Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Non-profit wage slaves

The non-profit sector as a profession is terrific, provided you're willing to sacrifice a bunch of earning power. That's just the facts...I think. Until recently I was certain of it, as is everyone I've ever met in the field. But those pedantic so-and-so's at Johns Hopkins University -- the world's largest and best-funded research center on the non-profit sector -- insist that we base this sort of conclusion on real-life data. And they have the nasty habit of actually finding and analyzing such data.

I'm not yet conceding that a lot of us wouldn't be paid more doing the same level of work in the business world. But smart people who have examined excellent data are finding that the idea that non-profit wages lag behind for-profit counterparts is "at best a half-truth." Now it would be easier to dismiss that counterintuitive finding except that Lester Salamon has written or edited several excellent books on the "civil society" both in the U.S. and worldwide, two and half of which I've read. There is probably literally no one in the world more knowledgeable about the subject.

That paper linked above is only a couple of pages long and worth the read. Salamon and company, from examining a newly-available level of employment data, found two trends: that while average non-profit wages overall do lag behind for-profit wages, and by smaller fractions than I would have guessed, when the two are compared in sectors where they go head to head non-profit wages are actually a bit higher (!).

Um. As they say out where I went to college, yougottabefrickinkiddinme. More thought required is here, and perhaps more information. A quick hunt did not turn up any non-anecdotal data saying otherwise...pointers are welcome. This subject will return.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Oprah's big giveaway

No doubt you read about Oprah's show yesterday, she gave every member of the audience $1,000 with instructions to donate it to the charity of their choice.

It's a fun idea, which she probably got from a movement she had previously talked about on her show that was started by an evangelical church in California. The minister one day in 2000 simply handed every member of the congregation $100 cash with instructions to use it for charity and then come back and relate what they decided on. They've published a couple of small books on it and taken it national, which given the sad history of such things has to make one ask whether it's some sort of scam...if so I'm not spotting it. The books are priced so cheaply that any profit there seems unlikely. If somebody can spot a catch, do speak up.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sharing the wealth

A group called "NewTithing" believes that the charitable impulses of wealthy folks are being obstructed by misunderstanding their own capacity: that basing philanthropic decisions on assets rather than annual income would lead to increased giving while they're alive (as opposed to making big bequests in their wills). Sounds like simply a new way of saying "rich people should give more", but along the way NewTithing is doing some interesting research from IRS data.

For instance this year they sorted philanthropy by the wealthiest households by U.S. states. It turns out that people in the states with the most wealth are giving less of it to charity than folks in smaller, poorer states. "If affluent income tax filers in the five wealthiest states (California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois) gave as generously as do their well-off peers in the “The Charitable Five,” individual giving in the U.S. would increase $13 billion a year." Those five most-generous states by percentage of personal assets are Utah, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota and Georgia. That's not exactly what those of us in the big blue states tend to assume about places like Utah and Oklahoma is it?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Onion discovers non-profits

Somebody over there has clearly spent some time in non-profit world...this piece gave voice to the little demon sitting on the shoulder of every veteran development director or executive director: "When we need your help wiping this degenerative disorder that affects 30,000 Americans off the face of the earth, we'll let you know, okay?"

Here's another recent piece that somebody pointed out to me though it's actually based on a fairly dated premise.

Those reminded me of this one from a few years ago that is especially funny if you've dealt with any of the big national foundations, which are internally quite formal, almost stuffy..."binge endowing", hah! And the photo is perfect (that is actually the MacArthur chief, who I've met at functions here in Chicago).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Nobody minding the store

No doubt there have been failures of non-profit management as egregious as what's been going on at the Milwaukee Public Museum, but none come readily to mind. The place was running huge operating deficits for several years and the chief financial officer papered it over by taking money out of the endowment, apparently without telling the board or the CEO. In only a couple of years the endowment was basically drained (it wasn't big to start with) with the place still tens of millions of dollars in debt.

Now the finance chief has been charged by the state's attorney with severe malfeasance (there's no allegation that he kept any of the money himself); he's looking at jail time. The board and CEO shouldn't be let off the hook though, they seem to have been basically uninterested in oversight of the museum's finances. Nobody over there has done the sector proud, for sure.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Public service or public depression?

The Ad Council has launched a campaign of slickly-produced TV commercials aiming to, I guess, make people feel so horrible about themselves that they'll give more? Give to who or for what cause, exactly, they don't say...perhaps the idea is that when viewers awake from their spasm of self-loathing they'll magically think of a specific organization to whom a check must now be written.

OK quick poll for all the major-gift officers and annual-campaign directors out there: how well does drowning the prospect with guilt about how selfish she's been tend to work for you? I'm trying to picture that role-playing session at an AFP training....Gotta wonder if anyone who has ever done fundraising in the real world had anything to do with creating that campaign.

Sneering: the friendliest form of persuasion

I recently read the following in the newsletter of an organization that advocates for the production of locally-grown and organic food:

"Mainstream consumers want simple explanations as to why food products they choose are healthier, functional or otherwise not just plain old food. Evolved health and wellness consumers often want a fuller story, with more technical detail about their foods."

Gosh Ma why can't we evolve, all the cool kids' parents let them do it. I'll just never get asked on a date with this darn eyebrow ridge...

Non-profit geekage

"Confessions of a non-profit IT director" is kind of a specialized version of Slashdot (i.e. geek news), worth a visit if you do things like wish Raiser's Edge was more customizeable. You don't actually have to know what things like an API are in order to find that blog interesting, for example from there I learned about the Community Voicemail project ("free, 24-hour nationwide voice mail to people in crisis - connecting them to jobs, housing and hope").

Meanwhile here is an anonymous blog that's more about the everyday trials and tribulations of non-profit computer support. Here's the writer upon discovering that the organization's staff had rented PCs from the hotel they were holding a conference at: "Why would anyone pay $500 a day for a laptop? Just give the money to me. I'll waste it far better than you. Besides, the twins are going to need plasma TVs."

The Long non-profit Tail

An online-giving clearinghouse called Network for Good recently compiled statistics on online contributing trends in the U.S. (which you can download free here by providing a valid email address). Most of their points are yawners by now -- online contributing is rising rapidly, online donors are generally younger than check-writing donors, big disastors inspire surges of online donations -- but they also note that charitable contributions are yet another example of Chris Anderson's "Long Tail".

That's the phenomenon, most obvious in the music industry and television and book publishing, of sales curves flattening out as online selling empowers consumers in the way that it turns out we always wanted. Mass media become less and less "mass" as it gets easier for people to buy music by little-known unpromoted groups; services like iTunes have essentially no marginal inventory costs so they can offer far vaster inventories for sale than record stores ever have.

Anderson explains it better than I do but it accurately describes more and more of our economy, and Network for Good says we can add online donating to the list. Online giving "follows a classic long-tailed distribution, with a few well-known organizations receiving half of donations but thousands of smaller or lesser-known organizations combining to account for an equal amount of giving." That last part is definitely not true of traditional charitable giving, and suggests that online fundraising is making it easier to build up a new or small non-profit. For that to be true, though, requires the searchable-online-clearinghouse function that Amazon provides for book-lovers; Network for Good is of course attempting to fill that role.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

dot-org diversity in the flesh (sorry)

In the course of compiling some data about the Chicago non-profit arts scene I came across this interesting local museum devoted to "The compilation, preservation and maintenance of leather lifestyle and related lifestyles." The bouncing-cowboy-boot logo shows up great in Firefox guys, nicely done.

Having fallen into that rabbit hole we come next to the Great Lakes Leather Alliance, devoted to "building bridges between the Leather, BDSM, D/s, M/s, fetish, and alternative sexual lifestyle communities." (Hmm, in this context what would constitute an "alternative" sexual lifestyle?) They appear to mainly do gatherings, award ceremonies and the like (that's a really nice nice color photo of the newly crowned "Great Lakes Leather Sir/Leather Boy for 2007"). And proudly displayed is the big logo telling us that the organization's events are "ASL interpreted", that is, signed for hearing-impaired folks. Whoa...I have a couple of good friends who are fluent in sign and have performed that service at events, wonder what their fingers would have to do to describe something like the "Great Lakes Master/Slave 2006" competition?

Conceptualize your own damn paradigm

Today's addition to my bookmarks is a new online posting of Tony Proscio's excellent anti-jargon crusade, where you can read his dissections of individual words or phrases that are pervasive in the charitable-funding business. For example don't get him started about "persons":

For reasons no doubt buried in the ancient political sensitivities of the human services, it is considered woefully déclassé to refer to human beings as "people." "Emergency shelters in New York provided accommodation [you'd never catch them "giving a bed"] to 35,000 persons last year," a paper recently announced. Why PERSONS? Would anyone, in conversation, ever have said that? "This budget assumes four sessions per week, serving an average 30 persons each." PERSONS? Go figure. Evidently the term "people" takes too little account of the dignity of those being helped. Sorry: assisted.

Proscio's three published essays on plain speaking are free to download (linked on that site above) and well worth the read. He not only writes well with a wicked wit but has some serious points to make for, in particular, progressive-minded non-profits and funders.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A pair in the front row, please

Today's best non-profit communication, this was from Charleston Ballet Theatre to its email list. They invited people to enter "a world of beauty and grace, aerial pyrotechnics, heroes, villains, and a fairy or two; where the sound of tapping toes melds with the luscious strains of magnificent music. Where true love always triumphs, evil is destroyed, and Everybody Has Great Legs. We are honed elegant athletes in tight-fitting wrappers."

I sort of imagine a tired, punchy marketing staffer writing that up as a lark and then being shocked silly when the executive director said, "Great, send it out!"

Corporate funding

The biggest surprise in the 2005 Giving USA report on philanthropy was that U.S. corporations today give away more of their profits than they did a generation ago. In fact a lot more: during the 1960s and 1970s total corporate giving never exceeded 1.0 percent of pre-tax profits but since 1981 it has averaged almost 50% more of total annual profits, and hasn't dipped as low as 1.0 percent even during recession years.

Er, /blush...if I had a dollar for every occasion in my career when I used "the decline of corporate philanthropy" as the reason for foundations or board members to dig deeper...well I could buy the 2006 annual report, for starters. Is there in the non-profit world any piece of conventional wisdom more universally repeated and believed?

(Note that the above figure covers only giving by corporations themselves, not by individual businesspeople like Warren Buffett or foundations that were funded by business fortunes.)