Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rivera vs. the Rockefellers, along with a Ballad of Artistic Integrity

Public art has a long history of controversy. One famous example occurred in 1933 and centered on a mural by the famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the Rockefeller family, which commissioned him to paint a mural for the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center in New York City. On the face of it, this was an odd contract, between the notably capitalistic Rockefellers and the avowed and provocative Marxist, Rivera. But Rivera was widely admired as a muralist, and art patrons Nelson and his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Center management to give Rivera the commission.

On site, Rivera enthusiastically got to work painting a large mural that visually depicted  the struggle between capitalism, on one side of the work, and socialism, on the other. Nelson and Abby visited the artist and work in progress frequently. One day in May 1933 Nelson Rockefeller was startled to see that Rivera had added a portrait of Lenin to the work. He complained to the artist that this might offend viewers. Rivera was not shy and a public dispute between the artist and his patrons ensued. Rivera refused to delete Lenin. He was ordered to stop work and was paid his fee. The painted mural was subsequently chiseled off the wall. Its remains were later discovered by Rivera assistants crammed into 50 gallon oil drums near the Center's  entrance. The art world was horrified by the destruction and vilified the family.  The press had a field day.

One writer's response to the controversy has long been a favorite of mine. It's a classic comic verse written by the great essayist, social commentator and dog lover E. B. White. It was published in The New Yorker in 1933, where he was a staff writer for almost sixty years.  It's called:

I Paint What I See: A Ballad of Artistic Integrity

"What  do you paint when  you paint on a wall?
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Do you paint just anything there at all?
Will there be any doves, or a tree in fall?
Or a hunting scene, like an English hall?"

" I paint what I see," said Rivera.

"What are the colors you see when you paint?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
If you do, is it terribly red, or faint?
Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"

" I paint what I paint," said Rivera.

"Whose is that head that I see on my wall?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Is it anyone's head whom we know at all?
A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?
Is it Franklin D? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
Or is it the head of a Russian?"

"I paint what I think," said Rivera

"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see.
I paint what I think, " said Rivera,
"And the thing that is dearest is life to me
In a bourgeois hall is Integrity:
I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'
And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln;
I could even give you McCormick's reaper
And still not make my art  much cheaper,
But the head of Lenin has got to stay
Or my friends will give me the bird today,
The bird, the bird, forever."

"It's not good taste in a man like me, "
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"To question an artist's integrity
Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
But  I know what I like, to a large degree,
Though art I hate to hamper;
For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
You painted a radical. I say shucks,
I could never rent the offices,
For this, as you know,  is a public hall
And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
And though your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper,
And after all,
It's my wall..."

"We'll see if it is, " said Rivera.

Some notes: Nelson Rockefeller, later Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States became a renowned collector and patron of contemporary art. E.B. White, along with his many New Yorker contributions, in 1952 published the beloved Charlotte's Web, with now over 40 million copies sold. Diego Rivera returned to Mexico, where he recreated the mural in Mexico City. He never undertook another mural commission, although the body of his work established him as a leading artist in the 20th century. And, in case you're wondering, Mordaunt Hall was the film critic for The New York Times at the time of the controversy.

My wife, after reading this post, asked me "where did you find the White poem?" It's included in a wonderful book: The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker's Anthology.  First published in 1945, and later reprinted, the editors Charles Curtis and Ferris Greenslet, intended it initially as a handy collection of thought for military personnel located far away from libraries. I dip into it now and then and the White poem is a recent result.

I hope you enjoyed this gift of topical verse - a departure from my usual track. Have a wonderful holiday season, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

comments always welcome at:

Monday, November 9, 2015

Go Back to School?

I recently read of a new initiative that should be of interest to nonprofit leaders. It's called Philanthropy University, and is being offered online in cooperation with the Haas School of Business at the University of California. What differentiates this effort from others being offered online is first its origins, then its structure and finally its costs.

A Saudi businessman and philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh donated several million dollars a few years ago to create the University that would be based on  "massive online courses" or MOOCs. The University's are offered at no cost to participants. The courses are divided purposely in short segments of about 12 minutes, each over a seven week period, in  order to keep student interest. During those weeks, students can watch as often and at any time during whatever week a class is  offered live. At the end of each week students are given assignments, after which they can move on to the next section in the course.

Topics in courses that began September 29 included fundraising, strategic planning, and financial modeling. Teachers include academics and practitioners.  A complete list and other information can be found  at the web address: Those who complete all seven courses receive a certificate in social sector leadership from  the Haas School of Business at the University of California.

According to Mr.Al-Dabbagh, the goal of Philanthropy University is to give nonprofit leaders tools to more effectively run their organizations.  Enrollments have so far exceeded expectations. Over 200,000 signed up in the first month. An internal goal is to increase the completion rate in this MOOC to about 20 percent, from the industry average of less than 10 percent, by means of the shorter segment design and enhanced content presentation. The first set of courses is underway. I wasn't able to get to them in time. I will enroll for the next slate in late November.

There is a downside to this type of off-site learning. Teachers and some students might miss the personal interaction in the classroom -  the questions and answers, the follow-ups. Some students also enjoy the socialization that occurs in the  room or outside during a break. However, as the University is intent on developing a world-wide student body, there will be nonprofits in remote areas where the University presents a special opportunity. The same might be said of nonprofit leaders in urban areas where the pace of daily work - and even leisure -  limits the time they have for continuing education or, as it often termed, professional development.

Nonprofits' investment of time and resources for their leadership in this important activity is often woefully weak. Employees and the organization each stand to benefit.  Where there is opportunity, some employees, especially those in the higher echelons, cite "I'm too busy" as a reason not to take advantage of the chance to learn anew. Their supervisors should push them out the door or in front of the screen.

Whether Philanthropy University is the answer to ongoing professional development, or part of it, remains to be seen. But as it is easily accessible and free, there is no harm in giving it a try, which I will, and hope you will too. As Benjamin Franklin is to have said: "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.."

Comments on this blog, or any other (see archive to the left) are always welcome here or at

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Naming "Rights" - with two updates

First, an apology to any of my blogees who might have wondered where I have been. The quick answer is that I took August and September off.

In August, The New York Times reported that  Paul Smith's College in the New York Adirondacks region had been offered $20 million IF it changed its name to include the donor's. It would be re-named Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College.

Certainly there are plenty of examples of parts of institutions, stadiums,  professorships, buildings, even restrooms (see my "Blog Milestone" 12/3/14 in Archive)  being named in honor of a donor. The most recent and dramatic example was Harvard's re-naming its engineering school in honor of a $400 million gift -  thus the somewhat awkwardly named Harvard John  A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But $400 million is $400 million, even to a university whose endowment, as of June 30, was valued at  $32.7 billion.

But I am hard-pressed to think of an example of a entire nonprofit institution's name being refigured as the result of a gift. We all know of universities being named at the outset in honor of a donor   (e.g. Harvard, Yale and Stanford). The distinction of this story is the public acknowledgment  that the $20 million gift to Paul Smith's College is conditional on the college being thus re-named.

Before I take to my soapbox. let's look at the players. Paul Smith's is a four year college with 1,000 students located on the shore of Lower St. Regis Lake in New York's huge Adirondack Park. The student body doubles the population of the rural community where it's located. It was founded in 1937 by Phelps Smith, with a gift of land (50,000 acres) and funds ($2.5 million),  and named in honor of his father, Paul Smith, a famous local hotelier. The college is well known for its programs in forestry and hotel management.

Joan Weill is the wife of Sanford ("Sandy")  I. Weill, the billionaire former head of Citigroup. The Weills, based in New York City, have property in the Adirondacks. Mrs. Weill  has been a long-time supporter of Paul Smith's and has served on its board for 19 years. The Weills have given millions to the college. A new student center and library are named for her. The couple are well-known philanthropists.

As required by law, the college petitioned the state (Board of  Regents and the Attorney General's Office) and the State Supreme Court to allow the name change. The reason: the will that bequeathed the property and funded the founding of the college required that  it  be "forever known" as Paul Smith's College. The state agencies have indicated they have no objection to the change.  A ruling from the State Supreme Court is pending.

In its filings the college cited that the reason for its wishing to accept the naming condition is financial. It operated at a $2 million deficit last year. Its endowment is small ($27 million), its tuition high. The college acknowledges the generosity of the Weills over the years. Its president also stated the addition of the Weill name could attract "other supporters of higher education."

The response of the local community, faculty and alumni has resulted in what a friend of mine likes to call a "SOP" - Storm of Protest. The milder comments question why the name change is necessary. But other terms like "leveraged buyout" and 'hubris" and "arrogance" populate the criticism on social media and in letters to the local paper. It is true that the Weills are not without controversy, especially Mr. Weill, whom Time Magazine cited as among "The 25 People To Blame for the Financial Crisis" of 2008.

There are a number of issues. One is the definition of "forever known" by the name Paul Smith's College in the will language. It seems pretty clear to me, but there are instances where courts have been persuaded by present day exigencies, usually financial, to overlook that condition in behalf of the appellant institution. And it will still have the name, though not exclusively. Besides, as some have pointed out, it will always be known  colloquially as Paul Smith's College, much as The Avenue of Americas will always be called Sixth Avenue by  New Yorkers.

But the larger issue is the conditional nature of the gift - you'll get the $20 million  if you change the name. This could be a chilling precedent. Will someone be tempted  to, say, give a struggling symphony orchestra millions if their name is added ?  The Geoffrey Platt _________ Philharmonic sounds nice. Or another condition:  you'll get my bucks if you promise "forever" never to program Bruckner symphonies?

Many have pointed out that this is the age of Me, symbolized by the present day antics of Donald Trump. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this latest step in "naming rights." Philanthropy  means "love  of humanity" not love of me, but we are way past that now in the nonprofit sector.

Does the example set by the Weills represent a slippery slope? With the concentrated millions pouring into political campaigns, should we not be wary of the possibility, for instance,  of the re-naming of the U.S. Presidency?  Maybe ( you fill in the blank )  "The __________President of the United States of America."  A jest, but ...

p.s. On October 7, a judge of the State Supreme Court in Franklin County NY denied the college's petition to change its name, citing "the petitioner falls far short of showing that its name is holding the college back from being a shining success both in enrollment and in producing successful college graduates." It is unclear how this ruling will affect Mrs. Weill's gift of $20 million, which had been predicated on the name change. The ruling also may have precedent-setting implications regarding the issue of re-defining  "forever" (see above) regarding institutional names established by bequests or gifts.

p.p.s. On October 22, the Weills announced they would not be donating the $20 million to Paul Smith's College, after a NY State Supreme Court turned aside the college's petition that the college be re-named Joan Weill-Paul Smith's College as a condition of the gift. The college had decided not to appeal the decision, in consultation with its board and the Weills. So the deal from the outset : $ for re-naming, is a goner.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Listen to the Dreamers

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend who is very knowledgeable about nonprofits, especially fundraising. The  topic was a recent announcement that hedge fund mogul Stephen Schwarzman had just pledged $150 million to Yale University to create a center for campus life. The center would emphasize the arts and be grown out of the old freshman dining hall known as The Commons. My friend pointed out that when the donor and university began conversations they were just about renovating the dining  hall.  But Mr. Schwarzman had a grander vision in mind and that is what now will become reality .

Doubtless it helps when the espouser of the big picture has the pocket depth of Mr. Schwarzman, who, for instance,  gave $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008 and more recently $100 million to China's Tsinghua University. The point is, however, that nonprofit leaders, often besieged by financial pressures, need to allow themselves to think big and funders to listen to those who do.

I offer several examples from my region, New York's Hudson Valley. The first is "Walkway Over The Hudson" in Poughkeepsie. Originally constructed as a railroad bridge for freight traffic spanning the Hudson River between Highland NY and Poughkeepsie, it had largely fell into disuse when it was severely damaged by a fire in 1974. It is a marvel of civil engineering - 6800 feet long and standing 212 feet above the river. The bridge likely would have been torn down if it were not for a local handyman  named Bill Sipe who became obsessed with the idea of it becoming a pedestrian walkway. In 1992 he formed an organization called Walkway Over The Hudson, which in 1998 took ownership of the bridge. A new board was formed in 2007 and it began to raise significant funds, primed by a large leadership gift from the local Dyson Foundation. The State of New York, local governments and private groups,  such as Scenic Hudson,  joined in to play major roles.

The Walkway opened to the public in 2009. Now called the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park, it took 16 months and $38.8 million to build. Presently some 700,000 people a year visit the 1.28 mile walkway - the longest footbridge in the world-  enjoying the unparalleled views up and down the river. They are the fit and the frail, the young and the old, running or walking, alone or with friends, including four-legged ones. There is no admission fee. A visit to the Walkway is a demonstration of what the realization of one man's quixotic dream can mean to a community and state.

Another vision that began with one man, Richard Anderson, has yet to be  fully accomplished but is on its way. Mr. Anderson, an art dealer raised in Nyack NY on the west bank of the Hudson, was a devotee of steamships and dreamed of reviving the Dayliner excursion experience on the Hudson. He discovered a steamship that lay deteriorating at a dock in Detroit - the S.S. Columbia. From 1902 to 1991, the Columbia had transported thousands from Detroit on an 18 mile excursion to Boblo Island, site of an amusement park. No simple ferry, it was a grand ship, 207 feet long and 60 feet wide. It could accommodate 3200 passengers and even featured a restaurant and ballroom.

Anderson, with persistent and persuasive determination, spun out his vision of the Columbia steaming up the Hudson from New York City as far north as Albany, to anyone who would listen. He found some prominent Hudson River aficionados who did listen, and some who also agreed to serve on the board of the nonprofit  S.S. Columbia Project. Sadly, Anderson died of cancer in 2013, but bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Project. That gift, along with a substantial New York State grant, enabled the Columbia to be towed in 2014 to Toledo, Ohio where some repair work was begun. The next step planned for 2015 is for Columbia to be towed through Lake Erie to Buffalo where restoration of  its superstructure can begin. Ultimately it will be moved to Kingston NY for final fitting out. The goal is for service to begin in 2019. 

In the meantime,  the Project's staff and board will have to work hard raising funds (over $3 million so far- current estimate of additional need is $18 million) and designing the vessel's  program  There is intended to be much to do for passengers on board - educational and entertaining - while enjoying the river's scenery. When docked in NYC, the ship could be made available for catered events.  

These "impossible dreams" - one now a reality, one making progress towards it - are testimonies not only to the original dreamers, but also to those who decided to support them, often in the face of "what could they be thinking..." resistance. It doesn't make much difference how big the project is  - nonprofit leaders and supporters need to take the time to listen to the dreamers.

As always I welcome comments on this post, and any others.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Spend Money to Raise It - Clearing the Hurdle

Some non profits, especially smaller ones, may find themselves in a difficult quandary: how to increase fund-raising revenue when staff dedicated to that purpose is woefully underpaid, overworked and prone to turnover. Any increase in such salaries might expose the organization to a deficit situation, especially if, in the spirit of fairness, it means increasing salaries elsewhere .

Before I make a few suggestions to break out of this box, let me address the issue of the proper place of financial success in a nonprofit's mission. I once reviewed an organization's mission statement and was surprised to see that preserving its endowment was a major highlight.  I am not sure a prospective donor would find this a compelling reason to give, although the objective is laudable.  We have seen what happens to those who wantonly strip the endowment (cf. NY City Opera in my blog "Shutdowns" October 2013) . But if  financial success is the overriding part of the mission, then opportunities for purposeful growth and greater service to the constituency may be lost.

Those opportunities are greatly aided through acquiring more financial resources, especially those of the contributed kind. I have written here about underfunding staff (cf. blog October  2012 "Duct Tape on The Carpet") and the propensity of some nonprofits to find themselves in a "poor little me" syndrome. Let's say you're a nonprofit with a annual operating budget of a bit under $1 million. The only staffer exclusively dedicated to development is part-time and paid by the hour.  This "saving" may have helped see  the year finish in the black, but think how much more might have been accomplished towards meeting mission if there had been  greater investment in the fundraising function.

Neil Edgington, author of the excellent blog Social Velocity recently published a piece entitled "5 Fundraising Delusions Nonprofits Suffer."  Number three on the list was: "Skimping on Fundraising Staff and Systems Saves Money." What this "saving" really means, as with my point above,  is missing out on revenue. A poorly paid fundraiser working with, say, an outmoded data base and sketchy marketing plan, does not make for an effective development team.  

Building that team requires investment in what Edgington calls "capacity capital." The key word is investment. A way out of the quandary (if we pay more, we might end up in the red ) can be found in the concept of Return On Investment (ROI in business lingo).  Investors in the stock market or real estate do so hoping for a positive return. An issue is timing. The return takes time to materialize (if not, it's a "get rich quick" scheme and we know how they usually play out). But in time, the initial investment can be returned, and then some.

I am suggesting then investors be found to strengthen the needy development function of an organization, with the prospect of the return seen in increased contributions and long-term enhanced organizational capacity. But throwing money at the problem is not the solution. First there must be careful planning as to how a beefed-up development department - even if it is a single person- will operate. Is there sufficient  administrative support? Is the board willing to be an active partner? What is the timeline for recouping of the investment?

Some years ago I was asked to submit a proposal to a nonprofit that was considering a capital campaign. What part might I play as a consultant? My response was first to recommend assessing the ability of the organization to mount such a campaign. You can design and implement feasibility studies, case statements, etc. But if the nonprofit  doesn't employ  the necessary human resources to effectively mount a campaign, then it's like a football team failing to get a first down on the series following receipt of  a kick-off. I was not retained.

So where do you find the investors, or donors, willing to underwrite "capacity capital," which could result in a transformative change for the nonprofit? Among the prospects are individuals who already have demonstrated a commitment to the organization, and foundations or companies who are interested in supporting nonprofits'  capacity-building. The appeal to them should be couched as a one-time investment, backed up by a careful plan on how the funds will be used. In a sense, it's like venture capital for the nonprofit.

Any nonprofit facing this chicken and egg quandary risks getting stuck. Every time someone, say a board member,  asks - why can't we approach this or that  prospective donor and the response is: "we don't have the time or staff, "  the hole is dug a little bit deeper. Attacking the issue head-on will at least show some action and avoid the outcry: "Don't just stand there, do something!" A careful targeted appeal for investment capital is the "something." With risk, can come reward, even if the hurdle seems high.

Apologies to those who might have missed my blog, unusually issued monthly. As they say in broadcasting, there were "technical difficulties." I will strive to make up the deficit.

As always, I welcome comments on this, or any previous efforts.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"How'm I doing?" - Performance Reviews

The three-term Mayor (1978-1989) of New York City, the late Ed Koch, was famous for, among other things, standing on street corners or in subway stations and asking whomever passed by:  "How'm I doing?" This question amounted to requesting a kind of  instantaneous, button-holing review of his performance as Mayor.  The verdicts were  positive enough to get him elected three times in a famously fractious city.

Reviewing an employee's performance is one of a nonprofit manager's or board members' most important, and for some, least favorite, personnel activities.  To ease the process over time various consultants have designed templates and charts around which an evaluation can be framed. Those formats help, but they shouldn't take the place of  a key outcome of such a meeting - a two way conversation.

I recall trying such a template that used a 1-10 scale to score the employee in  various categories - 10 being perfect. The employee was asked to self-evaluate. We exchanged our results. The employee had marked perfect 10s through out. I was less generous but not by any means negative overall. The meeting did not go well. Most of the remaining  time was spent bewailing (sometimes literally ) my scoring, the person claiming all perfect scores before. My rejoinder - that I myself have always found perfection elusive - was of no help.

I have used  a system that works more satisfactorily, especially for board leadership review of the CEO. It requires more work on the front end but the final result can be mutually beneficial.  At  the beginning of the fiscal year the employee  lists  a series of goals and objectives, which, in turn, is reviewed and approved by the evaluating party. The touchstones of the goals and objectives document  should be the employee's job description as well as the organization' s strategic plan - so it is imperative that the nonprofit have each - updated.

It is this list against which the employee's performance is judged. The value of such an  approach lies in the  avoidance of the LIFO effect. LIFO stands for "Last In, First Out," a term used in inventory management, which I learned about at business school in my brief encounter with manufacturing policy. With a LIFO evaluation, an employee is at risk of being reviewed  based on the most recent activities, and not the whole year. If , for  instance,  a problem arose a few weeks before the review, the evaluation could end up  unfairly skewed.

It is wise for both employee and reviewer to check in during the year to see if there might be changes to the goals and objectives, based on unforeseen events. I've always liked the phrase sometimes used in government - OBE'd- Overtaken By Events. It happens. Any  midcourse correction also encourages conversation between the parties. Evaluations ideally are two-way discussions. Employees should also use the opportunity to "feed back" any concerns on their minds..

The pressures of running a nonprofit can be severe, sometimes leading to a CEO disappearing into a  mental bunker, besieged by a myriad of demands from donors, staff, board and the public Likewise, if  board members are involved, their private and professional lives can also be complex. A carefully structured evaluation process will require emergence from whatever bunkers where those involved  might find themselves.

A performance evaluation should be viewed as a constructive exercise. And the employee shouldn't be afraid to ask, in Mayor Koch's phrase: " How'm I doing?"

Comments on this blog post, and others, always welcome.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bequests - "You Never Know..."

One of the most important, but most difficult to acquire, sources of funds for nonprofits, are the result of what is called "planned giving." This is a euphemism for what donors plan to do with assets designated for charity after they leave this planet. Such gifts take many different forms, the simplest of which is a bequest in a will, the more complex are instruments like charitable lead trusts, which may also have tax benefits during a lifetime.. All require some form of legal advice to navigate the treacherous waterways of our tax code. A warmer name, gaining more use, is "legacy gift"  for a donation that comes through an estate

The difficulty for nonprofits lies in the uncertainty of what any donor might be planning and typically the long lead-time required in identifying and  then cultivating potential donors. Also, nonprofit managers are so consumed by the need for dollars NOW that the time required to undertake a planned giving effort can fade away. Some donors will inform the nonprofit of their planned giving intentions. Nonprofit staff may even work with them on the details, including their gift being recognized publicly during their lifetimes.

Of course, donors can change their minds. I had experience with a couple who had set up a sizable charitable trust, but one that was revocable. It was clearly intended as a cudgel to make sure the organization followed their bidding. It was indeed thus wielded, but too often. The board eventually refused a specific demand. The trust was then revoked,. But by that time, other wealthy and less demanding donors had come forward, whose gifts would more than make up the loss.

Nonprofits sometimes make the mistake of assuming that only large annual  donors are suitable prospects for legacy giving. They are of course, but other supporters, such as members and volunteers should not be ignored, especially if they have a long history of support at whatever level, that  demonstrate their commitment to the organization's mission. Some of these supporters fall under the "you never know" category, where a person of apparently meager means turns out to be just the opposite.

A recent story in February out of Brattleboro Vermont. is illustrative. The headline read "Former Janitor Leaves $6 million to hospital and library in Vermont." Ronald Read, who died at age 92, was described as wearing clothes "held together by safety pins." He had been a janitor at a local J.C.Penney store for 17 years. The only clue to his other life  would have been knowing he subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. The lawyer who handled his estate was quoted as saying: " He had two lifetime hobbies - investing and cutting wood."

The above has to be classified as  a windfall, where the stunned beneficiaries were unaware of the gift until it was given. But it was likely people at the hospital and library had at one time or another been kind to Mr. Read. There is a lesson there. Another helpful hint is to get to know local lawyers who specialize in trusts and estates. There may be times when a client asks advice on where a bequest might be made.

With a large and often unknown universe of potential legacy donors, unless the nonprofit has the resources to have staff dedicated to that task, the best alternative is to have printed or online material prepared with a simple description of planned giving options. Those can be mailed, linked or presented personally to prospects. A hindrance to effective fundraising for this purpose is the reluctance to discuss with donors a matter that necessarily involves their eventual demise. If the prospect is someone already engaged in support, an approach  might be that a legacy gift continues on the work begun in their lifetime.

Two statistics need to mentioned regarding this topic. First is that it is estimated only 55% of Americans have prepared wills or other estate plans. The other is that just approximately 5% of  giving to nonprofits comes through estate planning. That figure illustrates the difficulties of attracting such generosity. Families, if they have them, will come first in most donors' minds. Working towards some kind of a program to invite legacy gifts can, in the long run - and often it is very long -yield great benefit to the nonprofit, as such gifts are sometimes quite large. They are of  a size often used to build endowment.

In 2007, Michael Dunn of Derby VT,  in the "Northeast Kingdom," died suddenly, leaving his entire estate of $10 million to New York's Museum of Modern Art. Its director Glenn Lowry, although a summer resident  of a nearby town, had never heard of Mr. Dunn, who turned out to be a low level supporter of MOMA. Like Mr. Read of Brattleboro, Dunn had no family, Unlike Mr. Read, he was gregarious and active in the town.  Yet no one there had a clue of the size of his wealth or where it was headed after his death.

"You never know..."  and what is it about these Vermonters?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Are you my Thought Partner?

Huh?  That's what I said to myself when I came across this expression in a letter from a nonprofit CEO referring to the accomplishments of the organization during the past year.  The writer declared many in the community viewed the group as a good "thought partner."  That got me thinking about the value of clear expression in any work, but especially in nonprofits, where if you grab an audience you should assume the reader/listener doesn't have all day to receive and understand your message.

Of course "thought partner" is jargon, defined by one reference  as "special words or expressions used by a particular group.... that  are difficult for others to understand." Aside from its vaguely Orwellian character (cf. "thought police" in 1984 ), the phrase only serves to show off the author's desire to abandon  plain speech in favor of a phrase du jour, perhaps with a view to impress.

There are two major modes of expression - aside from hand gestures and eyebrow lifts: written, and oral / spoken  ("verbal" should not be confused with "oral"). Good written expression is supported by diligent teachers and texts, such as the still superior The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.  As any employer, editor or casual correspondent can tell you, the dam is breaking on careful writing. Emails and tweets are eroding sentence structure and grammar.  When I was in management and hiring people, the receipt of a clear and persuasive cover letter got that application to the top of the pile.

As for oral/spoken expression, the predominant formal practitioners- politicians- have been helped by the teleprompter. A good speech written in advance and loaded on the machine can make even the most suspect seem coherent,  content aside. But if the technology should fail, beware. Recently, Republican presidential hopefuls spoke to a convocation of conservatives in Iowa. Included was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  Midway through the speech, the teleprompter conked out and Ms. Palin had to resort to speaking ex tempore. The result was like a highway pileup of syntax, grammar, and metaphor.  It made no sense.  By comparison, the political debate format at least allows the listener an opportunity to see what may be inside a candidate's brain.

As for nonprofit managers, I have noticed that some have a tendency, once in front of a captive audience, to say too much for too long. Eager to tell the whole story, in which they are so invested, they forget that the listener, after a while, may have something else to do. Organization of what you want to impart is helpful. The late Mike Strang, my old friend and former Congressman, said that on the campaign trail he followed a simple rule of thumb speaking to a crowd: "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, and then tell them what you have told them." That structure ideally imposes a need for clarity and, if you can keep it short, even better.

I hope I have been clear. If not, let me know and please do not ask me to be your thought partner. I will decline - on principle.

Comments on this and other blog posts are always welcome.