Sunday, October 29, 2006


Bruce Sievers & Nonprofit Identity
by pam ashlund

Every once in a while (I wish!) I find I’m guilty of a huge (unintentional) oversight; and last April was one of them. Specifically, it was March 21st & 22nd, at CAN’s Policy Day’s in Sacramento, CA. It was at that conference where I heard Bruce Sievers deliver the keynote address “A Tale of Three Cities: Government, Business, and Civil Society--a look into the increasingly fuzzy relationship between nonprofits, government, and business”.

It was after hearing his talk that I launched the NonProfit Eye and wrote my first post “Identity Crisis”. Since that day, I haven’t stopped struggling to address the ideas that sprang from that keynote. Bruce, on the understanding that I not use it in print, sent me his talk notes (which helped to re-inspire me long after the talk).

Today, I came across (yet another) blog (posted on 10/28) on the topic of Non-Profit Identity and I set out to track the coverage of that topic. I imagine that by the time CAN held it’s “Policy Days” event, that the topic had been in the public consciousness long before that. Without further adieu, here is a listing of posts on the topic (I’ve also created a tag: “NonProfitBusiness?”. Feel free to add to the tag topic):

Speaking of giving credit where credit is due…Sometimes I read something that I tag as “Icouldn’tsayitbetter” and that was the theme of Andrew Taylor’s blog: The Artful Manager. In his intro he asks “…what if…we fundamentally misunderstood what it meant to be run "like a business"?” (note, unlike Sievers, I credited Taylor in a post on 9/5/06).

Afterward: Just when I thought we had a real force going, I came across this AICPA (CPE Self-study course): Managing Nonprofit Organizations Like a Business

Summarized Bio:
Sievers, visiting Scholar at Stanford University, and former head of San Francisco's Walter and Elise Haas Fund, delivered the keynote address “A Tale of Three Cities: Government, Business, and Civil Society -- a look into the increasingly fuzzy relationship between nonprofits, government, and business”

Sievers also served as a panel member on the “Advisory Committee on Self-Regulation of the Charitable Sector”, Panel which produced a (now industry standard): Panel on the NonProfit Sector: Final Report (pdf, 740 kb).

I look forward to his forthcoming Book “Between Public and Private: Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State of the Commons”

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Saturday, October 28, 2006


On Sept. 20th Beth Kanter, of Beth's Blog fame, graciously posted an interview about yours truly and cross-posted it on BlogHer. Don't worry, this isn't a blatant self-promotion blog, it's dual purpose: 1) to thank Beth for the wonderful effect it had on NonProfit Eye readership; and 2) to sing the praises of Google's web-tracking product Analytics.

Take a look at the graph of the Eye's readership and page visits after Beth posted her interview:

I love Google Analytics, because (among other cool features) it tells me 1) how many unique visitors; 2) where they come from; 3) filters out my own editing visits; and 4) boils them down to executive summary level. Very nice. Finally I can count all four of my visitors and find out that 25% (i.e. one person) is unique. Wow, 25%! (insert wink here).

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Nonprofit Confidence Problem: Kim Klein Names the Shadow Side of Nonprofits
by pam ashlund

What's in a name? Nonprofits struggle with this. Marketing professionals everywhere espouse different theories. Myself? There was nothing so powerful as Nike's "swoosh" or it's "Just Do It" mantra. I don't wear Nike's, I don't buy Nike's, but I know that symbol is called a "swoosh" and when I need something done pronto I'm known to say "just do it!". And this wasn't a passing thing either. In the early 90's I was known as the "Nike-boss" for my overuse of the slogan. That was not necessarily a good thing, but sure says something about branding.

Last week, at the 2006 CAN Conference, I had the pleasure of hearing the keynote speaker: Kim Klein.

Although Kim is known as the leader in grassroots fundraising, this was not the focus of her talk...or if it was, I must have missed the point. She spoke on trust and accountability. Ideas very close to my heart. Maybe not her usual topic, BUT, it was such an incredible shot in the arm. The way she communicated, somehow grounded AND enthusiastic at the same time, had a profound effect on me (and I hate that word, give you an idea of how serious I am.

What she said was (and I'm afraid I have to paraphrase here) that non-profits have a confidence problem, somehow knowing what is right and what needs to be done, but undermined by what she called (and this has to be a reference to Jung), "the shadow side" of our sector.

We want, she said, "to regain the public trust" (which is down from 75% to 25%).

One shadow lies with the concept of "Professionalism" and the idea of "Best Practices" (we have come so far, with Degree Programs, Associations, more competitive salaries, etc.), but...what is the role of a professional? Is professionalism undermining volunteerism?", she asked. Point taken.

She talked about staff who say "Maybe the whole problem is the Board!" and how Board members when surveyed "complained that they were NOT included, that they feel pushed to the side.

Another shadow, being afraid of our salaries (as more and more focus comes on "excessive compensation". Kim said "We’re WAY too secret about our salaries and our salary scale (if you really want to be transparent, (8 times the lowest, or was it the market?) We can actually put that on our website.

Kim identified the second challenge as that of Fiduciary Responsibility. The shadow is that in being risk adverse, how do we keep creating organizations that our truly alive?"

"Our grant agreements – now call for us “not to hire a terrorist” “run it thru a database of known terrorist suspects..." and "we’re afraid of speaking out about it, because we’re afraid of loosing our tax exempt status!".

"Have you STOOD UP FOR SOMEONE recently? QUESTIONED AUTHORITY LATELY? read the Constitution and the International bill of human rights recently? These are "our chief responsibility!", said Kim (clearly on a roll now).

The Final Shadow Kim identified as the notion of forming a lasting institution This one is where I felt the deepest connection/ring of truth. "Established non-profits can get caught up in preserving their organization (known as "planning for the future") and fail to remember that it is the work that is important". "Is the Institution essential?", Kim asked, "Or is it the work that is important (the work has to be the driver).

A clue can be found in our name: "Non-Profit". "We shouldn’t define ourselves by what we are not” and the rest of the world calls us “Non-governmental” NGO’s. "We should NOT agree to the do the work of the government!!!" she proclaimed (to a round of applause).

She concluded with a quote from Anais Nin:

"the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

If you want more of Kim Klein's information you can find it on the Grassroots Fundraising website. There you will also an e-newsletter to join, webinars by Kim, the "Dear Kim" column, and more (go and look around for yourself, it's an amazing resource).

I also bought her book Fundraising for Social Change and I look forward to reading it sharing my thoughts on it in a future blog.

Signing Out, Pam Ashlund blogging for the Nonprofit Eye

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Friday, October 27, 2006


Nonprofit Burn-Out?
by pam ashlund


Ken Goldstein, in "The Nonprofit Consultant Blog" in his posting "Fraud, Burnout and Getting What we Deserve" wrote:

The very nature of the sector is to spend long hours solving other people's problems for less money than our skills would earn elsewhere.

Having worked for non-profits for going-on decades, when I saw California Association of Nonprofit’s 15th Annual Conference: Building Strong Nonprofits had a session on "Burnout", I signed up as fast as I could. Appropriately, coming in from a red-eye flight the night before, I arrived at the conference (racing from a 7:30 am meeting), exhausted and worn down. At registration, they told me the workshops were starting in ½ hour. I looked around and made a bee line for an empty row of tables and chairs.

But there he was, a conference staffer (with a badge)…”I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to sit there”. "Where may I sit?", I asked. "Downstairs" was the response. Why I am compelled to respond rhetorically I don’t know, but out it came: “I just came up stairs to register, now I have to go downstairs to sit down and then back up here for the workshop?” He looked at me over his glasses and said “there IS an elevator you know”.

So I walked the other way and went into a workshop room and sat down. Later I came by and saw that a row of chairs had been moved out and another group of tired (burnt out) conference attendees now perched there. I guess peer-pressure got to him.

Then, on to the workshop, I checked the registration schedule to see what room I was in. And there it was: the burn-out workshop has been cancelled.


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Thursday, October 26, 2006


Welcome to the NonProfit Eye! If you’ve just landed here, the blog is devoted to keeping an eye on current issues affecting nonprofits. Find links to some of my favorites (by topic) below.

Motivated by an alarming change in climate in the nonprofit environment, the Nonprofit Eye launched in April '06. Our industry is under attack, with our very identity between a rock and a hard place. Are we as professional as a business? Are we so professional that we aren't a charity anymore? Are we pushing political agenda's? Are we government sub-contractors or agents of change? Everywhere I look, another threat to our tax-exempt status if we don't tow the line. Worse still, are we beginning to believe the attacks? is the public?

Take a look at the topics covered and then sign-up to receive updates when new articles are published. If you have a feed reader, the Eye is also RSS friendly.
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If you aren't a subscriber yet and want to catch up, here are a few highlights by topic to get started:









Saturday, October 21, 2006


No Room At the Inn: Pam heads for the Blackbaud Accounting Training
by pam ashlund

Come along with Pam on her work travel adventures. Don't have time to read the whole thing? Jump to the punch line!

Los Angeles, 8:30 am
OK, make that 8:45 am. Realizing the clock is running down, feed the cats, throw the laptop in the carry-on, dash out the door, drag my suitcase down the fire stairs behind me and beat it to LAX.

LAX, 10:45 am
Take off in a very ugly (and old) airbus. The plane is completely full. The guy sitting in our center seat leaves me no elbow room. Food is "pay-to-play" and I buy some cheese and crackers for five bucks. Watch "The Devil Wears Prada" while sit-sleeping for four and half hours.

Dulles, Washington D.C. 6:15 pm
Arrive at Dulles and take TWO airport subways to Terminal A, while chugging a dry cappuccino, lugging my carry-on and talking to Ma on the cell phone.

Dulles, 7:25 pm
Jump on the 30-seater to Charleston. This plane is half empty and the flight attendant asks for volunteers to help "balance" the plane. Nothing like thinking about what happens if the weight distribution is wrong to start off a flight. I get up to change seats and when the flight attendant asks me to please sit down, I say "it doesn't matter since I'm staying in the same section". To which she drawls "yes it does matter ma'am". Mercifully, she does offer me an alternate empty row of seats.

Charleston, South Carolina, 9:30 pm
I go out to grab a cab and the attendant tells me there's a 15 minute wait for a shuttle; A shuttle driver tells me this is his last trip of the night and I end up having a private shuttle ride. As we hit the road the driver tells me he's from Alabama, but his parents are from Wisconsin. He says that's why he doesn't have an accent; his parents thought the southern accent would hold him back. Looks like this didn't pan out. He tell me this is his second week on the job and he doesn't know the area! We call the hotel and after three tries (and an unintentional tour of the historic downtown) we pull up in front of the King's Courtyard Inn. At least he turned off the meter when he realized he was lost.

Kings Courtyard Inn, 10:30 pm
The courtyard is beautifully restored, punctuated by a fountain, vintage 1853, crowned by a (kind of corny, but authentic) pineapple.

A confused Concierge tells me that all the guests have been checked in for the evening. I pull out my confirmation and point to the folio number and he winces and tells me that there is no record of my reservation. Worse, there is no room at the inn, all the rooms are full. A manager is called and after much muttering he tells me that my reservation was cancelled.

I sit (collapse) down on the antique settee while they mutter that they will try to find another hotel with availability. In an effort to distract myself, I browse thru the beautiful leather bound (and gold guilded) hotel menu. The menu features: Pecan Pickled Palm Hearts and Chicken Fried Quail Breast.

Many calls later, the boys find me a room at a nearby Hotel. It is about a block away, so when they ask me if they can call me a Rickshaw (don't ask; I have NO idea why there are rickshaws in South Carolina!); I say no thanks, I'll walk.

The Mills Hotel, 11:30 pm
At the front desk, I wistful ask if they have a restaurant and they tell me it has closed at 10. As the hotel clerk checks me in, a couple comes up to the front desk. Even thru my weary eyes, I could see she was wearing a wedding dress. They were a bride and groom and their magnetic key card wouldn't work. They couldn't get into their honeymoon suite! I let them go first and then, clutching the phone number for take-out pizza, shuffled up to my room.

Bed, 12:47 am
z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z

Thursday, October 19, 2006


How did all of this madness evolve? In the beginning was a social ill, a problem that needed solving. Enter government funds set aside to help with that particular problem. If 100% of your funding goes to pay for 100% of one project, you only need be concerned that the expenditures are reasonable right? Wrong! Read the federal regulations (if you can stay awake) and first find out if they are allowable costs. Once you have an allowable cost and determined that it is "reasonable" you should be in the clear. Unless....

Unless you have two sources of funds funding one project. Sound's simple, but that's when the trouble begins. Have $100,000 from source A and $100,000 from source B, it's logical to charge 50% of the costs to each. But wait, I hope you have a cost allocation plan. And wait, I hope that plan isn't derived from your budget. What?

If source A pays for a counselor who spends 30% of her time on the project, then your 50/50 plan is not accurate. Furthermore, who pays for the other 70% of her time? Not one of these sources! Back to the drawing board, better start fundraising if you want to run this project.

Could it be worse? You got it, yep! What if there are two funding sources funding TWO programs; what if there are 60 funding sources funding 10 programs? Only the smallest organizations (with a single source of funding for a single program) can avoid the dreaded issue of "allocability".

I once knew a program that bought 10 computers for 10 youth centers (all allowable by federal regs, all reasonable in that they were needed and used by the kids), but instead of charging 1 computer each to 10 separate funding sources, all had been paid for by a single source. And guess what? That source wanted the money back! "But it was for the good of the kids", I cried. "But it was allowable!" I whined. "But it was not allocable" the auditor intoned. We won that battle (by some technical miracle), but it doesn't always come out in the agencies favor. Worse, these things are not settled in court, they are settled on the side-lines; reduced ultimately to a negotiation.

If these disagreements were handled in a court we'd establish precedent, we could learn from others, we could have case law with which to refer. But....

What are nonprofits to do? Sue the hand that feeds us?

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Si Se Puede: Nonprofits, Government & The Left
by pam ashlund

When does government start and politics end? In my experience most nonprofits are heavily funded with government dollars to implement government programs (so much so that I have come to think of many non-profits as not much more than government sub-contractors). The ironic thing is that if we can do the work more effectively (and cheaper) than the government…and the only reason we can do it cheaper is because we’re exempt from government taxes…and the government revenue stream is lower because we aren’t paying taxes… what exactly is happening here?

Furthermore, if we (and the government) are committed to many of the same causes (e.g. to provide a good and just life for the citizens of the world)…why exactly is prohibited?

I know, I know, there is always the 501(c)4 status that can allow some lobbying…but what I am thinking about today is the attack on non-profits participating in the political process. Specifically, if the platform of Senator Grass-Heap’s is that non-profits are secretly “for the left” and therefore one avenue to attack the left is attach non-profits … Then—

    1. are nonprofits actually more skewed toward the left?
    2. do we actually want to be doing politics?
    3. isn’t being involved in the political process the best way to move our causes forward (i.e. helping the homeless, increasing the opportunities for the disadvantages, reducing poverty), etc. etc. etc.

To quote September's OMB Watch:

“(recent) developments highlight the continued confusion and ambiguity that have plagued IRS policy on voter education and mobilization activities by nonprofits.”
This reminded me of an AmeriCorps fiscal training I attended some years back. In particular, the section on “allowable costs”—a favorite topic for non-profits managing federal funds.

For the funding, some costs were allowed and alas, some were not. Food was okay, IF the food was for volunteers involved in heavy labor. But was not allowed for snacks for staff at a planning meeting. We couldn’t pay for the cost of a grant writer, nor pay for lobbying a local politician, we aren’t allowed to buy t-shirts (unless they were educational or uniforms).

But then came the clincher. The funding we were talking about was in memory of . Our speaker had the awkward honor of letting us know that among the disallowable costs was: the cost of union organizing, protesting, and organizing a march!

I’ll hand it to him, at least our trainer, Ben Luna, begged our forgiveness and reassured us that we should support the cause but that we just couldn’t do it with government dollars. I just couldn’t help thinking that Cesar was probably rolling over in his grave when he heard that one.

Can our government mess up even a sure thing? ¡Si Se Puede!

Click to read Pam's complete send-up of the Cesar Chavez Day of Service Fiscal Training

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