Thursday, September 20, 2018

In the Matter of Libraries



I am writing this blog post at my local public library, Little Falls Library, part of the large suburban Montgomery County, Maryland system (21 branches, not counting the one at the prison). It is 5 minutes from my home, and I come here almost daily. It has practically become my office, but better, as distractions such as phone calls are not allowed.  I especially enjoy the “Quiet Room” - where talking is prohibited, and people sit reading or writing. It is in this room where I have just finished an article in the September 9 New York Times, entitled “Why Libraries Still Matter.”

I have always loved libraries. If you love books, why wouldn’t you?  They are like a free candy store for those addicted to sweets. I was first turned on to literature by the librarian at my middle school. “Why don’t you try this Geoff,” the librarian Mrs. Rose Baldwin said as she handed me “Johnny Tremain “ by Esther Forbes.  After I devoured this historical novel set during the American Revolution, then it was on to “Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane, a classic Civil War story.  I was hooked. Mrs. Baldwin became my personal book chooser through eighth grade.

The Times article by Eric Klinenberg, a Professor of Sociology at New York University, begins by citing a 2016 Pew Survey statistic that about half of all Americans 16 years and over used a public library in the recent year and that two thirds surveyed said closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.” Despite the strong endorsement of the value of libraries seen in this poll, Klinenberg points out there are far too many instances where libraries are being shuttered or their budgets cut.

He blames this disconnect on a lack of understanding by some public officials of what libraries have become, beyond their traditional role as loaners of free books and other media. Libraries are an example of what Klinenberg calls the “social infrastructure” that influences how people interact with each other. He describes how libraries provide a valuable place for social interaction for older people, children and those who cannot afford to patronize other public/community  venues, such as Starbucks. Public libraries tend to be welcoming places, and their mission includes serving their community through active programming.  For instance my small local library offers events that include Storytelling in Spanish, Tai Chi classes and numerous book discussion groups.  These activities bring people of diverse backgrounds together and away from the temptation of their small screens. 

It might be useful to characterize the Little Falls Library and others like it as “community libraries” to distinguish them from the large research libraries such as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, although in the cases of such major urban libraries their branches fulfill a community role. I am among the thousands who have found reading, researching or writing in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library or the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress just plain inspiring. These institutions are cathedrals, whereas my local library is more like a country church- each beloved for different reasons. 

At the end of “Why Libraries Still Matter” Professor Klinenberg cites an illustrative story. This past summer Forbes magazine published an article by an economist who suggested public libraries no longer served a purpose and should not receive public tax support. The author suggested instead that Amazon’s retail outlets take their place, claiming that Americans favor free market options. The negative outcry from the public was so overwhelming that Forbes was forced to remove the article from its website. 

I love seeing a child at my library engrossed in a book or an older adult leaving the building with a pile of novels that will be likely read within a matter of days. There are not many better examples of good use of public tax revenue than a public library. So the next time you hear of a measure threatening to close or curtail your local library, don’t stay silent. Contact your community decision-makers with your protest. Cite what a library means or has meant to you, and be especially mindful of what libraries may mean to your neighbors and their importance in the fabric of your greater community. 

Comments on this and other posts seen in the archive to the left are welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com






Thursday, July 5, 2018

What the World Cup Suggests about Nonprofits


note: aS tv NETWORKS OFTEN BROADCAST RERUNS DURING THE SUMMER. i AM rE-POSTING THIS PIECE WRITTEN FOUR YEARS AGO  IN jULY 2014. tHE MESSAGE IS STILL APT.
On July 4 a friend, and loyal blogee remarked to me that he enjoyed my posts especially when they point out the error of some nonprofits’ ways. They are useful object lessons, he said. It's not as if I go out of my way to highlight scandals or wayward missions, but sometimes they are hard to ignore. And if discussing them can be helpful, then I see no reason not to continue to bring them to your attention from time to time.

It got me thinking - what is at the core of these disasters, such as the shutdown of major institutions, like the Corcoran Gallery of Art or the New York City Opera? What about the various embezzlement scandals that are revealed in the media it seems almost weekly. There is always plenty of blame to go around but if I were to sum up the reason in one phrase I would say" sloppy oversight." And whose responsibility is it to exercise oversight at a nonprofit? In my opinion it is unquestionably with the board of directors/trustees. That is where the buck stops.

The job of the nonprofit board is to govern the institution, oversee its operations, financial stability, strategy and mission. Ideally its work focuses on policy, leaving day to day operations to the staff, headed by the CEO/Executive Director, who it hires and whose performance it evaluates annually (or should). Much has been written about the individual duties of board members. Here I want to concentrate on how a board, as a corporate body, can be made most effective.

As someone who has served on as number of nonprofit boards and served many others in a staff capacity, I am a veteran of board meetings. Whether it meets four, six or, heaven forfend, twelve times a year, a typical board meeting scenario might look like this. The board assembles, sometimes in straggling formation. Most haven't seen each other since the last meeting. Following what is hoped to have been an agenda sent out in advance, the Chair guides the meeting. If the Chair and executive director have given it some thought, the meeting might have some meat, rather than a series of droned reports. By "meat" I mean discussion of a policy issue or strategic initiative. Votes are taken, including for some the most important, the one to adjourn. Members then disperse, until the next meeting.

Some work has been done, but is it effective? Does the board think of its self as a body rather than a collection of individuals, elected for a variety of reasons - skills, relationships, wealth?  My experience suggests no - with the subsequent impact on the board's success in governing..

Like many, and to my surprise, I was riveted watching the recent World Cup. I don’t think I have seen a better demonstration of team work in any endeavor. So if a nonprofit board is like a group of talented soccer players, how is to be formed into a true team? We don't have coaches, but we do have a mechanism that has come into favor in recent years. It is called a governance committee. It grew out of the nominating committee process. Some people began to ask - ok, we have good new board members, now what?  How can they and other board members work together to further the organization's mission?

The purpose of a governance committee is really board quality control - internally guided by board members themselves. Aside from retaining the nominating function, including care to have a succession plan in place for board officers, the committee should be engaged in education and evaluation. Education takes the form of being sure that board members know their roles and responsibilities and that new board members have thorough orientation before service begins. Periodic presentations should be made on new trends in nonprofit management (including fundraising) along with knowledge updates on how programs are supporting the organization's mission.

Evaluation is setting in place a process of reviewing how the organization is making best use of board member's skills and interests, including an analysis of participation, The board should also engage in self-evaluation annually -  asking itself: "How are we doing?"

Few dispute the need for such a committee. The challenge is to how to make it work, given the time demands on board and staff working on other committees directly associated with, for instance, raising money, marketing or planning. The reward will come in the development of a cohesive governing unit, which, in turn, can make the other function-related tasks more effective and personally fulfilling for individual board members..

Another important aspect is the social one. There should be at least one annual get-together of board members - no agenda but to have a glass of wine and get to know one another. Social relationships are helpful glue for team work. Some organizations attach such events to an annual retreat. Not everyone likes that kind of artificial sequester. One of the better board chairs I had told me he would agree to take that position as long we didn't have retreats: "no disappearing into the woods and brainstorming, please."

There  are various techniques that can be utilized to build a board team but the point is without a group to encourage and guide the process chances of success become haphazard. So if your organization doesn't have a governance committee (some now call it a board development committee) encourages its formation and support. Doing so increases the likelihood of hearing around the table frequent cries of "GOAL!!"

Monday, April 23, 2018

Rockwell Art Sale Resolution and an Unusual Major Gift



I. Last November (http://geoffreyplattconsulting.blogspot.com/2017/11/) I wrote about the contentious dispute regarding the intent of the  Berkshire  Museum in Pittsfield MA to sell works of art (“deaccession”) in order to cope with a large deficit and fund new, non-art strategic initiatives. The estimated value of the art was $55 million, the bulk of which was represented by a single painting by Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.”  

National museum groups decried the proposal on ethical grounds. Such sales are supposed to fund art acquisitions, not deficits. Local museum patrons, including several of Rockwell’s sons, filed suit to block the sale at Sotheby’s. At the last minute a judge ordered the sale delayed to give time for the Massachusetts attorney-general’s office to examine the matter.

In February 2018, the state announced it had reached an agreement with the museum that would allow the sale but modified from the original proposal. “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” would be sold to another, as yet unnamed museum for an unknown sum, but would always be in public view. The painting would also remain in the state for 18-24 months at the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum and be made available for display in other Massachusetts museums. The Berkshire Museum would be limited to proceeds not to exceed $55 million from the art sale, the amount it claimed needed to stabilize its finances.  Any funds realized  of between $50 million and $55 million would be required to be set aside for acquisitions of art. 

In his April 5 decision allowing the agreement to go forward, Judge David Lowy of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the “serious concerns” raised by sale opponents but concluded it the sale was vital to the museum’s survival: “the museum’s charitable purpose of aiding in the study of art, natural sciences and cultural history must be protected.”  As one observer noted, the decision may have been sound on legal grounds, but weak on ethical ones.

II: A most unusual and heartening gift was reported in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy .  William H. (Bill) Miller, a famous money manager and investor renowned for beating the S&P 500 Index for 15 years in a row, announced in January a donation of $75 million to Johns Hopkins University in his native Baltimore. The sum is significant enough, but its purpose is what got attention.  It has been designated for use by the Philosophy Department, not for instance health or STEM fields, popular designee programs for higher education. The donation will create endowed professorships and eventually almost double the number of full-time Philosophy faculty members.

Miller was a Philosophy major at Hopkins and a candidate for a Ph.D.  when, faced by a difficult job market,  he left for greener pastures in the investment field.  But as he stated in the interview: “Philosophy I found intellectually, psychologically and emotionally enriching. My life is a lot better for having studied it. Secondly…the critical-thinking skills, the analytical skills, the rigor of philosophy were extremely valuable to me in analyzing capital markets...” 

Are you listening, Wisconsin? The University of Wisconsin, at Stevens Point is proposing to drop 13 majors in humanities and social sciences, including Philosophy , History and  English, and adding programs with “clear career pathways. ” The Washington Post also reported that in 2015 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had attempted secretly to  change the mission of the state university system by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to be replaced by the mandate “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  Such moves are in line with the belief in some conservative quarters that universities are breeding grounds for liberal ideas. After a storm of protest when the move was exposed, Walker pulled back, calling it a “drafting error.”  Perhaps he could have used more  English majors on his staff….

When asked about the timing of the gift to Johns Hopkins, Mr. Miller said he was advised by an associate that unless he wanted the government by default to become his favorite charity, he should do something important in his lifetime.  “I wanted to think about things that had an impact on me, “he said, “where significant money could really move the needle. I thought philosophy was a good place to start.” 

The somewhat idiosyncratic nature of this donation should remind nonprofit leaders that giving, in whatever amount, is a personal action, often driven by the donor’s particular passion. Honoring and working with that understanding can bring mutual satisfaction to all concerned, and should never be overlooked.

Comments about this post and others to be found in the archive to the left are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Historical Lesson of Integrity


In each edition of The Washington Post there is a section titled “Happening Today” that lists some important meetings and events,  usually in the government – the President’s schedule, meetings, economic report roll outs, etc. On February 26 one announcement caught my eye: “3 p.m. The Senate gathers for the annual reading of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address to be delivered by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)”

According to the Senate Historical Office, the annual reading of the address by a current member is “one of the Senate’s most enduring traditions.” The first reading in 1862 was held as a means to boost morale during the Civil War. It was established as a yearly event in 1896, the centennial of its first publication. 

 It occurs to me that the rationale for its first Senate reading –morale  boosting– is particularly appropriate today with a country polarized by divisive disputes and led by a president lacking in basic leadership qualities, not the least of which is integrity, as so calmly exemplified by our first president.
The almost 7000 word “address” was not intended to be delivered in person but rather as a letter. Assisting in its preparation were James Madison and thereafter Alexander Hamilton.  It was first published in a journal called the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796 in Philadelphia, then our nation’s capital. Washington’s purpose was to give advice to the young country for its future. 

 He first cleared a path by announcing he would not seek a third term as president in the upcoming election, just weeks away. He then went on to plead for national unity, well aware of the growth of political parties (then Federalists and Republicans) and the growing divisions in the nation. 

The U.S. Senate website summarizes the address as follows:  “Washington warned that the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation's domestic affairs threatened the stability of the Republic. He urged Americans to subordinate sectional jealousies to common national interests.”  Doesn’t that summary resonate with our current situation? For instance, wasn’t the Russian attempt in 2016 to disrupt our presidential election tantamount to an effort to destabilize the Republic?

I daresay George Washington would be dismayed by the state of the nation today, and how his prescient warnings and advice are being ignored.  He also wrote:” It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.”  Even the most casual of observers can see that our current president, through his own immoral character and actions, is shaking that foundation. The indifference of many politicians only adds to the downward slide.

Washington’s address springs from his own integrity; Trump’s words and deeds issue from the lack thereof.  There are many synonyms for integrity, such as honesty, rectitude,  a character based on high moral and ethical principles.  The word is based on the Latin integer – meaning  whole or complete. A leader with integrity has to lead from within- from who he or she is completely. 

This applies to our leaders in the nonprofit sector every bit as much as it applies to government officials. We must not lose sight of the leadership standard of integrity, even as examples of the opposite flare up around us every day. I don’t know how many U.S. senators heard or took to heart the words of Washington’s Farewell Address recited in the chamber a few weeks ago. I hope some did. They, and others in position of authority in all sectors of our society, have got to pay attention.

Comments on this post and any others found in the Archive to the left are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Friday, January 19, 2018

Time to Change Nonprofits' Game Plan

It's NFL football playoff season and that brings to mind the situation now facing nonprofits with the newly enacted federal tax overhaul bill.  When a quarterback breaking out of the huddle comes to the line of scrimmage and sees the situation has changed since he fixed the play, he calls out an
"audible," which informs his team of necessary last minute adjustments. In the same way, nonprofits must now quickly change their game plan.

The recent legislation is potentially very injurious to nonprofits. Although the tax deduction for charitable giving remains, the incentives to do so are constricted by the redesign of the deductibility architecture. The doubling of the standard deduction (now for a single person $12,000, a couple  $24,000) makes it unnecessary for  many taxpayers in the middle income ranges to itemize deductions. Before, itemization of charitable gifts as tax deductible was believed to encourage such donations. Similarly for the very wealthy the prospect of a hefty estate tax made present day donations attractive to some. That tax was virtually eliminated in the legislation.

On top of all this, nonprofit leaders are worried about the inevitable upcoming battles over federal spending made more acute by the looming budget deficits. If, as widely predicted, the Republican leadership will use the budget shortfalls as an excuse to attack the social safety net/entitlements (Medicaid, Medicare, etc. ) long a favorite target of the Right. As these are cut, the pressure on social service nonprofits to make up the difference becomes acute.

So the quarterbacks for the charitable community come to the line of scrimmage and see the landscape has changed radically. Time for an audible. First, the issues must be faced head on.  Will donors reduce giving because of the changes to deductibility? Do  donors know what the changes are and how they might be affected? To the extent that nonprofits  have had a hands-off relationship with  donors except for year-end asking for money, this attitude needs to change. Perhaps organizations should collaborate in presenting a seminar for donors led by accountants and financial advisors on tax law changes. Then enter into a dialogue with donors. How important actually is deductibility to them?

If it is an important  factor, then provide a counterweight to that rationale. Logically that should be an increased emphasis on communicating your mission - what service do you provide the community? What return do you provide on the donated dollar? The effectiveness of those messages depends on building a strong relationship with the donor. If it is weak, strengthening that bond should be a goal embarked on now. I am not sure tax deductibility is the principal impetus to philanthropy but it is important to ascertain how important it is has been in your organization and build powerful alternative reasons for support. 

As for the other threat - budget cutbacks- relationship is once again the key, here with elected representatives at all levels of government. There is consensus that the nonprofit community dropped the ball (to continue my football analogy) in the recent tax bill fracas.  The advocates relied too much on assumption that previous support from legislators would continue without factoring in the speed in which the bill was fashioned and the changes in political climate. It relied too much on the old formulas - for instance the mass "advocacy day" assault on Capital Hill. In November 2012 I wrote a blog post called "Getting the Dog Back" about political persuasion. It still makes sense to me. Here it is:  http://geoffreyplattconsulting.blogspot.com/2012/11/

If "trickle-down" was a buzzword for adherents of the tax changes, then their effect on state and local governments, along with impending federal budget cuts, would resemble more of a mudslide. In the offing might be additional fees, payment in lieu of taxes on nonprofit real estate and overall reconfiguration of  state and local tax laws. So building relationships with state and local officials  has to be part of the advocacy/firewall  mix. If you review the backgrounds of federal legislators many of them came up through the local and state elected ranks. A county commission can do as much damage - or good - to a nonprofit as any federal legislature.

So, nonprofit quarterbacks, signal the necessary changes to the game plan. Position your blockers, align your receivers to catch your brilliant initiatives and most of all, know the players, both defensive and offensive. It's early in the game. But don't wait until the last quarter to act!

Comments on this blog post (#68) and any other found in the archive to the left are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com