Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Norman Rockwells on the Block?

On November 1, Judge John Agostini  of the  Berkshire Superior Court surveyed his packed courtroom in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and quipped that  “it usually takes a murder case to equal such a turnout.”  What brought so many citizens, lawyers and the press together? :  Art.

The art in question are 40 works by the likes of Alexander Calder, Augustus Saint-Gaudens , Albert Bierstadt and central  to this case, Norman Rockwell, that the Pittsfield-based  Berkshire Museum  last July announced it intended to deaccession and put on the auction block. The estimate of proceeds is $50 million to be used to fund an endowment, deal with chronic financial shortfalls and to renovate the museum to suit its “new vision” mission  emphasizing  interactive displays of  science and natural history.  The museum has claimed the art works up for sale were “not essential to the museum’s refreshed mission.”

Facing $ 1 million annual deficits, the museum trustees undertook a two year study evaluating its purpose with a view to attracting larger audiences and support.  Founded in 1903 the museum was intended by its founder paper magnate Zenas Crane to educate the public with art, scientific and history displays, as a “window on the world.”
Two lawsuits, one by three of Norman Rockwell’s sons, have been filed to block the sale. Rockwell lived and worked in nearby Stockbridge (where a popular museum dedicated to his work now exists). He personally donated the two paintings to the Berkshire Museum in 1958 and 1966. They are expected to fetch over $30 million in a sale scheduled at Sotheby’s on November 13. The Rockwell sons stated their father did not intend the paintings to be sold as a commodity to reduce deficits but rather held  for the pleasure and education of the public in the Berkshires. Norman Rockwell had a long association with the museum; it was the first museum to exhibit his work.
The Rockwell paintings have given the case an emotional edge not often seen in deaccessioning battles, fueled by the participation of his sons and public desire to keep close to home famous work by one of the region’s native sons.  Recently the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, which oversees charities in the state, entered the fray.  At the November 1 court hearing it sought an emergency motion to halt the art sale. Its brief made a strong case that the court should ultimately decide whether the museum has the right to sell the art.  Local and national media have been covering the issue.
The issues raised range from museum ethics to the role of trustees in their fiduciary/public trust roles.
Museum ethics, as defined by two national organizations, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), state clearly that proceeds of sale of work  from a collection must only be used to fund future acquisitions, not for debt reduction or other operational uses. It is believed this sale would be the largest ever used for such unethical purposes.  Besides public censure, the only teeth the AAMD  has is to recommend  that member institutions not make loans to the museum. That even may be weakened as the Berkshire Museum seems to be disposing of its art –related mission.
The question before Judge Agostini is whether the plaintiffs (the suits are now consolidated into one, along with the Attorney General)  have the right to challenge the trustees’ action. Do they have “standing” in legal terms.  If he rules they do not, then in all likelihood the November 13 sale will go forward. If he rules in the affirmative, the legal battles should only heat up. Sotheby’s is already exhibiting in New York the major Rockwell painting “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop,” which the house estimates will draw bids between $20  and $30 million.
“Trustees” are so named because they are charged with managing a museum and its collection, which is held in public trust.  There seems little doubt these trustees are facing a difficult future. They have invested in consultants, a lengthy public input process and arrived at what is clearly a transformative solution. But at what cost? The public would lose access to great art, acquired largely by the museum from donors who presumably, if they knew the works were to  be cashed in, might have had second thoughts about their generosity.
What is particularly troubling is the magnitude of the transactions. The Attorney General questioned if the amount was really keyed to the museum needs or just simply matched the amount Sotheby’s estimated the art would fetch at auction. There is an aura of commodity trading about the whole business.
I hope the judge will grant the restraining order in order to give time for the Attorney General to complete her investigation and the court to adjudicate the entire matter absent the pressure of an impending sale. If the sale goes forward on November 13, the Rockwells and other fine works  disappear from public view. And after the sale, there is no going back.
The judge’s decision is imminent.  I will post it.
What do you think?


Just a few hours after I posted this on my webpage November 7, Judge Agostini announced his ruling - in favor of the museum. In a 25 page decision, he stated the plaintiffs failed to make the case to halt the sale. He wrote "it was the court's duty to act dispassionately and decide cases solely on the legal merits."  He conceded his finding means "timeless works by an iconic, local artist will be lost to the public in less than a week's time."

He added" "the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated."

I would add: there's a lot more steering ahead.

The sale will proceed November 13 at Sotheby's.


Friday evening November 9:  A judge of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals granted a last-ditch appeal by the Massachusetts Attorney General for a preliminary injunction to halt the sale scheduled at Sotheby's for November 13. The AG had requested more time to complete the investigation. The injunction holds until December 12.
Comments on this and other posts found in the blog archive are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Harvey, Irma and the Nonprofit Spirit

The terrible hurricanes of late summer 2017 - first Harvey that swamped Houston, and later Irma that took an awful toll on Florida and the Caribbean – produced images in every media that won’t leave our memories soon. The damage to property, the loss of power, and the scarcity of water, fuel and food that affected millions was heartbreaking to observe.

For my family, there was a direct impact. Our daughter Lucy, her husband Aaron and their Springer Spaniel Bobo on September 7 obeyed the mandatory evacuation order leaving their rented home in Little Torch Key, in the lower Florida Keys near where Irma made landfall.  After a grueling 36 hour drive they arrived safely to harbor with us in Maryland. As of this writing they have just been able to return and inspect the damage. With no roof or walls,  the contents of the house are in ruin. Lucy is a veteran evacuee, having fled New Orleans and Katrina in 2005 but that is small solace.

The other memorable impression from the coverage of those storms is that of people volunteering to help others, many complete strangers. These images ranged from dramatic rescues of people and pets to the drudgery of hour after hour filling sandbags or manning bucket brigades delivering bottled water. And who can easily forget the “Cajun Navy” - folks from southeast Louisiana who left their jobs, hooked up boats to their pickups and drove miles to Houston to help those stranded by the floods?

The heroics too of first responders - police, firemen, the National Guard and EMTs - were notable, as they should be. Everyone, amateur and professional, was aided by the modern technology, cellphones, GPS and social media, which served to connect and guide victims and saviors.

There would have been much greater loss of life and property were it not for the unhesitating work of volunteers. Undoubtedly, if you were to interview some of them, you would discover they belonged to a nonprofit organization - a church or civic group or even a softball league, where they learned through firsthand experience the value of volunteerism.

Alexis de Toqueville, a French diplomat and historian, visited the U.S. in 1831 and a year later published what was to become the famous Democracy in America. In it he states: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite… if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States…I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

So it was when the call went out for help, the response was sometimes overwhelming. Credit too goes to the nonprofits whose mission is disaster aid, such as the American Red Cross, which, along with government agencies, not only provided aid but helped coordinate the work of the thousands of unaffiliated volunteers.  

Response to disasters can bring out the best in people, as with these hurricanes. But once the waters have receded and the debris cleared, keeping that civic spirit alive is a task for all of us.  That spark can be kept alight by nonprofits that understand that fulfillment of their missions would be in peril without the dedicated work of volunteers. They may include board members, docents, grounds workers, or hospitality attendants. You can name them from your own experience.   

The heightened attention given to volunteers by virtue of these natural disasters should remind everyone of their daily value in calmer times. Volunteers should never be taken for granted. They should be recognized and celebrated.  If that is ingrained in a nonprofit’s culture, then there is a cadre ready to be called out for work to cope with future crises, wherever and whenever they occur.

comments on this post and any others found in the archive (this is #64!) are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Dog Days of Summer and a Few One Percenters

"Dog Days of Summer" is a familiar phrase and descriptor. I had to research its derivation, suspecting it had little to do with panting canines - a plausible though ignorant assumption given the season's heat. In fact the dog in the phrase refers to the constellation Canis Major, with its prominent star Sirius, known as the "dog star." The Greeks and Romans believed that about the time when Sirius appears to rise just before the sun (approximately late July) coincides with the hottest time of the year. Furthermore, as suggested for instance in Homer's The Iliad, there is the belief that the Dogs Days portend a time of war, calamity and disaster.

This ancient meaning of  Dog Days might even have a correlation with today's horrors of terrorism, violent bigoted behavior and the feckless leadership in Washington D.C. I won't pursue that line of thought further but as I am writing this not far from D.C. in mid August I can confirm without fear of contradiction that it has been very hot (heat indices over 100). We have just been witness to the tragedies of the riot in Charlottesville, the  Barcelona terrorist attacks and the unconscionable  reactions by Mr. Trump to these events. Add in the recent total eclipse of the sun and you have to wonder if the Ancients didn't have a point.

Luckily my wife Hope and I were able to escape the worst of the Late July-Mid August heat by trips to Western Colorado and an island off mid coast Maine. Along the way I garnered some news items about One Percenters, a class well represented in the Trump administration (see my post "Pluto Philanthropy" - April 2017). In Aspen Colorado, the high altitude playground of the mega rich, I came across a front page story in the Aspen Daily News of July 26: "Developer Fights for Ownership of Huge Aspen Home."  And huge it is.  Built in 2011, here are some of the amenities in the 19,000 square foot structure: seven bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a lazy susan for vehicles in the subterranean five car garage, 40 feet ceilings and a 30 foot rock water fall. It was offered at $45 million, then later reduced to $39.7 million. What the developer called a "lifestyle compound" has never sold.

The Boston Globe of July 31 excitedly reported the sighting of the super yacht Vava II moored in Boston harbor.  It is approximately 315 feet long, sports a helicopter on its upper deck and reportedly cost $150 million to build in 2012.  The owner is a Swiss billionaire Ernest Bertarelli, known as a lover of yachts and an avid sailor. It was not clear if he was aboard with his wife, a former Miss United Kingdom or why it was in Boston. He is however  a graduate of the Harvard Business School. Attending a reunion, perhaps? To put the yacht's size in perspective, a football field is 340 feet long. I am guessing he at least has enjoyed his possession as opposed to the Aspen developer who apparently hasn't.

While I am on a mega bender, let's be positive and and report that on August 14 The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that Bill and Melinda Gates gave $4.6 billion  of Microsoft stock to their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The gift reportedly is designated for the foundation's global health initiative. That is mega philanthropy.

These tidbits found during the Dog Days come to you with best wishes for a happy end of summer and smooth re-entry to the workaday world after Labor Day. I will be returning in September as well  to continue with posts on nonprofit issues. Then should be cooler days, at least as far as the weather is concerned.

Comments on this post and others found in the archive to your left are always welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com. Past blog posts can also be viewed at www.geoffrey platt consulting.com

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Short (and late) Post, plus noting humility

It's been a while since I posted but I have a good excuse: moving. Moving is acknowledged by many psychologists as one of life's most stressful events. My wife Hope and I recently packed up and left New York's Hudson Valley after 11 pleasant and mostly fulfilling years, to return to Bethesda, Maryland to a house we have owned for a long time but not occupied for twenty-five years. Why? The clearest answer is to get farther away from NY taxes and closer to our son who lives in Baltimore. But there is a greater significance. The house is where our young children grew up and so the verse Hope chose for our change of address card is appropriate - by T.S. Eliot, from Little Gidding

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Quite right, once we can see past all the boxes....

On a less personal note:  we have a president  who dominates the media with his boasting, falsehoods and glorification of ME. So when one comes across examples of humility, you want to store them away like squirrels do acorns before wintertime.

I watched all of former FBI Director James Comey's riveting June 8 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and was struck by his not infrequent use of a phrase: "I could be wrong"  prefacing an opinion. Uttered for effect? Perhaps, but refreshing none the less. You seldom hear that from any public figure.

Then on June 7, this announcement from MIT, later widely reported:

"MIT has received a commitment of $140 million in unrestricted funds that can support any facet of the Institute's educational and research mission. The contribution, is from an alumnus who wishes to remain anonymous..."  The donor received financial aid while a student at MIT.

This huge gift is from someone who doesn't want the credit or his name on a building or a college program. We never expect to know the name.This gift in unrestricted. The donor trusts the institution to put it to wise use and isn't advocating a favorite cause or program. It is an act of  humble generosity.

The theologian Thomas Merton once wrote: "Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real,"  The root of the word humility is Latin humilis or low. Let us honor those whose self esteem doesn't require the vaporous fuel of puffed up self congratulation. Let us honor and support those real citizens who serve the public interest selflessly.

I hope you had a fine July 4.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pluto Philanthropy

The words plutocrat and  plutocracy are increasingly being used, given the makeup of our government at the highest levels and a trend in giving. No, they don't refer to the dwarf  planet or a beloved Walt Disney character, Mickey Mouse's pet pup. The words derive from the Greek ploutos meaning wealth. A plutocrat is a person whose power or influence derives from wealth and a plutocracy is defined as a government ruled by the rich.

Of the 16 members of the Trump cabinet two are billionaires and 12 are multi-millionaires. The total net worth of the cabinet members is $4.5 billion. No one quite knows the net worths of the president or his children.but certainly it is safe to assume they are in the upper millions.

If the recently announced tax reform package, skimpy as it is in detail, is any indication, the main beneficiaries of proposed tax cuts will be the rich. There appears to be a bone or two thrown to the middle class, but they are bones that Pluto the Pup might ultimately find undernourishing and unworthy even of burial in the backyard.

Philanthropy has its share of plutocrats too. In February The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its list of the 50 Most Generous Donors in America in 2016. The total given by those in the list was $5.6 billion, with a median gift of $55 million. There are familiar names here such as Bill and Melinda Gates  (#9), and Michael Bloomberg (#2). Topping the list were Phil and Penny Knight (Nike) who gave an astonishing $500 million to  the University of Oregon along with another $400 million to Stanford.  In fact 48% of the total given by the listed donors went to colleges and universities.

So, what could be wrong about this generosity? Like anything else revolving around money, power is the issue and that what is being increasingly discussed. A recently published book by David Callahan "The Givers: Money, Power and Philanthropy in a new Gilded Age" was the subject of an article in The New York Times April 14 that included an interview with the author. He calls the megadonors "super citizens" but questions the wisdom of their ability to donate where they want and for what purpose with little accountability - for instance to either shareholders or voters.

In matters of policy he cites the examples of Mark Zuckerberg's well-meaning venture into improving the public schools in Newark NJ, where he invested $100 million in 2010 in what was a "top down" effort to influence performance and behaviors of schools and their administrators. The results were widely viewed as failed, with the main beneficiaries being the consultants -  not the students. Might there have been a better investment of these dollars towards education reform?

To be sure, there are many examples of successes that Callahan cites, such as the Gates' emphasis on public health  and vaccinations.The point is not to belittle the generosity but rather raise an issue framed by Mr. Callahan: "philanthropy is rising as government is falling. Ordinary people do not feel their voice counts. They feel the wealthy have too much power and calls the shots."

What gives the public the right to question the prerogative of private individuals and foundations to give away money as they see fit? For one thing, as a matter of public policy, these "super citizens" (I rather like "pluto philanthropists")  receive billions of dollars in tax breaks. As an example, the U.S. Treasury estimates that the billionaires that signed the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge -those who agreed to donate to charity 50% of their fortunes- their gifts would cost the government  an estimated $740 billion in lost tax revenue over ten years. For that, the ordinary citizen has at least the right to call the question.

I am putting aside the almost age old tradition  - at least back to the first Gilded Age with the likes of Andrew Carnegie-  of donating big bucks and getting your name on a building. The stakes have risen however. with hedge fund mogul  John Paulson getting his name of an entire graduate school at Harvard - The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering. That is what $400 million will get you at the richest university in the world, one that nests on a $35.7 billion endowment.

There's the old play on the Golden Rule: "Them that has the gold makes the rules."  But the inequality gap is widening rapidly in America and that is not healthy for our democracy. Recall that  the etymological root of the word democracy is the Greek demos - people, with cracy, from the Greek kratos, power or strength.

In the case of  the super gifts, at the least more transparency would be welcome, especially in the arena of donating to tax exempt advocacy groups that espouse candidates or public policy issues, such as education and health care reform.

With all the attention given to these mega gifts, the donors of small amounts to local causes dear to respective hearts should not be intimidated or forgotten. These donations, often made year after year and in some cases at some sacrifice, are the bedrock of our nation's philanthropy.

I love the stories of unknown philanthropists, which I have reported to you from time to time. I leave you with one to cheer you up, should that be necessary. On April 14 the Boston Globe reported that one James H. Connors had died at age 89 in Medford MA. Mr. Connors had lived for years with his (also unmarried) sister Thelma in a small rented apartment in a vinyl-sided house. He ran a lock and key service. Unknown to anyone but his lawyer he had inherited a sizable stock portfolio. His legacy was more than $3 million to create a foundation that, starting this summer, will annually award $3000 scholarships to 50 high school students in Medford.

Thank you Mr. Connors and thank you all donors, mega or mini, whose gifts make a difference.

Comments on this post, or any other found in the website archive, are always welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com

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