Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blog Milestone plus "What's In a (Re) Name?"

The milestone:  this is my 40th blog post since I began writing them in April 2011. In review, I find I have covered a lot of topics and issues that I hope have been interesting and useful to readers in the nonprofit world . You can judge for yourself by referring to the archive section to the left of this page. Anyway, Happy 40th,  Mr.Blog!

Thinking about what subject to discuss for  #40 and searching for a title I discovered "What's In a Name"  conveniently was the title of my first post in 2011. Hard to resist that coincidence. At that time it was about branding an historic site, This time it's about an unusual transaction that has repercussions for the issue of nonprofits naming buildings, or parts thereof, for donors.

Since 1973 - over 40 years- the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center has been known as Avery Fisher Hall, in recognition of the hi-fi pioneer Mr. Fisher's gift then of  $10 million, On November 12, The New York Times announced that Lincoln Center had reached agreement with the Fisher family that in exchange for a payment of $15 million to them (there are three children) the Center will be free to drop the Fisher name and seek another, and presumably larger, naming donor to help fund some $500 million in renovations needed for the facility. The Hall, for instance, has been plagued by acoustical problems ever since its opening in 1962.

To say this "buy back" arrangement is unusual is an understatement, apparently there being no precedent. There have been instances where names have been dropped. I reported the same in a post of  September 7,  2012 citing examples of removal of a name at a facility at American University due to the discovery of the donor's shady dealings in  the arms trade, and the change in name of the Baltimore Ravens' football stadium when the company namesake, PsiNet,  went bankrupt. Baltimoreans were reportedly not unhappy. Some could never get their mouths around the name and fell back on calling it Piss Net.

The Lincoln Center - Fisher family  deal was a private transaction and one of mutual benefit. But it openly moves the naming game into an  arena not unlike one that can be found in market trading.  I can imagine there are now nonprofits across the country with named facilities researching the terms of the original contract/arrangement with the donor. If their building is in need of refurbishment or replacement and there is a prospect for a larger naming gift, why not go back go to the donor or family and see if a deal can be struck?. Lincoln Center had to have been sure there were one or more new "namers" waiting in the wings, as the $15 million to be paid to the Fishers is to come out of the new naming proceeds.

The New York Times had a follow-up article on November 28 that discussed, for instance, the meaning of "perpetuity" in naming rights agreements. There are some donors who set a time limit -say 50  years- after which they and/or their heirs agree  the naming rights can be re-sold. Such a stipulation makes things simpler. But what of the venerable institutions with names that go back many years- like New York's Carnegie Hall (1891)? The answer there is to sub-divide. The main hall at Carnegie is named after Isaac Stern and its stage for the family of financier Ronald O. Perelman.

Then there is  the example of the New York Public Library, which in 2008 renamed its Fifth Avenue landmark building after the financier Stephen A Schwarzman in recognition of  his $100 million gift. Within the structure there were already the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and  the Rose Main Reading Room, both designations for donations made in the 1990s.

My favorite naming, also reported in the Times, is The Jerome and Ellen Stern Restrooms at the New Museum on Contemporary Art in NYC. At the time of the gift in 2007,  Mr. Stern said  he wanted to see his name "in a place where I'm going to spend a  lot of time." 

Without question, we owe great gratitude to those whose names adorn countless cultural and academic buildings and facilities, as well as positions such as professorships and concertmasters. The attraction of naming undoubtedly spurred these gifts. The challenge before Lincoln Center now is to find a donor whose name (s) will stand the test of time and be at the same time appropriate (as  Avery Fisher's was). I don't think, as an example, Facebook Hall would cut it.

At the same time, the donor has to be resigned to the reality that patrons won't necessarily refer to the facility by its new name. In 1945 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia  re-named New York's Sixth Avenue "The Avenue of the Americas." New street signs were erected as well as large medallions in honor of each country. The signs are still there, but the medallions now lie rusted  in a warehouse in Queens. And many New Yorkers still stubbornly refer to the street as Sixth Avenue. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Comments on this post always welcome.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Board Members as Fundraisers

The responsibilities of nonprofit board members is an ongoing topic both here at Geoffrey Platt Consulting  and wherever else there is discussion about the charitable sector. A recent survey conducted by Board Source,  the worthy organization devoted to nonprofits' governance, contains some interesting findings, especially about board members and fundraising.

The same survey has been conducted approximately every two years since 1994. This year 850 CEOs and 246 board  chairs responded. The good news is that, whereas in 1994 only 60% of board members contributed to their organizations, that percentage grew  to 80% in 2013. Yet, the all-important standard of every board member contributing funds to the organization fell short at a reported 60%. Another interesting finding comes from  the trustees surveyed: 43% said they were not comfortable asking others - such as friends, family and colleagues - for money.

Why the discomfort? One reason may be the age-old fear of rejection. Another, and perhaps more subtle anxiety, is that the solicitee  may in turn, ask them for a donation.  This self-reinforcing cycle is familiar to those in the  fundraising  field. It is sometimes called "mutual backscratching," where favors are exchanged. This activity is usually undertaken by peers. A major capital campaign in which I was involved some years ago had many thousands of dollars raised in this fashion. One board member would say: " I'll ask X - I was very generous to his hospital's campaign last year."

But what if you have no favor to return and there is the possibility of  just being told "no"?  This is where the degree of personal passion the board member has for the organization  comes into play. This enthusiasm can de-personalize the "ask." If the person is just not interested in the purpose of the organization. it is the  organization and not the asker that is being rejected. There may also be personal economic factors that have a bearing on a "turn-down."

Let's not discount who is doing the asking. If it's a friend or even a family member, there should be some built-in good will towards the person seeking a donation. The personal approach is always the best.  I  respond better when there is a note included from someone I know in, say, an invitation to an event. Hand-written notes, which are fast becoming a rarity, are much appreciated.

Another barrier to asking friends and family is the apprehension that you are taking advantage of a relationship. But - what are friends for?  As a board member you are fulfilling a duty. You are not forcing anyone to do anything. If your request is declined, at least you have brought to that person's attention your interest and belief in the organization. And who knows, next year they may say "yes."
Successful fundraisers will tell you that relationships really do matter.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that some board members, especially if they are new to the board and/or nonprofits, simply don't know where to start. This is where training and education makes a difference. One of the more effective forms of fundraising education I have seen came at a mini retreat of a board on which I serve. It was a 30 minute presentation  by a fellow board member who had good experience to share. The active Q &A was an additional bonus. A peer presentation like this provides a comfort zone for the neophytes along with the possibility of on-going mentoring.

Board members must be regularly reminded that fundraising is, in one form or another,  a part of their responsibility along with strategic planning and fiduciary oversight. Finding resources to sustain the organization should not be solely left to professional staff.  If, in seeking new board members, a prospect says: "OK, as long as I don't have to ask for money," look around some more, or modify the definition of fundraising to include "softer" approaches. In any case, the potential board member should understand  he or she will have an obligation to work to secure financial resources for the nonprofit.

It would be great to see the 43% discomfort about asking for support drop at the next survey, and  a greater percentage reporting 100% participation  in giving by a board.

A nonprofit  board is too powerful an engine to be left at idle speed.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Elect a janitor to your board?

The other day, an entry in The Chronicle of Philanthropy caught my eye. Entitled "The Janitor Who became a Major Donor," it told the story of Randy Vanness, who works as a janitor for a elementary school in Wisconsin. Several years ago,  Randy lost his 27 year old son to myocarditis, a disease that attacks the heart suddenly and can cause death unless detected quickly. Diagnosis is difficult. Coincidentally a nephew of mine succumbed to the disease without warning in 2012  at age 44.

Shortly after the loss of his son, Mr. Vanness began to raise money through events to benefit the Myrocarditis Foundation, which is based in Colorado. He organized two fundraisers. The first netted $15,000 and the second almost $17,000, all sent to the Myocarditis Foundation as unrestricted gifts.  Carol Weisman, who wrote the article in The Chronicle on Vanness had been hired to recruit board members for the Foundation. She decided to contact Mr. Vanness to discuss if he would be willing to join the board.

That idea, in itself, would seem  to be outside the norm of the profile of "usual" board members. Mr. Vanness was not a wealthy professional and had no special skills  (I do not like the overworked phrase "skillset") to bring to the table, such as accounting or marketing.  What he did have of course was the ability to raise money derived from a passion for, and an understanding of, the  mission of the Foundation - to educate the public about the nature of this terrible  disease.

Ms. Weisman and Randy had a long discussion about the responsibilities of a board member and what role he might play. He was at first reluctant and worried that he might not fit in.  She went back to the board and asked if they had any objection to their being addressed by first names. She thought this necessary given the formal culture of the board. A number of members were doctors. All issues were sorted out, and Mr.Vanness attended his first board meeting. He brought with him two  checks, one of which represented the proceeds from his school's fourth, fifth and sixth grade spring dance. At the meeting he reportedly not only offered brilliant insights, he was the only one in attendance who knew how to assemble the easel!

The point of this story is not just to warm the heart but to challenge the preconceptions we have of people (book by the cover) and to encourage us to think about the qualities we want in board members. Given the financial pressures on nonprofits, the first thought is: who has the money? A person of wealth is always a prospect. In the recruitment process it is wise to determine that person's commitment to the organization's mission and where on his or her chart of charitable commitments the organization might fit.

Just because the pockets are deep doesn't mean the hand will reach in and pull out a fistful of dollars for your nonprofit. There may be other priorities.

Here's an example from my own experience. A  person who I knew had considerable means called me one day and said he wanted to make a  donation. He needed  to be sure it went to a certain program's endowment. I assured him it would- in fact I had to repeat that assurance several times. So I waited expectantly for the check, which arrived, in the amount of $25. To be fair the donor later gave a generous five figure donation to a capital campaign.

You may have heard of the "give or get" theory- that a board member should either give $ or get others to give them. Or ideally, both. Randy Vanness is an example of the "get" side of that equation. On the surface his "station in life" did not suggest that ability. However, not only did he believe deeply in the organization's purpose but he had gone out and acted on his passion with excellent and tangible results..

Assumption is often at the root of  bad decisions. You assume electing a person to your board based on his bank account will unlock his safe deposit box for you. You may also assume a person living a simple life with little disposable income can offer little to your organization. Check again - and accept that pun for what it's worth. You may be surprised. Remember Randy Vanness.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ice-Bucketry, Marinara Sauce and other late summer Nonprofit News

With Labor Day September 1, the days of summer, as in vacation time, have slipped, slipped, slipped away. It's time to sum up some news gathered here in between errant golf shots and eating peaches.

The biggest item is the phenomenal success of the "Ice-Bucket Challenge" benefitting the ALS Association. ALS (Amyotrophic Sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is the devastating condition  that attacks nerve cells in the brain. The challenge is directed at social media and here's how it works. Someone dumps a bucket of ice water on you and you challenge friends to follow suit or donate $100 to the ALS Association  or both, all of which is captured on video and posted online.

Well, the idea created a firestorm ( bad image I admit for ice water) and thousands, from celebrities to neighbors, have taken the challenge and been videoed, some shrieking, all soaked. A stunt? Yes, but one that has succeeded amazingly for its beneficiary. From July 29 through  August 28, the ALS Association received $88.5 million in donations compared to $2.6 million for the same period last year - and it's still growing. Wow.

Why the success? First the idea is ideally suited to social media and going "viral. " Secondly it does have a social benefit for the charity. But most of all it is fun, reminiscent  of the school fair where you bought a chance to dunk the principal in a tub. We can all use some fun these days - with news of earthquakes, wildfires, beheadings and Ebola outbreaks.

Not surprisingly many nonprofits are scrambling to come up with similar and productive gimmicks to emulate the ice-bucket idea. One has suggested a pie-in-the-face, but that may be too messy and expensive. One imaginative scheme comes from a Palestinian journalist who wants to bring to greater attention the plight of citizens in Gaza. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. he states water is too precious to Gazans. Instead he urges dumping on heads a bucket of rubble, such as  can be seen in images of bombed-out buildings there. Sand or dirt will do, if rubble is not available.

Meanwhile the ALS Association  has contacted the various charity rating organizations, such as GuideStar, to say the windfall might affect the program/administrative expenses  ratio those outfits use to rate charities. The Association may not be able to spend program funds fast enough. I say take your time. Don't spend just to satisfy that index, which increasingly is coming under scrutiny (see my post of October 2012).

Other news. A ruling by a D.C. Superior Court judge on August 17 cleared  the way for the dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art as an independent institution, allowing the merger with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. Judge Robert Okun turned aside the suit by Corcoran supporters that suggested the current board, with better fundraising, could save the Gallery. Not likely, the judge - and others - said. I have covered this sad story a number of times here  (first post of October 2012).

The Metropolitan Opera reached agreement with the last of its 16 unions on August 17 after successful negotiations with its orchestra, chorus and stagehands. It was a close call, but with the help of a Federal mediator and ultimately a spirit of conciliation on the part of all parties, the season is expected to open on schedule in late September. Unusual in the agreements is the concept of "equality of sacrifice."  The monetary value of cuts to labor will be matched by cuts on management's side. This was, if you will allow me, an ensemble success.

Finally, almost every week I read of some embezzlement horror at a non-profit. For instance, in mid August a pastor in Oklahoma was accused of stealing $933,000 from his own church.  Here's another twist. Ralph "Buddy" Cianci is a famous- or infamous - politician in Rhode Island. Since 1975, he has  been Mayor of Providence twice. Both terms ended in felony convictions and he spent five years in Federal prison. At age 73, he is running for the office again. Recently the Associated Press reported on the  product he markets - the "Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce." Its label prominently states proceeds would benefit Providence school children. The AP report revealed there have never been any contributions to the scholarship fund,  as from 2009 to 2012 the sauce had made a total of $3 in income. Three dollars - not much help for the school children, but we can welcome Hizzoner to the ranks of nonprofits,

I hope your summer was pleasant and restful. Comments on this post and others always welcome.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What the World Cup Suggests about Nonprofits

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 a 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) encourage its formation and support. Doing so increases the likelihood of hearing around the table frequent cries  of "GOAL!!"

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Snatching Order out of Chaos

The other day I came across a blog written by an author whose work I hadn't read in years Steven Pressfield. In 1998 he wrote an astonishing book "Gates of Fire" about the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) in which just a few hundred Spartans held off  thousands of Persians. Mr. Pressfield is a gifted,  prolific writer.  With his blog "Writing Wednesdays"  he continues an examination of creativity he explored in his 2012 book "The War of Art."  There he  suggests  means  of overcoming the largely internal roadblocks that get in the way of any creative endeavor. These endeavors are not just writing, painting or composing but also include business ventures, such as, I would posit, running or governing a nonprofit.

Let's say you are a nonprofit leader. Demands pile up daily, from donors, the public, your staff. Deadlines loom - grant proposals, preparations for fundraising events and board/committee meetings. Then there are pressing obligations in your personal life. It all seems like chaos - a permanent state of disorder. Order it if you can.  How do you get work done - especially a major project that you have been circling warily for weeks?.

Drawing on his writing career and personal efforts to clear the hurdle, Pressfield  makes some intriguing suggestions in a blog entitled "Working in Chaos."   First he says "work in  the cracks." Find intervals in your schedule where you can write even one page or paragraph. That is "gravy," he says,where you have made at least  something out of nothing. It helps too if you are determined to think big with low expectations. He calls this "eagle medicine"- the view from on high, avoiding "mouse medicine" where you are simply tinkering with words. You might surprise yourself by what emerges.

Further he recommends if your time is limited not to work "in sequence."  Don't go to the project's next step - rather, as he puts it, "snatch something out of the air. " It might be good. Granted this improvisational approach can be nerve wracking.  It is useful if you believe, as he does, that chaos is healthy, and that the universe is self-regulating.

My father, Geoffrey Platt ( I am Jr.) had a distinguished career as an architect and later in his career as a leader in the preservation field. He was the founding chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. After he died in 1985, I found tacked on his office bulletin board two quotations written out in his hand on index cards.  The first is  the famous " Never Give In...." exhortation by Winston  Churchill. The other is from Leonardo Da Vinci: "Tell me if anything was ever done." I have long pondered its significance to Geoffrey Platt. With Mr. Pressfield's  advice to snatch something out of the air, I am going to try here.

Apparently Leonardo  was a famous procrastinator. He was given commissions that he either never started or didn't complete. It took him 20 years to finish Mona Lisa. It took a threat from his patron to cut off  funds to get him to finish The Last Supper.  He doodled compulsively (and what doodles!).His contributions  to art, science and architecture are well-known. But  he felt he could accomplish much more. While reviewing half-finished projects he appealed to God :  "Tell me if anything was ever done."

So I think the quote that my father saw every working day on his bulletin board served  as  a reminder that procrastination, putting off important tasks in favor of  more trivial ones, is common, even practiced by the greatest of geniuses, but that one should avoid finding oneself in the anguished state that led to Leonardo's appeal to God. The internal blockages to finishing a project, ignored temporarily by concentrations elsewhere, can be assuaged by employing some of Mr. Pressfield's techniques detailed above.  In fact I have used them to succeed in finishing this blog. Phew. Some of the chaos can in fact be tamed. One snatch at a time.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Charities and the IRS - Who's to Say?

A while back a friend of mine announced proudly that the nonprofit he had helped launch had received its 501 (c) (3) designation from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This represents an achievement of patience and bureaucratic determination. To remind: 501 (c) (3) in the tax code exempts "charitable organizations" from having to pay (most) federal income tax and importantly to the organization, makes it eligible to receive tax deductible contributions.

Not to belittle my friend's accomplishment or his organization's worthy mission, but it would be a mistake for anyone to consider receipt of 501 (c) (3) status as the government's qualitative imprimatur. The IRS approves 99.5% of all exemption applications from charities. This fact, among other head-snappers, can be found in the book "With Charity for All" by Ken Stern (Doubleday 2013). Stern, the former head of National Public Radio, examines the role of charities in our society, the lack of accountability and meaningful evaluation of their effectiveness.

The governmental  definition of "charity" is very broad, as can be read in Stern's research. Included among those granted tax exemption by the IRS for their public service  (and  today there are 1.1 million individual charities in the country ) are the following: The All Colorado Beer Festival  ( self  defining ),  the Renegade Roller Girls (an Oregon female roller derby) and unforgettably, the Grand Canyon Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence  (promoting the drag queen lifestyle).  I am not making the latter up - you can "google"  it yourself.

With almost no attrition of 501 (c) (3) organizations,  except through abandonment, and some 50,000 new tax exempt charities added each year, a virtually unchecked system continues to roll on unabated. We are a democracy of course, and it could be said that this growth is evidence of vibrancy. There are consequences however.  One is the loss to the government of income. A congressional panel estimates that individual charitable donations will cost the Treasury Department $43.6 billion in foregone  revenue this year, according to Bloomberg Business Week. If you are a libertarian this might have appeal, but the loss of this  huge sum must has to affect some necessary governmental services.

Another consequence of the sheer number of tax exempts is confusion in the marketplace. The competition for donated dollars grows more intense. How do you choose? The  sheer glut of options  makes it harder for the donor to make distinctions.  Say you wanted to give to a charity that benefited U.S. Navy vets. You might have chosen the U.S. Navy Veterans Association- a good name, granted federal tax exemption and registered with  the Veterans Administration.

Oops. In 2010 the St. Petersburg Times revealed the charity was a fraud,  run by a con man who hijacked another's name. In the course of seven years "Bobby Thompson"  had bilked thousands of generous Americans of $100 million, not a dime of which ever found its way to a U.S. Navy veteran. Mr. Thompson - real name John Cody- began a 28 year jail sentence in 2013. After his arrest, authorities found among his belongings a suitcase stuffed with  $980,000 in cash .

Stories like that, and many more, to say nothing of the frequent revelations of internal embezzlement scandals (see my blog of  March 2012 "Ripping Off the Good Guys") collectively cloud the reputation of charities throughout the country. What is a good-hearted donor to do?  The IRS provides no oversight. There are several private organizations, such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar that, with online access, can provide basic screenings, but those concentrate largely on economic reporting standards. The matter of fiscal accountability is important but Mr. Stern believes there is another unresolved issue: how do you measure a charity's real effectiveness?

He details the efforts of a group of young financial investment analysts who, in 2006, wanting to donate but frustrated with lack of information about charities, banded together to develop a research evaluation model,   The result is an organization and website called GiveWell (www, that exhaustively digs deep into what certain charities do. The concentration is on those that work in developing nations, believing that donor dollars will go farther there. GiveWell each year  recommends charities that deserve support based on these criteria: data provided by the charity that is evidence-backed, proven cost effectiveness and that the charity is able to use increased funding effectively. The goal is to turn donors into investors.

When the group started they were frustrated by the response of some charities towards its request for data.  Some stonewalled, others relied on sending glossy brochures filled with what Stern calls "happy anecdotes and inspiring narrative." The thorough vetting process GiveWell has developed over the years is impressive, and can be seen in its website  (, It goes well beyond some of the metrics other evaluating groups use, such as ratio between overhead and programming costs. The transparency produced is designed so that people will have trust in where their dollars are going and what they are doing.

The IRS doesn't have the capacity to do such evaluation; some states' Attorney-Generals do, but usually after the fact of one scandal or another. Individuals should be asking hard questions of the organizations they are considering supporting,  and the organizations should work towards freely providing evidence-based data to demonstrate that what they are doing actually makes a difference.  We are largely a generous people and do not want to see any further erosion of belief in the value of nonprofits to our society.  We should expect then transparency and accountability from those very same nonprofits.

You can comment on this post right here. Weigh in!  Thanks.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Nonprofit Takeover? The Corcoran Gallery, continued......

Last May I posted a blog entitled "The Corcoran Conundrum - Woes of  a Great Art Museum."  It detailed the sad history of the renowned Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. - various management and governance missteps that lead it a point where its very survival was at stake. (You can read the post at the archive section to the left of this page). At that time the Gallery, to survive, was considering a collaboration with the University of Maryland regarding the Corcoran School of Art and Design, and the National Gallery of Art (NGA)  for display of art displaced by renovation of the NGA East Building.

On February 19,  after months of secrecy, the proverbial "bolt out of the blue" struck with the news that the Gallery had reached an arrangement not with the University of Maryland but rather with the private  George Washington University (GWU), and the National Gallery of Art. It is a far more comprehensive scheme than the first. In several weeks the final details will be announced but the outline is as follows:

GWU will absorb the School of Art & Design and be responsible for  the Gallery's iconic 17th Street Beaux Arts building, including the millions of dollars needed for repair. The NGA will, after study, if you pardon the expression "cherry pick" what art from the Corcoran's 17,000 piece collection it will display in DC, either at its facility or at the Corcoran itself in what is will ne  called a "Legacy Gallery." The NGA will also use space at the Corcoran to expand its program of contemporary art exhibits. What art the NGA doesn't want will be donated to museums around the country.

The Corcoran's collection of American art, photography, and contemporary art is held in high regard.. In this arrangement the collection will be dismantled and dispersed. The Corcoran Gallery of Art will cease to exist as a discrete institution. Not known is what will become of the Gallery and School's staff.

The news of the deal was greeted in the DC press with a sad resignation, tinged with some anger. One writer called it "euthanasia" and The Washington Post's headline announcing the scheme labeled its a  "takeover."  There were also post mortems on how such an arrangement should have become  necessary in the first place - citing for example mismanagement and a board more interested in socially connecting  than in collecting art. The sadness focused on the loss of an independent  DC cultural institution (the city's largest in private hands) with a history dating back to 1869.

Washington DC has long struggled with its own self identity, to draw distinction from its just being  thought of as a "company town."  So the dissolution of one of its more prominent homegrown institutions understandably is a source  of emotional distress.

The Corcoran had become a sinking ship, burdened by increasingly large annual deficits, shrinking attendance, a crumbly infrastructure and uncertainty as to its course. The  GWU/NGA plan then has reason to be viewed as a rescue.  A number of life rings will be thrown out to preserve largely what is important  - the art and the building. There was likely no alternative but an arrangement of this kind. Without it, there would remain only cockamamie ideas,  like the one floated by the Corcoran board  in 2012 to sell its building.

Or worse - the example presented in the announcement March 27 that the Delaware Museum of Art intends to sell as many as four artworks, valued at $30 million, to replenish its endowment and repay debt from a facilities expansion. The museum's director said the board decision was a "last resort" to avoid the museum closing its doors. Such a sale for those purposes is counter to the central core of museum ethics and mission - holding collections in trust for the public.

Comparatively the proposed Corcoran deal is the better alternative, or perhaps the lesser of two evils.  In both cases over time the governing boards and management lost their bearings. Perhaps it was because they succumbed to the siren song of facility expansion. What ever the reason, the institution suffers, or in the Corcoran's case, dies. Let us hope the DC plan goes through. The solution shows a degree of  creativity and there will be some important salvage. But you can't gloss over the fact that it is a sad denouement.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Vamp 'Til Ready..."

I have fallen behind in my posting schedule, thus the above title, which I will explain shortly. My excuse, aside from the large hippo named Procrastination, is that we are busy planning our daughter's wedding at the end of March, or rather I am observing that activity and warming up the checkbook. Such a happy event inevitably can lead to loss of focus on regular matters.

I learned of the phrase "Vamp 'Til Ready..." in December 1965. At the time I was serving as Assistant  Manager of the first recital series produced by Lincoln Center. It was  called "Great Performers at Philharmonic Hall"  (now called Avery Fisher Hall).  The series featured some great artists, such as soprano Birgit Nilsson, violinist Yeheudi Menuhin and the phenomenal pianist Martha Argerich in her American debut.  We also included non-classical musicians, namely Joan Baez and Duke Ellington.

Ellington is the center of this story, although I have a good one about Ms. Baez that I might get to another day. Edward "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was one of the great jazz performers and composers in our musical history. In discussions with his office we asked if he would be willing to write an original composition for the performance. He agreed.

One of my jobs was to prepare information for each concert's printed program and so I needed to know the name of his composition. I was told only the Duke had that information and that I could talk to him on a certain day between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m. He was clearly a night person, which I was, and am, not. I reached him on the phone and asked for the title. There was a pause and he indicated he hadn't given it much thought. I pressed him (as much as I could at age 24 and in the wee hours of the morning) and he finally gave it to me, almost in the form of suggestion.  I admit now I have forgotten it, but it was something like a "Study in _________," - a bit nondescript.

Another job I had was to look after the artists the day of their performances, and any rehearsal before. Ellington declined  a  rehearsal so the first time I met him was about 45 minutes before the 3 p.m. "curtain." I went to his dressing room and found him there, still informally dressed, seated at a spinet piano with about six of his band members in the room as well. Importantly, also present was his longtime arranger and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Duke was playing musical lines on the piano and a number of the men were transcribing  notes onto part manuscripts. Strayhorn would offer suggestions  as well as  joining  in the transcription task. Periodically a musician would stand  up and wave his part in the sir to dry the ink.

Clearly I was watching a composition in the final making, only 30 minutes before the concert's start. I don't remember if I broke into a sweat, but nervous is an understated  description of my state.  I checked back every ten minutes or so, found the same activity and finally caught Ellington's eye and tapped my wristwatch. He gave me  a benevolent smile and went back to work.

The witching hour of  3 p.m. arrived. Still wavings of music manuscript in the air. At 3:10 - now quite desperate - I got the Duke's ear, reminded him of the time and asked his advice of what I should do. He said calmly "Come back in 10 minutes." By this time there was evidence of audience impatience. I returned to the dressing room as  instructed, found some men still scribbling but this time Ellington was dressed. He said "Let's go" and he and I - no other musicians -  descended in the elevator to the stage level.

A stagehand was ready to open the door to the stage, bare except for a grand piano and seats and stands for the musicians. As the door was opening I asked the Duke- by the way a most charming and polite man, - what he was going to do. "Oh," he said,  "I'll just vamp 'til ready."

So he did, "vamping" meant improvising at the piano or noodling. He also talked some to  the audience. Maybe 15 minutes passed and then the door opened and the 10 members of the band came on stage, carrying their now dry scores of the original composition. Of course Ellington standards, such as  "Take The A Train" were also played. The concert was a great success.

So I hope you didn't mind if, with this story, I have vamped until my next post about nonprofit issues is ready. 'Til then...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Perils of the Detroit Institute of Arts and a Little Bit of History

You would have to have lived in a cave if you weren't aware, at least to some degree, of the perils of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) .To briefly summarize, the City of Detroit, in debt to the tune of $18 billion, last December formally declared bankruptcy. Not long thereafter, reports emerged that  the city's creditors, the largest of which are those who are owed pensions, were looking to sale of the DIA art collection to help relieve the debt. William Schambra in The Chronicle of Philanthropy writes that the collection is "the most valuable remaining disposable asset" of the city.

Christie's, the prominent art auction house, was commissioned by the city's Emergency Manager to appraise the fair market value of the collection, particularly  the works purchased by the City of Detroit. The response was a range from $452 million to $866 million. Some then weighed in that was too conservative.

Then the cavalry - in the form of 10 major foundations (Kresge, Ford, W.K. Kellogg, etc.) - rode in, apparently, to the rescue. They have pledged $370  million, with the major beneficiaries being the City, retirees and employees  and the DIA. But there are conditions. The State of Michigan has to match it. The Governor recently pledged $350 million, pending legislative approval. The DIA has to itself provide $100 million for the City pension fund - each  over a period of years.  Another condition is that the DIA become a nonprofit organization and not an agency of city government. The matching conditions especially represent a high hurdle. Presumably all this, assuming it can come to fruition, would protect the DIA collections from the auction block.

Certainly the prospect of a selling off the art is a very distressing one. Major works would be removed from public view, as most museums cannot compete in the hot auction market. The Institute would be gutted, representing, as some have said, an attack on the soul of the city itself. Ironically,  if it weren't for the emotional public response to the possibility of losing the DIA collections, the foundations might  have lost one rationale for their unprecedented use of private funds to help bail out a city. These  foundations do however have longstanding relationships with Detroit.

Why has this situation come to pass, aside from the economic reasons for the bankruptcy? One could understand how the creditors would be attracted to the DIA collection, with the frequent reports of astronomical  prices for art being fetched at auction. The other reason is more basic - the DIA is owned by the city, thus vulnerable, and here is where the history lesson come in.

When the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were founded, before any hole was dug or even much material collected, an agreement was reached with the City of New York whereby the trustees would own and acquire the collections, and the City be responsible for the real estate and its maintenance. The years were 1869 and 1870 respectively, and the author of this arrangement was one of the museums' founders, the lawyer, and later Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph H. Choate,  a great grandfather of mine. I have been researching his life and career. 

In a 1917 memorial to Choate, the Natural History Museum's president Henry Fairfield Osborn described a "wise union of public and private endeavors…Choate worked an  entirely new conception, namely, provision for the  independent and untrammeled  management of the museum by the most intelligent men of the City combined with its establishment as a public institution, to be  built and partly maintained by public taxation, and to be endowed and enriched with specimens brought together through private gifts and donations.” 

The DIA was established in 1885. It is of course a pity its founders didn't follow the New York City model. If it had, its collections would not be at risk today. Let us hope the complex arrangements to satisfy Detroit's creditors will work out. The goal is to keep the art in Detroit, but more broadly to lessen the possibility that city-owned museums' collections elsewhere will be similarly exposed, should their owners face bankruptcy.  Perhaps the stewards of such collections should take heed and build their firewalls now. Forewarned is forearmed.