportunity to offer an update on the nonprofit’s news, highlighting enthusiastically a prospective capital campaign. I was told quite firmly not to count on any support from that family as a recent substantial contribution had never been acknowledged by the organization. We discussed the likely cause, the lack of administrative resources.  But the damage had been done.

Too often nonprofits, especially smaller ones, will forge ahead with an ambitious fundraising campaign without assessing its capacity to manage it. Who will prepare and send acknowledgements, keep track of multi-year pledges? What is the mechanism for informing the campaign committee and solicitors of funding status?  I know firsthand of an embarrassing situation where a solicitor, at a social occasion meets  a friend whom he had recently asked for support, and says to the prospect:  "Thanks for seeing me the other day, I hope you will consider my request. “  The surprised response was: “Didn’t you hear of my $$$$$$ pledge?”  Not only was he in the dark, he also missed the chance to offer thanks without prompting.

The word campaign originally applied to a military operation of some length with a specific objective in mind. Successful military campaigns depend on good planning, execution of that plan and a vast support network, logistical and otherwise.   The old proverb “For want of a nail (“… the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for the want of a rider the battle was lost”…etc.) is worth remembering.  

A campaign is like building a house. Before you get to thinking of installing a Viking range or his/ her bathrooms in the master suite, you better be sure the foundation is solid and the roof doesn’t leak. Skimping on those costs will end up affecting the integrity of the house and the contents of the pocketbook.  Planning and investing in a campaign infrastructure will ultimately bring dividends and provide insurance against surprises.  Not doing so can bring the house down. So, don't forget those nails!

Comments on this or any other blog post welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com