Thursday, December 28, 2006


No Comment
by pam ashlund

On December 27th, my nonprofit blog, the Nonprofit Eye, had 39 page views. On the same day, my blog about my car, Boxster Heaven, had 440 page views.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Nonprofit Image Problem?
by pam ashlund

Life has a way of being just plain embarrassing sometimes. I've been in accounting since the '80's. As a manager I take my job and it's concomitant responsibilities very seriously. I work hard to achieve due diligence, as any good financial manager would. Along those lines, I keep up on the body of work on the subject of Fraud Detection.

Here's the rub: Call it vanity, call it a mid-life crisis, call it treating myself to one big splurge.. I bought a sports car this summer. Oh the shame. I love this car so much true, but how embarrassing in the nonprofit world. I know I should be driving a Prius d--n it.

I document my love-hate relationship with this car on my blog: Boxster Heaven

How do these two topics converge? The IT Compliance Institute (the self-proclaimed "Global Authority for IT Compliance Information") has a great article called Best Practices: Ten Tips for Fighting Corporate Fraud. And #7 on that list is:

Look for behavior changes and ostentatious acquisitions
Is someone driving a fancy car or living in an opulent house that they reasonably should not be able to afford? Are they suddenly taking expensive trips? Has their lifestyle changed inexplicably and dramatically? You’d think fraud perpetrators would take pains to hide their new wealth, but many don't work that way, notes Summerford. “The fraud remains hidden, but once they have the money, they spend it,” he states.

My boss laughs at me, but I keep qualifying my purchase with "it's used" or "it's the same price as my Outlander was!" or "the bank owns it not me" or "the boxster is the poor mans porsche!". All 100% true and all because I am so darn defensive because of the common wisdom of "driving a fancy car is a warning sign of fraud". I even "disclosed" it to our auditors preemptively. I felt kind of lame.

The flaw in the logic is this, some people work hard for what they earn, they earn a fair market price (or below), and they decide what they use that salary for. Scary and controversial I know. I always was a rebel. Maybe a vapid YUPPIE rebel, but who's counting?

What are the ten tips? Read the full article at: Ten Tips for Fighting Corporate Fraud
  • Set up a hotline for whistleblowers and tipsters
  • Educate frontline managers
  • Fortify wisely
  • Use a broad approach
  • Look for the triangle
  • Look for anomalies
  • Look for behavior changes and ostentatious acquisitions
  • Monitor e-mail
  • Follow up
  • Be brave

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Friday, December 22, 2006


8 Days for Charitable Giving in 2006
by Pam Ashlund

You know, I've never seen a holiday fundraising appeal which really focused on tax-time. Maybe smiling children are more appealing than a write-off to a giver...or maybe not!

Here's a re-cap on tax-exempt giving:

Beth's posts on Fundraising Widgets and on Donor Documentation

Pam's post on IRS Regs, Tis The Season to Be Giving

David's post on the great Tax Advantages of Giving Gifts of Stock

The IRS's Roundup of Tax-Exempt Giving

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(originally posted 1/25/06 and cross posted on El Loro)
by pam ashlund

This post is the first in a series on censorship, free-speech, and the power of ideas

Are nonprofits censored or controlled by government funding?

After 1989, if your nonprofit accepts a federal contract of over $100,000, you are subject to the Drug Free Workplace Act. In a "Drug-free workplace", the employer has taken steps and initiated policies to ensure that employees, vendors, and customers are not:
  • taking or using alcohol or drugs,
  • selling drugs, or
  • affected by the after effects of indulging in alcohol or drugs outside of the workplace during non-work time.
Here's the funny part: Does the Act require employees to do drug testing? Nope. Does this mean if we are implementing a drug testing program to comply with the act that we are censoring ourselves? Maybe so.

Just as an examination of anti-depressants can easily turn into a conversation about the nature of the self; or to the spectre of a society ruled by drug induced contentment (or dare I say happiness) turn into a discussion of governmental mind control? How soon after asking the question “what exactly is the difference between using alcohol or using cocaine or marijuana?”, does the conversation become a polemic on why the government spends billions of dollars fighting the war on drugs? Once you get there, you are only a hair away from joining the conspiracy theorists.

The problem with letting the little problem become either philosophical or political is that you risk loosing credibility.

Feel free to talk about how serotonin levels change in a group of subjects taking an SSRI, but ask which is the real you-- “the depressed, angry cynic” of before or the “cheerful, open, calm” person after—and you are in for trouble. In trouble because--it makes people uncomfortable. No one wants to be happy if it is “just” because of a drug.

“But it isn’t real” I hear time and time again. Why do you use the modifier “just” I would ask. “How do you define real?” etc. etc. I might as well be the mad hatter for all the agreement I've received.

Speaking the unpopular is the same basic mistake Galileo made. If he had stopped with some diagrams and theories about the planets revolving around the sun he might not have raised the hackles of the Church. If he had stopped there he wouldn’t have been very different from Copernicus. Instead he “went political”, making comments to the effect of:

“the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy.”


“Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

(quotes from “The Galileo Project”). Obviously he was crusin’ for a bruisin’ .

An aquaintance (and I cannot confirm this originated with him) defined culture as “An unwritten set of rules, which serve no necessary function, but if not followed, result in being ostracized from the culture.” He used as examples “eating left handed in the Middle East” and “having anything other than a 'positive attitude' in the US”.

The first resonates because we have distance from the other culture, the second is abrasive because we have no distance from our own culture. Most of us do take for granted that “having a positive attitude” is a desirable thing and from the perspective of a person from another culture (the French let’s say) this is viewed as patently ridiculous.

My question tonight: how far can you push the envelope before they either ostracize you, jail you, or just plain kill you???

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


You've heard of SOP-98-2 right?  

SOP is acronym for "Statement of Position". Today we're talking about SOP-98-2 or "Accounting for Costs of Activities of Not-for-Profit Organizations...that include Fund-Raising."

SOP-98-2 has been effective since December 15, 1998 and applies to all fundraising activities of NPO's and to state and local government entities although most nonprofit managers haven't heard of it, we've been subject to this rule for over a decade.

"Accountability" "Misleading the Public" "How much of your donation goes to the cause". These topics have receive a lot of media play. Your donors want to know "if I make a one dollar donation, how much will go the cause?  Typically the answer is 75 to 85%. Most folks would be okay with knowing that 80 cents of your buck go to the cause, yes. But what about the cost of fundraising?

If you use a professional fundraiser, it's possible that instead of 80/20, it might be 20/80. If professional fundraisers use full disclosure to the donor they might even be within the confines of the law (laymans speculative opinion). But who would give 20 cents out of every dollar to a cause?

The answer: maybe your nonprofit. Nonprofits are expert at disguising the real costs of fundraising as "general administrative". The blur between job duties opens that door. In a small nonprofit, everybody might be pulling double-duty.

If we consider the real cost, maybe professional fundraisers are just more honest. I myself like the idea of sitting back, doing no work whatsoever and picking up a check from the profession guys. No midnight hours blowing up balloons, no garning silent auction gifts that rarely (if ever) pull the kind of bid they deserve, no more print "ad books" that may or may not even pay the cost of the printer.

Then there is the self-disception that comes after. How many times have I heard "Our fundraiser is so incredibly successful, we raised $1 million dollars!" only to find out that they were talking gross, not net! How much did you spend on the event? I ask. On hearing the answer, I say "Oh, so you really raised $200,000" or something to that effect.

How does all this connect to SOP 98-2? Bottom line, 98-2 is attempt to clarify how a nonprofit should (must) handle the overlap of fundraising costs with education or administrative costs.

Accountants call this overlap a "Joint Activity". SOP 98-2 requires that allocation methods be rational and systematic, result in reasonable allocations and be applied consistently by NPO's given similar facts and circumstances.

The problem? It provides no detailed guidance on how allocations should be calculated or which methods should be used.

if you are going to mix the purposes of fundraising or program info, if you aren’t careful you need to allocate the entire cost to fundraising, and you have to prove that there is an educational content (in that case % fundraising or Direct Mail Association

When your nonprofit makes a solicitation (for example sends a newsletter out with a return envelope for potential donors)that activity is referred to called a joint activity. The criteria: purpose, audience and content. If the activity does not meet all three criteria SOP 98-2 requires the nonprofit to report any costs of a joint activity as fundraising.


How to Report a Joint Activity

Tools for Nonprofit Mailers

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006


The Challenge of Working For (and Staying in) a Nonprofit Job
by pam ashlund


Why did you start working for a nonprofit? Me? In a nutshell, I joined because I found no meaning in helping someone else make money. After college I suffered a few very empty years. I worked for a property management company, and I was miserable.

I couldn't figure out how to inject meaning into my life and I figured either I start selling somebody else's shit, or I went to work helping people. It seemed like a basic "either-or" "good or evil" question. I choose the good.

But since I work in finance and management...I didn't immediately find meaning. When I did it wasn't because I was helping people (or helping the people who help people). It was because I found my passion. I LOVE teaching, coaching and mentoring (i.e managing a team and supervision). I LOVE figuring things out; automating meaningless tasks, producing fantastic and useful data, designing reports that solve problems (i.e. data mining, report writing). I LOVE driving a process past the barriers of bureaucracy, past inertia, past ACTION.

I found out that I'm a do-er. The only hitch I ran into was internal. I am driven by approval. Yes, maybe we all are...but. I found out that the things I excel at, that I really LOVE, are not really understood by too many. I exist on a quiet plane, rarely "met" by other minds. Sometimes someone catches a glimpse of my talents and when they are impressed, I just beam.

Accounting, Management and other Administrative tasks are pretty much thankless jobs. A sense of noble superiority doesn't really satisfy. And nobody is going to nominate you citizen of the year no matter how your work shines. And in nonprofits there is no such thing as a performance bonus. They are often disallowed by funding sources; or worst still, looked upon as some sort of moral lapse.

Now how is a nonprofit going to retain a talent when there is no carrot? The answer:

  1. it doesn't even get the talent to begin with; or
  2. if it does (often by getting the young and eager), it doesn't keep them.
The result? Nonprofit organizations are left with mediocre leaders who then promote themselves up the ladder. They then can't afford to leave and stay till they retire and while they are there they reduce any talent that comes there way to the lowest common denominator fearing that any talent would be a serious threat that would challenge their job security.

Do I sound burnt out? I don't feel that way. I feel passionate. I feel committed. I feel resolved to be an agent of change. I feel like challenging myself. I feel like changing the world.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006


I get so bored with the same old nonprofit themes at the same old boring conferences and the same old boring nonprofit rags. Yawn.

If those are the yawns, the nonprofit bloggers are the antidote. Inspiration is as close as an RSS feed.

And today I came across a new (to me) voice: Where Most Needed. Written from an Operations perspective, the blog covers topics ranging from accountability, performance measurement to fraud detection.

Last week's article announced the death of nonprofit accountability in a post titled "Accountability is So Last Year". The post suggests our funders will be nudging us to "transcend" accountability next.

I've been fretting about preventing nonprofit burnout, staying off the IRS radar, how to reduce dependance on government funding...but's time to work on transcending accountability!

In California, the Nonprofit Integrity Act was only passed last January, 06, but it's time to move on folks! Seems even Accountability is yesterdays news.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006


Follow-up to Dec. 9th post on Social Enterprises

I admit it, I have an unabashed love for Harvard Business Review! Why? Because I love a well constructed argument, because I love to see nonprofit issues explored with laser-focus, because I'm a nerd, because, because. Alright already, judge for yourself. Back in 2005, they published an article "Should Nonprofits Seek Profits?". For only six dollars you can download a reprint of the article for your Executive Director (or your organizations biggest proponent of launching a for-profit business venture, maybe someone on your Board???).

In case the title isn't enticing enough, here's the description they offer:

Nonprofits increasingly feel compelled to launch earned income ventures--not only to appear more disciplined and businesslike to stakeholders but also to reduce their reliance on fundraising. There's plenty of hype about the value of earned income ventures in the nonprofit world, but such projects account for only a small share of funding in most nonprofit domains, and few of the ventures make money. ... when the authors examined how nonprofits evaluate potential enterprises, they discovered a pattern of unwarranted optimism. ...potential financial returns are often exaggerated, and the challenges of running a successful business are routinely discounted. ...the biggest downside of such ventures is that they can distract nonprofit managers from their core social missions and, in some cases, even subvert those missions. There are several reasons for the gap between the hype and the reality. One is that an organization's nonfinancial concerns--such as a desire to hire the disadvantaged--can hamper it in the commercial marketplace. Another is that nonprofits' executives tend to overlook the distinction between revenue and profit. ...Earned income ventures do have a role in the nonprofit sector, the authors say, but unrealistic expectations are distorting managers' decisions, wasting precious resources, and leaving important social needs unmet." (emphasis mine)

I couldn't have said it better. To purchase the full article from the Harvard Business School Publishing website, click here.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006


For the fourth consecutive year the poverty rate rose, from 12.5% in 2003 to 12.7% in 2004. The number of people in poverty increased also, by 1.1 million, to 37.0 million in 2004.

37 million people in poverty? In the US? Yep.

"How much can a person make and be "in poverty"?" you might ask.

According to the US Census Bureau, the 2005 Poverty Threshold, without going thru charts and tables, this is how it breaks down:

One Person - less than $10,000/yr; Two Persons - Less than $13K; Three People - Less than $16K; Four People - $20K; etc. etc.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Read an exciting article on disaster recovery the other day (I know, I know, proof that I have NO life!)...I came across info on the life expectancy of various digital storage media... average life of a diskette - one year, average life of a CD - ten years - average life of magnetic tape - tops 50 years. All of these involved storage in ideal conditions (temperature controlled, stored vertically, dust free, etc.

Since the advent of the digital age, more and more knowledge is stored electronically, often with no physical counterpart. We take photos with digital cameras, save them on unbacked up hard drives or worse still leave them on the tiny cards that come with our cameras. We write novels and store them on flash drives. We leave these flash drives dangling from our key chains or stuffed in our backpacks.

By way of example, a friend stored all the family photos on a server and in the time it takes to say "power surge" they were gone. No more baby pics. His wife learned from this, and now nothing can stop her from ordering prints from Walgreens. She says it is just comforting to have it in your hands--that digital info. is just too fragile and non-corporeal to rely upon (alright, I admit it, I paraphrased; she didn't use the word "corporeal" but I'm sure that's what she really wanted to say!).

When I first saved a document on a computer, I didn't fear it. I regarded it as a modern day miracle. Finally permanent archive--a way to organize and above all KEEP all of my writing. No more paper that would crumble to dust, no more file folders too lose, no more headaches. Ha ha. Ah the innocence of that comfort.

On the other hand, the Rosetta Stone? 2200 years! I'm thinking of taking up carving.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006


Went to a Garden Party: Social Enterprise, Earned Income, or Profit
by Pam Ashlund

Los Angeles, CA

Dec 4-6

Attended a three day workshop at the Grantsmanship Center this week. The topic? “Earned Income Strategies”.

Although I couldn’t begin to summarize the three days of info in one post, I think we are all familiar with the risks of income strategies:

  • Lose money, damage reputation, hurt morale
  • Mission Drift - Get successful and: lose track of your mission
  • Funders move on (think you don’t need them anymore)
  • Become vulnerable to attack on the unfair competition front
And of course…
  • the dreaded Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT)

My take-away's from the meeting:

  • Any idea would not succeed without a motivated champion of the venture
  • Don’t confuse “earned” with “unrelated”
  • Proceeding on ventures without clear goals is a recipe for failure (corollary: starting without a business plan is “flying without a net”
  • The best nonprofit success stories involve a blending of the purpose of the organization and the business enterprise;
  • One excellent reason to engage in earned income ventures is that they create new income streams that could fuel building organizational capacity, but there’s a chicken/egg problem, you might have to build capacity to make the venture a success;
and last
  • The biggest barrier may be our own internal bias; that we’re in business to do social good, and that any kind of money-making enterprise might not be toward that good; or that business itself can never be good (not counting Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce!)
This last point (our own internal barriers) gave me the most to think about.

The primary fallacy being that the social good is somehow better served by providing all services for free. To believe that perhaps participation could actually increase when clients must pay for a service is still a radical thought. Our presenter explained that the stigma of taking charity (being on the dole, etc.) is so great that many wouldn’t take it as a matter of pride and principle. It’s "the American Way" to want to pull ones own weight.

Another thought provoking question raised: is it a mistake to charge so low that it doesn’t cover the cost of what you do? Since nonprofit programs are so often subsidized with government funding, it may not be a necessity to ask that question. But…how could it hurt? At a minimum,
we need to find out the real costs of providing our services. How else can we assess the cost-benefit of our endeavors?

One other barrier (and for some this might be the toughest to combat): if anybody is unhappy with the idea of launching a social enterprise, if we receive even one complaint or question (from the public, our board or our funders)…do we just bring the whole process to a halt?

This is the chronic attitude of the helpers among us. Do we have to please everybody?

Although this may not be completely on-point here, I feel compelled to quote Ricky Nelson:

It's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

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Monday, December 04, 2006


I'm a big fan of the "Don't Tell the Donor" blog. Where else can we get an insiders look at nonprofit fundraising confessions? This anonymous blogger, known only as "a fundraiser" is apparently a Blackbaud Raisers Edge user.
"A fundraiser" has me (again) pondering the sad cross purposes of fundraising and finance. The two should be like body and mind--inseparable. "A Fundraiser", in a December 1st post titled "Projections, predictions, and the problem of past performance", confides: discourages me when I hear fundraisers who feel they do not have a responsibility to provide cash flow projections and predictions to the finance teams.
It seems obvious that finding a resolution to these problems could only make us more effective. Accordingly I offer a few thoughts of my own, hopefully they'll get us a little further in that direction:

Accountants are bound by (at least) three guidelines:

1) Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP)
2) The Accrual accounting method
3) FASB 116

To accountants these are "obvious", to fundraising staff (or the general public for that matter) they may remain mysterious and arbitrary.

On the other hand, when an organization has a fundraiser, fundraising staff may count expenses as the occur, but consider the total income only when the event is over. The result (known as the "cash method" of accounting) may be that the financial statements just don't agree with the numbers in fundraising.

What we have here is a failure to communicate!

The tendency may be to abandon all hope and just keep (and refer to) separate records.

The solution? Accountants have no trouble creating a "cross fiscal year" report to reconcile the numbers with those of fundraising.

A simple briefing on accounting terminology and a corresponding understanding of the reporting needs of the fundraising folks...and voila...communication.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006


Ask And Ye Shall Receive: Error 404 File Not Found
by Pam Ashlund

Before my fingers had left the prayers were answered. If only I could tag a webpage and know it would still be there when I returned! While I've been tagging used for a few weeks, I came across another service: Ma.gnolia. I finally got around to importing my bookmarks to Mag. today and was just browsing around, reading the FAQ files, and what did I find? This:

When you add a bookmark to Ma.gnolia, we rush around in the background to save a copy of that web page for your future viewing. Never again will you be lost if a web page moves or gets deleted. Ma.gnolia's saved copies have got you covered, so that what you find stays found.

Would I be pushing my metaphor if I said 'I was lost but now I'm found'? Okay, how did Ma.gnolia handle the legal/ethical dilemma?

How does Ma.gnolia treat controlled content when making saved copies? Ma.gnolia only makes a saved copy of a web page when directed to do so by a user. We do not crawl the web and therefore you will not find us checking robots.txt. We do, however, watch and respect the ‘no cache’ meta tag should a member attempt to make a saved copy of a protected web page. Additionally, we do not cache images, CSS or Javascript in our saved copies.

Problem solved? I guess I won't know until they dissapear three years from now!

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Saturday, December 02, 2006


The Temporality of Digital Knowledge
by Pam Ashlund

The nonprofit community has a wealth of information online. Advice from Fundraising to Finance. Whitepapers, ToolKits, Articles. A collective knowledge that could never be found in one book (or ten books for that matter). What worries me is that the owners of each piece of this databank have no commitment, responsibility nor mandate to leave this information on line.

When a website closes, the data goes with it. When a newspaper archives its free material, it is either gone or pay-to-play from that point forward. At the moment this information is all available at a click, but it is not centralized and its very existence is oh so tenuous.

As anyone who has bookmarked or tagged a reference URL has discovered, upon returning to the link, the site is no longer there, the article has been moved, or resides behinds a closed door. These broken links are a fact of the electronic age.

The ethical dilemma: make sure this data doesn't dissapear by saving this material--knowing so much of it maybe protected by copyright, or permission to use only, or...just not owned by the public period.

But the fact remains, they are there now, and I for one, don't want to lose them!

Yes, the search engines may have cached the page; and might take you back to an older version of a website. But I now have thousand's of pages bookmarked, favorited, or tagged...and I depend upon that information. It is now my encyclopedia, my file cabinet, my everyday work resource.

I'm not proposing new legislation here, but rather the quest for a solution. Maybe a volunteer effort to archive this fantastic, but vulnerable virtual library. It would be a shame to have to continually re-create the wheel everytime a user gets tired of administering a website.

This is my battlecry - save our on-line nonprofit resources! Otherwise all the social bookmarking in the world won't matter.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Tax Exemption is in the Eye of the Beholder
by Pam Ashlund

What is the life cycle of a nonprofit organization? What can we expect as we move from visionaries, to implementers, to administrators? Organizational Development professionals have come up with some very valuable takes on the life cycle of nonprofits; and our funding sources have started to rely on that research in their funding selection process.

Seems there are some pretty predictable things that happen as we evolve and therefore we can learn from those we follow. Going through an assessment process can be quite the value-added exercise.

But today I happened upon a different kind of nonprofit life cycle (on the IRS website).

The IRS has a peculiar take on the nonprofit "life cycle"; or maybe not. It is true that life has a beginning, a middle and an end. And that is how the IRS frames it. But their view doesn't just have an ending, it assumes it. Here's how it goes: a nonprofit starts up, then it ages and deals with keeping records over time and keeping up with the current laws (especially those of the IRS); then it goes through what the IRS names "Significant Events". And what is among these significant events? The nonprofit cracks up, does something that blows it, violates a significant law. The IRS calls this "termination of exempt organization". "Boom" that's it.

Now please (especially eager IRS agents) do not take this as an attack on this venerable organization. Just a tiny observation. Perhaps, when looking through the lens of an agency who's job is to collect taxes, this all makes sense.

But let's look at it through another set of eyes. How about these stages of development (often used by foundations to categorize nonprofits):

  • Infancy (start-up or start-over)
  • Juvenile (growth period)
  • Adolescence (growth and decline spurts
  • Maturity (established)

Note that the story isn't: start, comply, don't comply, close.


Other resources on nonprofit stages:

Judy Simon's book:
The Five Life Stages of Nonprofit Organizations: Where You Are, Where You're Going, and What to Expect When You Get There

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Monday, November 27, 2006


OMB, CFR, Title 2 and More Exciting Nonprofit Stuff
by Pam Ashlund

For two decades nonprofits have been guided by three OMB circulars: OMB A-133, A-122, and A-110. As of September, 06, two of these three fixtures of the nonprofit world are being phased out and then coming back to life in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Title 2 of the Code of Federal Regulations–(A-122 becomes Part 230 and A-110 becomes Part 215) to be exact. The rules won't change as far as I can figure. Only the names have been changed. Apparently there were some contradictions between the OMB's and the CFR's. The change will streamline and thereby resolve the conflicts.

Sounds like implementation won't happen until later in 2007 and nonprofits won't really have to comply until government funding sources update their contract language; but it is coming soon.

FYI, I wouldn't worry about compliance or implementation, since we're already bound to follow these OMB circulars.

Read the actual text in the Federal Register, 8/31/2005 (Vol. 70, # 168) or the text of the new and improved Title 2 (in pdf format).

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Friday, November 24, 2006


Dysfunction & NonProfit Burnout or a Balanced Life?
Part III in Burnout Series

by pam ashlund

Choices, choices. Back in a September, '06 post, I started a conversation about fraud prevention in Nonprofit Hall of Shame. A colleague wrote that a significant factor contributing to fraud would be burn-out. This has led me to give a lot of thought to the idea of balance. Not just having a massage or taking a day off, but creating work-home-family-finance-health kind of balance.

In response to my speculations on the causes of fraud, Ken Goldstein proposed a new movement (in his post "Fraud, Burnout and Getting What We Deserve"): "The Nonprofit Selfishness Movement":

We all need to set aside certain times and days to something entirely selfish (and legal). A little "me time" to guiltlessly get away from the stress of constantly being other-focused. Time for our own families, time to take a vacation, and time to recognize our own worth without resorting to embezzling.

With the exception of the adjective "selfish", I whole heartedly agree. Well, one more exception. I used to think we workers (in the "helping" professions) were more inclined to stress than the rest of the business world...but now...I don't think so.

Seems like the general issues of existing in a workplace apply no matter what sector you inhabit.

Today's reading recommendation: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
by Patrick M. Lencioni

The dysfunctions are not what I would have expected:

"Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare."

Lencioni defines the "five dysfunctions" as: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.

These human fallibles...might just cause a little bit of stress.

Follow the "Burnout" Series. Want to catch up? Check out these posts:

Part I: Nonprofit Hall of Shame

Part II: Nonprofit Burnout

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Saturday, November 18, 2006


The Limitations of Dashboards
By Pam Ashlund

I first heard the concept of an electronic dashboard introduced in March 24, 1999. There it was, within the 496 pages of Bill Gates’ book Business at the Speed of Thought. It was so exciting to me that I ran back to the office determined to implement. I attended a Microsoft’s Dashboard training and found out that I was sold on an idea that didn’t technically exist. The back-end programming was available, but there wasn’t a commercial product; there wasn’t even a commercial engine to customize. So I waited.

It was 2001, with this visionary Dashboard in mind, that I converted from Fundware to Financial Edge. There were other features that met our conversion requirements, but it was the promise of the Dashboard feature that was number one (two and three were: Integrating FE and RE; and Integrated Assets Software).

But when we launched, there was a problem. An electronic dashboard may be live, but accounting isn’t—it’s accrued after the fact. Maybe 10 days after, maybe 15, maybe more. Until the monthly close, what does the data mean? And if you have to wait for the close, then what kind of early information does your dashboard give you?

After two years of dreaming, the reality was flat. Clever graphics, not a finger on the pulse.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006


by Pam Ashlund

Collecting donations for your nonprofit? As a financial manager (and those that imagine incorrectly that I’m a tax accountant or a CPA) I can’t tell you how often I’m asked about documentation for donors. Some want to know about receipts for cash gifts, the others how to value an in-kind gift. The first has concrete answers, the second has a few gray areas. But for all answers it’s one-stop shopping and must come from one source and only one source: the IRS.

So what follows are quotes from the IRS site, and links to the IRS site, not my personal opinion (because if you want my personal opinions then enjoy them, but don’t use them as a substitute for a tax specialist or a lawyer’s).

The IRS has a great round-up of nonprofit topics. From there you can drill down to: Tax Information for Contributors

For donors wanting to know how to claim a deduction for their contribution, you want: Publication 526; For charities wanting to know the requirements for charitable contributions substation and disclosure, look to: Publication 1771 (Rev. 7-2005) Charitable Contributions Substantiation and Disclosure Requirements

From Publication 1771:

There are two general rules that organizations need to be aware of to meet substantiation and disclosure requirements for federal income tax return reporting purposes:

  • a donor is responsible for obtaining a written acknowledgment from a charity for any single contribution of $250 or more before the donor can claim a charitable contribution on his/her federal income tax return
  • a charitable organization is required to provide a written disclosure to a donor who receives goods or services in exchange for a single payment in excess of $75

More on written acknowledgments and written disclosures is addressed in this publication.


On this topic, I will venture one opinion, exercise caution in this area, as the rules are very recent, very specific, and red-flag items for the IRS. The rules in this publication do not apply to a donated motor vehicle, boat, or airplane if the claimed value exceeds $500. For information on vehicle donations, see IRS Publication 4302 (Rev. 5-2006) (for rules that apply to the donee) and IRS Publication 4303 (2-2006) (for rules that apply to the donor).

For assistance about valuing donated property, see Publication 561.

(Click ChipIn to help Beth raise money as a joint effort, a blog experiment and a fundraiser!)

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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
by Pam Ashlund

Tuesday I wrote about tagging, but it didn't answer one question: what is all that tagging supposed to achieve? Presumably it’s about categorization (for yourself and for the public), but more significantly it’s about attracting attention (pro’s call that “publicity”).

OK, I admit it, I was perturbed by my Technorati ranking of 170,000, but today I read that they rank 57 million blogs, so maybe anything over a 1 million ain’t bad. LOL

Amy Gahran in her blog “Contentious” has a great article deconstructing Technorati’s ranking methodology. Did I just use deconstructing and methodology in the same sentence? Maybe I need to lay off the coffee!

Seriously folks, I’ll be here all weekend. Try the veal!

But back to Amy…she asks: is “more” better?

Using variables like “posting frequency”, “regional popularity” and “in-bound links” to measure popularity, authority and influence has it’s limitations. In high school, popularity had nothing to do with quality, but that was sad comfort to those of us unpopular kids!

Amy points out that sophisticated bloggers know how to game the system. Therefore linking to other blogs may just be a veiled attempt at self-promotion! No-o-o-o! What kind of low-life would use a devious strategy like that?

Amy advocates for offerings like BuzzLogic which have “a better grasp of what really constitutes influence in conversational media”. But, she adds “Buzzlogic isn’t free, and Technorati is.. " and thinks in the end “you get what you pay for”.

Well, time to sign off before I quote away all of Amy’s posting!

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Tag You're It - Nonprofit Tag Systems
by pam ashlund

I have a nonprofit tech item today. Tag's seem to be a reality of the Web 2.0 world; but I find them so difficult to use. Some widget's exist to make this easier, but even widget's might be a challenge to install for someone who just wants to throw some tags in their blog. Want to know more about widget's? follow Beth Kantor's thread on "Widget's" on Beth's Blog.

As Marnie Webb from Ext337 says:

Sure, tagging and badges already make all this possible, but possible isn’t easy. And it isn’t easy. It’s possible in an early adopter kind of way.

While I was enthusiastic about the "sharable" nature of Technorati's tags at first...I now find it cumbersome to add them. It's also odd that they're in the form of a hyperlink, meaning: 1) that I have to make a decision each time about where the link should go; and 2) a link re-directs from my site and my blog platform doesn't allow me specify "open in a new window".

Then I came across, which at least lets me tag a page with one click. I've set up a family of nonprofit related tags as follows:

to be continued...

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Sunday, November 12, 2006


NonProfit Performance Measurement
by pam ashlund

I am fascinated by how quickly legislators determine our agenda. The latest example? Evaluations and Performance Objectives.

Anyone remember the way the introduction of the Performance Objective was heralded in to the non-profit world? "This will make you more effective", they told us. "This will validate our work". Blah Blah Blah. I, for one, drank the kool aid.

Then came the truth, somewhere between the ideal and the reality, the stats didn't change anything. Now a huge amount of staff time (not to mention trees sacrificed) is devoted to counting numbers, which go nowhere. Consider the following three problems:
  • There was no funding for a decent evaluation;
  • Evaluations take good research design;
  • Nonprofit administrators learned how to game the system by ever reducing their goals so that they might be achieved (after all you WILL get penalized if you don't meet those goals).

If that wasn't enough to drive a stake into the heart of performance about asking some hard questions:

Example Goal: Ex: Reduce Poverty in Lincoln Heights

  • How much paperwork will it take to state and measure your goals?
  • How will the results you gather further your goal?
  • How will you pay for the evaluation?
  • How will you determine your research is valid (sample size, bias, etc.)?
  • Are your goals really goals or are you counting heads?

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Saturday, November 11, 2006


Changing of the Guard: Nonprofit Transition
by Pam Ashlund

My head is spinning tonight. At the CA Association of Nonprofits conference last month I heard the news: founder, Flo Green, is retiring. It came as a shock to me because Flo and CAN are synonymous to me. We don't know each other at all, and therefore are not on a first name basis, but I think of her as Flo. That says something about her charisma. Upon hearing her talk, people leave thinking of her as a friend. And she has been a friend, to the nonprofit community and to me by way of inspiration.

At that same conference I was introduced to the ideas of Fundraising speaker Kim Klein. She delivered a keynote I covered in NonProfit Confidence Problem. And, as with Flo, I was inspired and I left feeling like I had another friend.

And now I hear (thru the Chronical of Philanthropy's article) that Kim is also retiring.

Just yesterday I was talking to a friend over lunch about the whole changing of the guard phenomena. People I've worked for, looked up to, learned from, etc. are either retiring or dying or both. And I've had to face that I'm only two generations away from them. So even though I'm still sharpening my skills and expanding my mind...I can see the change coming. A whole new crop of 25 year olds are coming to work at nonprofit's and they will be taking over.

Some think the focus should be on retaining our Executive Directors (because some large percent say they will leave the profession in the next 10 years), but I think we should be using those years to mentor and teach and inspire the new comers, because (among other things) it is our responsibility.

I'm overwhelmed because I don't feel up to it, but I'm resolved because it's a whole lot better than the alternative!

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Nonprofit Open Source
by pam ashlund

I didn't know what "Open Source" was until I left the nonprofit world. In the for-profit technology world "open source" is almost a religion. In the nonprofit world it's almost unknown.

If you wanted to understand it at a deep level you could get comprehensive coverage at the Open Source Initiative (OSI) website ... but IF, like me, you just want to cut to the chase... it's been around for almost 25 years, but wasn't known by the name "open source" until 1998. Known as free software before '98 it suffered a public relations problem. The analogy used on the GNU website is: "free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”. You can see where there might have been some misunderstandings. "Open Source" communicates the function without confusing newbies.

Like most ideas, the concept evolved over time. Fueled by a desire to:

  • do anything to destroy Bill Gates and/or Microsoft; and
  • prove that if you shared your knowledge that it would end up benefiting everyone.

Now, I know #2 might sound like Communism, but the "open source" philosophy didn't propose spreading the wealth, just the knowledge, it doesn't exclude business or capitalistic motives at all...theoretically.

Want to know more? See the OSI site, GNU or Wikipedia.

The idea now has a wide following, one example being that (almost) everybody has heard of Linux now-a-days (even if they don't know what it is), and most people know that the PC took off after the architecture "became" open (albiet not voluntarily). Thus the "PC clone" began to flourish. Maybe IBM isn't the best example of the success of open source, because in the short run it almost destroyed the IBM empire (or was that when the silicon chip replaced the "Selectric"? There would be no Dell or Gateway without IBM's idea. But MUCH more to the point, the open architecture allowed a huge software development industry (and still does).

Most people behind the scenes knew that the Mac was infinitely superior, but it lost the market race because it wasn't open source. OK, that's a biased comment, but...the point stands.

You may wonder where I'm going with all here it is (again my introductory paragraph comes in the middle of the blog darn it!):

What happens when the Nonprofit world meets the Open Source world? Maybe it will be Blackbaud's Infinity project (but probably not); maybe it is eRider's (a group of open source folks helping Non-Profit's with technology); maybe it's just a local non-profit using a Linux Server instead of a Microsoft Server.

It was listening to the pitch for Blackbaud's new Infinity platform that get me thinking about all this, because there was a lot of lip service given to open source (or API or SOAP, but I still have no idea what THOSE are). It was almost as if the idea of open source has become cool and they wanted to jump on the band wagon...OR maybe it was a the voice of the programmers filtered through corporate and marketing that I heard. Maybe it was like Horton hears a who, with us, the Blackbaud Users audience saying "wait, I heard it, I know I heard it!".


Start with From Here to Eternity and then move to the NonProfit TechBlog and read Allan's three excellent posts:

Blackbaud Infinity Plus 1
Part Infinity of Infinity


The Open Source Philosophy have the following criteria (cribbed from open source web site):

  • Free Redistribution
  • Source Code Included or Available
  • Derived Works and Modifications Allowed
  • Maintains the Integrity of The Author's Source Code
  • No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  • No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  • Distribution of License
  • License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  • License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  • License Must Be Technology-Neutral

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Friday, November 10, 2006


Language with a Chip on Its Shoulder: From Here to Blackbaud's Infinity
by Pam Ashlund

Don't have time to read the whole thing? Jump to the funny part!

Background: This week I attended the 2006 Blackbaud Conference in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. Well, at the convention center (in the not so beautiful airport area). There was over 850 attendees, representing nonprofits, educational institutions, churches, etc. Arrangements were made with six hotels, which booked to capacity (even overbooked at the Embassy Suites). They also arranged for shuttles from these six hotels. See No Room at the Inn for my midnight adventures. Needless to say, I was running, hiking, taking local transportation etc. and still running late for everything. To make a breakfast at 7:30 am (which would be 4:30 am California time), I would have had to wake up at 5:30 am (2:30 am my time), leave by 6:00 am, run the mile to the Holiday Inn where the shuttle for the convention center departed, to make breakfast. Do I need to say that I missed breakfast the first two days? Or that I am not a very happy person without breakfast? Or that there were no snacks to purchase at the hotel or at the convention center?

The Internet Session: So, when I arrived at the conference (late, hungry and tired), I ran to the breakfast area (which was a barren table with tumbleweeds blowing around)...then ran back to registration to find out where my session was held, and then ran back the way I had come to the session room, having burned 250 calories, etc. etc. I was ready for the sneak preview of...the new product in development: Code Name: !

Actual Topic of this Article: I won't be revealing any of the proprietary secrets about the new product (of course neither did the presenters!). Instead, I want to talk about the lingo they used. Years ago I was struck by the war metaphors used by computer professionals (capture the printer port, etc.).

The trainer covered the “slices” and the “blades”. Said the “platform” wouldn't "bulk-load the database“; that it “lives” with” Linux applications. The trainer apologized that he would have to to “drive thru” the training (meaning run the slide-projector when he talks). He told us that application really “morphs” into something (I forget what). He told us that if we were a "heads-down" data entry person, we might be working in editing mode) and they wouldn't have to worry about record locking). He told us that they were going to "run" with this...

He told us the new product would be based on Open Standards: XML (SOAP Web Service API, an Extensiblity catalog system, and RSS” . He told us that the application will be changing from a “client installation footprint” and will be 100% web deployed .

He told us about Smart Query opposed to "Ad Hoc", and that it can be “grammarized". Apparently he liked to "ize" things because he said the product would “parameterize” with two prompts. The new product would “Unite the query results with the page”!

Apparently the application “chooses” to use (insert some efficient product here). He assured us that the client is “stateless”. "We are completely stateless" he raved. He agreed with a participant that Web Aps can be a “Fat” platform. He lauded the new Toast “Pop-ups”

When we shifted to theory he asked permission to go “off script”. He agreed that some product or application was “tilted” toward the big bang? That they had taken steps to "handle phase integration". He demonstrated, stalling while the application was "spinning up”.

Another presenter told us that we no longer have one API, we have API’s at every layer of our stack(!) and that we also consider Web Services an API. Last, he wound up with how to “mash this up” with other applications.

Don't believe it? Blackbaud didn't post a pod cast of Paul's podcast (maybe it would be giving an "edge" to the competitors), but you can find Sean Sullivan's podcast of the session on emerging technology at Blackbaud's Conference Central (you'll have to scroll down to the middle of the page since they didn't direct-link to the section.

By then I was ready to go out to breakfast and go back to bed!

To read more on the topic of geek lingo and metaphor, see LA StreetBeat posting.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006


by pam ashlund

Anybody using accounting software out there? If you do, then you've probably seen the dreaded existential question, you click post...and receive a message:

Are you sure you want to do that?

Fortunately all accountants have nerves of steel. Either that or we're just wild risk-takers (insert rim shot here). Software designers could have come up with something less unnerving, say for example "please verify your selection". Yet the best I've come across so far is a simple "are you sure?".

Since I face that "are you sure" question every time I post an entry, I've had years to get used to it, but I still crack a smile sometimes.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water, I did a search on Technorati and got this result:

There are blogs, and then there's whatever you just typed in. If it's a blog, we don't know about it. Maybe you made a typo. Or maybe it's a blog that doesn't exist. Maybe you don't exist. (In which case, please ignore this.)

Maybe Descartes got a job at technorati?

Sunday, November 05, 2006


by pam ashlund

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word
would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Let me begin with a declaration: No one should be allowed to self-declare themselves a “wave” (the third wave, the first wave, the new wave); It’s okay for historians to name these movements retroactively, but naming them yourself, in real time, is a no-no.

So many have called for a new name to replace "non-profit"; the objection being that it is defining ourselves by what we are not.

Try out a few commonly in use:

CBO - Community Based Organizations
NPO or Non-Profit Organization?
NGO or Non-Governmental Organization
"Civil Society"
The "Third Sector" (Church and State being first and second)

Pondering these, I came across a website called ForBenefit.Net where a new name (and model) is proposed: For-Benefit.

Touted as "a new paradigm in organizational design" and "a new class of organization", the For-Benefits are: "driven by a social purpose... economically self-sustaining, to be socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible".

For-Benefits seek to maximize benefit to all stakeholders, and 100% of the economic profits" they generate are invested to advance social purposes. They strive to be democratic, inclusive, open, transparent, accountable, effective, efficient, cooperative, and holistic...they aim to link two concepts which are held as a false dichotomy in other models: private interest and public benefit.

Where to start? where to start? First, I love the expression "false dichotomy", second, with the exception of the "self-sustaining" part, this model sounds identical to the current non-profit model, third it violates my rule "no naming yourself the new wave", this includes calling yourself a fourth sector.

Let me offer a corollary to that rule: no self-declarations of "new paradigm" status. Nine times out of ten you won't be using the term correctly. Over twenty-five years after Thomas Kuhn coined the term, the power has gone out of the word, having been both over and misused.

Kuhn coined the term (Paradigm Shift) in 1962 in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. The term had a very specific set of criteria.

when enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis… During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual "battle" takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm. Wikipedia

To actively try to change a dominant paradigm usually requires all of the members of the current regime to die before a new paradigm can take hold.

In the end this whole identity crisis will sort itself out (eventually). A name change may be a lot like a face lift, it might make us look better, but it won't make us any younger! Although a name change may be on the superficial side of the scale, let me end by offering a tiny ray of hope: social change will happen, we just might not live to to see it.

This article is the fourth in a continuing series on the Nonprofit Identity Crisis. If you missed the previous postings they can be found at:

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Saturday, November 04, 2006


Historical Memory, Social Change and the Limitations of the Human Psyche Challenges Facing Nonprofits and Society as a Whole
by pam ashlund

Two problems are troubling me tonight: 1) Progress is so slow (in every arena, but it's social change that I have in mind here); and 2) For whatever reason, human thought falls victim to the most base errors; preventing us from seeing and thinking clearly.

Progress is slow: The challenging part of any academic endeavor is that we have to start over again with every generation. Unlike physical genes, these non-physical meme thingy’s are not transferred by DNA through reproduction (or any other physical mechanism).

Fortunately, there is some overlap of generations to achieve a modicum of historical memory. The invention of the printing press didn't hurt either (should I be saying silicon chip?).
Still this darn transmission process is SO fragile. The dark ages almost wiped out all of human knowledge were it not for a couple of cloistered monks tucked away here and there. It all came down to copying manuscripts by HAND. This whole image was burned into my memory by the fabulous PBS history populizer (author/host of The Day the Universe Changed), James Burke, and has haunted me ever since.

By way of illustration, in 1993 when the Clinton Administration launched the AmeriCorps program, a cadre of young and enthusiastic Clinton staffers charged in to create a government agency and program that would be new and different.

I'm sure they didn't know what they were in for. The staff created a model where "volunteers" were paid a monthly living allowance. Nothing wrong with that (idealistic, efficient, etc.); except that State Law contradicted that form of pay (violating wage and labor law). It took five long years to resolve that, where all of the nonprofit agencies geared up and paid living allowances, then reverted to an hourly wage, and then (when a specific exception for the AmeriCorps program was established), went back to the living allowance model (first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is?).

Clinton created the first new federal agency in 20 years (which unlike Health & Human Services or the Department of Labor), had an unusual name, the "Corporation for National Service". Even the Federal Department name being called a "Corporation" challenged the status quo.

In other words, the new (enthusiastic, motivated) generation learned quite a few lessons the hard way. By the time "Year Ten" of the AmeriCorps program had rolled around, I'm afraid it had succumbed to governmental bueracracy.

Obviously we stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us, and even if we cannot rise above the tide of history, a knowledge of the lessons of the past can't hurt.

It's a cliche and a truism, nonetheless, I recommend using this quote as a daily mantra and tool for self and organizational analysis:

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, 1863-1952
Human thought, flawed by base errors, hinders clear thinking:

Social Psychology's perspectives on personality traits and human motivations and limitations, are as an important factor as heeding the lessons of history.

Recall the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes describing life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well how about this quote from the critical thinking website:

much of our biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced.
Why do some people have no trouble acknowledging that limitation while it seems an insurmountable hurdle to others? Psychological research offers a few answers, one being a personality trait dubbed "self-monitoring". Posited by Snyder in 1979 and substatiated by volumes of data since, high self-monitoring individuals have better work performance and are better leaders than their low self-monitoring counterparts. Oddly, low self-monitoring individuals are dominated by a quality of "being true to themselves". I wouldn't be surprised if more of the folks drawn to work in the nonprofit sector (or helping professions in general) might be of the low-self monitoring variety.

Research on the behavior and psychology of "groups" offer similar insight. Tyler Cowen, blogging in Marginal Revolution: Small Steps to a Much Better World writes:

Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity.

But why does this illusion persist?”Check out his blog to see Tyler’s answers.

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Development and Finance: A Broken Marriage?
by pam ashlund

This article is the start of a conversation on classic rifts that exist in nonprofit organizations.

Today I'm blogging about the odd way that conflicts in Blackbaud's software products mirror departmental and emotional conflicts.

Development and Finance - One department brings in the money ("develops" the funds) and the other counts the money. You'd think that would be a marriage made in heaven...but for some reason...not so much.

This was evident, on two levels, at Blackbaud's 2006 Conference for Nonprofits.

First, and most fundamental, at the software level:

I attended the session on integrating two software products (Blackbaud's fundraising product the "Raisers Edge" and its accounting product "Financial Edge"). You'd have to figure that two products from the same company would already be integrated (and certainly not require a class), anymore than one would think you'd have to "integrate" accounts payable and payroll with the general ledger.

The problem originates in the history of the software's development. The Raisers Edge was developed first and established market dominance in the Fundraising arena. I first heard it described as the "Cadillac" of fundraising software.

The Financial Edge, on the other hand, was born as "Accounting for Nonprofits" with a smaller client base and later reborn as the "Financial Edge" to coordinate with the Raisers Edge. The two products (RE and FE) were sold separately (and presumably to different target markets).

Second, the emotional level:

I noticed (and the workshop trainers joked and commented on this phenomena often) the sheer intensity of the animosity between the accounting people and the fundraising/ development people. “What does the accounting department need to know about our appeals?” one attendee spit out with obvious venom.

Obviously we need a conversation (at a higher level (public) and an organizational level (private)). But I have to ask: can we have this conversation? And what could we do to make that productive?

To be continued...

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