Saturday, May 26, 2007

A spectacular new idea

A while back I mused about a new basic category of non-profit, something like "macro archives". A couple of weeks ago a spectacular new example of that impulse was made public, called the Encyclopedia of Life.

Funded by several large foundations and led by a veritable who's who of conservation and ecology heavyweights, the EOL aims to bring together all knowledge about the world's 1.8 million known species of plants, animals and fungi (a list which continues, of course, to grow). The wiki-based model they are using seems ideal for the purpose, though unlike Wikipedia this one's content will be professionally moderated -- so one interesting question will be just what the qualifications are to contribute information. (In the U.S., U.K. and a few other places they will have to figure out how to deal with information from legions of serious amateur restorationists and ecologists.)

As the project's newly-named executive director puts it: “I dream that in a few years wherever a reference to a species occurs on the Internet, there will be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopedia of Life.”

The news coverage has all focused on what I just summarized, and it's pretty cool. But I bet professionals in the nature-conservation sector will end up even more excited by something else buried at the end of the press release: "To provide depth behind the portal page for each species, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), a consortium that holds most of the relevant scientific literature, will scan and digitize tens of millions of pages of the scientific literature that will offer open access to detailed knowledge. In fact, the BHL now has scanning centers operating in London, Boston, and Washington DC, and has scanned the first 1.25 million pages for the Encyclopedia."

That part is, for me, even more mind-boggling than the big wiki. Ecology is just one of many fields in which more knowledge has been rigorously collected during the last century or two than in the previous history of humanity combined, but so much of that understanding remains captive in printed pages in scattered archives. Scanning such vast piles into modern digital technology is a huge step forward towards that "Star Trek shipboard computer" fantasy: letting machines carry out the gruntwork of collecting and sorting information so that human ingenuity can be devoted entirely to the analysis and critical thinking which makes us unique in our world.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Updates: corporate giving, poetry, and another Smithsonian problem

Some updates today on past topics, in no particular order:

Say I bet you've heard the conventional wisdom about corporate charitable giving being on the decline. (Can't work in or read about this sector for more than two minutes without hearing it, really.) Or perhaps its more-specialized cousin, the one about how corporate funding for the arts is shifting to marketing budgets. Um, nope. Say how about we open nominations for a couple of new cliches to fret about, those two ceased being original or interesting back around the Carter administration.

Poetry seems to have just burst out all over within the last generation or so in the U.S., and Chicago has for some reason played a huge role in that. When I graduated from college in 1985 poetry appeared to have a smaller place in the national consciousness than competitive ballroom dancing or ultimate frisbee. Since then the poetry-slam phenomenon, created in Chicago by Marc Smith, has burst out all over the place; and I've written about the sudden creation of a large well-funded non-profit to promote classical poetry (big enough to fight over you might say) which is headquartered in Chicago. Now I read, in the Chicago Tribune, that the University of Pennsylvania two years ago started making readings of poetry available for free download to iPods, and last year the site had 8 million downloads!

And over at our misbegotten national museum, sigh...turns out that the Smithsonian has been charging for prints of photographs of iconic historical items like the Wright Brothers' plane, and citing copyright rights to justify the prices. A notable flaw being that the photographs are not in fact copyrighted, as points out, meaning that the museum has been collecting money in exchange for rights which it has never actually owned. The advocacy group applied a nice example of the radical democratization which the information age can enable: they simply downloaded all 6,288 photos from the Smithsonian and posted them for free elsewhere! Cheers to them both for the originality and the point. (And kudos to my favorite blogger Harold Henderson for the tip.)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The "non-profit leadership deficit": are we still this silly? Really?

If you're on staff at a U.S. non-profit organization or foundation you have likely heard something about The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit”. That's the title of an early-2006 study published by a think-tank called the Bridgespan Group, which has been written about endlessly in all manner of media. I've personally attended a couple of gatherings where the report was discussed, and the group's president has made appearances at a number of conferences to talk about it.

As far as I can tell the report's conclusion -- that this sector will in coming years be drastically short of qualified leadership-level staffers -- has been accepted as fact. Put another way: if anyone has yet doubted the report's overall logic and conclusion I haven't read or heard of it.

I'd be happy to be proven wrong on that, because the report is nonsense; I've seen stronger logic in the pages of the John Birch Society newsletter. What comes to mind from reading it is a broad-based critical-thinking deficit.

It's easy to spot specific logic problems in the thing, for example their assumption that the growth in the number of staffed non-profits will indefinitely continue to be as high as it was in the late-1990s boom economy. They also keep repeating the canard about how the public sector in the U.S. is increasingly offloading services to non-profits, and appear unaware of the fact that top-level professionals in the non-profit sector enjoy their work and tend to keep working by choice well beyond age 62 or 65. And they clearly are still working from the assumption that non-profit salaries are lower compared to the same jobs in the for-profit sector.

On the supply side they seem to think that business schools are a key source pool for all this, I have no idea why. (I've helped hire several development directors and executive directors and program directors, and the idea of an MBA degree being a major qualification would just get a chuckle from the search committees I've been on.) So they basically conclude that since the number of MBA's isn't growing as fast as the non-profit sector as a whole, one more looming crisis for the perpetually-struggling non-profits! needs to be added to the list.

Sigh. This whole thing rests on the idea that supply and demand are somehow disconnected in real life: it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that a visibly-booming economic sector tends to attract more top-level talent. Is it not obvious in seventeen different ways that smart educated young Americans nowadays are flocking to make careers in this sector? (Yes it is, to anyone who's paying attention.) Is that not evidence that salary levels are not actually penurious around here and/or that a lot of the kind of folks we want are motivated by things other than owning a Lexus?

I notice no comparative context either: does not every growing economic sector have to reach farther to find the talent it needs? Isn't that basically normal? Is this sector having a harder time with that than have law or medicine or investment banking or whatever? I have no idea, and neither does anybody at Bridgespan Group.

I hope to be around long enough to see this marvelous sector learn to expect more logic and common sense than is being displayed on this subject.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More problems at the Smithsonian, while PBS waffles

The Smithsonian Institution's troubles just keep on giving...turns out that a few years ago they fired a curator for blowing the whistle on National Air and Space Museum staffers being deployed to repair personal collectibles owned by that museum's director. And if you've been to Washington lately you may have noticed the aged hulking former Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed to the public for three years since pieces of the roof began collapsing. Smithsonian officials are now admitting in so many words that they have no money nor any particular plan for how to get the 19th-century landmark building restored and back in use.

Say I wonder how that search for a new CEO is going to go?

Meanwhile down the street, PBS's efforts to save the new Ken Burns epic (which the network has bet the bank on) may have paid off. Sort of, kind of. Or not -- it's hard to tell exactly. For a little while it looked like network executives might have actually developed spines with which to fend off what Burns rightfully saw as political correctness run amuck. But Burns has now agreed to slap some new footage in there, somewhere, and Latino veterans' groups are mollified, for now.

Chalk it up as one more reminder of why I gave up on public broadcasting networks a while back (and for that matter on Burns, whose "Civil War" series I adored but whose subsequent efforts have gradually descended into self-parody).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A national consolidation goes awry

While the Girl Scouts of America's national consolidation process seems to be going forward as planned (with clusters of 4 to 7 local councils being combined into single new ones), the American Lung Association's effort appears to have gone off the rails.

The Chicago Tribune and the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported this week that 7 local ALA chapters (out of 78) have thus far decided to separate from the parent organization rather than be consolidated with others into regional units. The chair-elect of the Chicago chapter says it was a board decision: "We, as a board, believe such a consolidation to be not in the best interest of our lung mission and might undermine our local effectiveness." Of course that means the local group can't keep the name, so they are rebranding themselves as the "Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago."

According to the Chronicle, "Last year, 5 of 11 California affiliates of the American Lung Association — in Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose — severed their ties with the national association to become Breathe California." (Ouch: LA, San Francisco, Chicago and Silicon Valley adds up to a lot of deep local donors being taken away from the ALA.) Apparently after the California chapters broke off the national board voted to add a new clause to the affiliation agreement that would commit local chapters to leaving behind all land, buildings and so forth in order to leave. The Chicago and New Hampshire local boards have in effect told the national board where they can shove that pre-nup; more of that may be on the way in other states.

The Girl Scouts process, meanwhile, has sparked a series of top level staff changes with some local executive directors changing chairs and some newly-created CEO jobs now open.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The IRS is making non-profit news

Late this past week came two significant news items regarding the Internal Revenue Service: that the agency is finally going to revamp the core annual reporting requirements for non-profits, and that the agency's chief is departing to take over the troubled American Red Cross.

[Both of these changes were reported in news articles which are not online, yet at least: the first item in Friday's Wall Street Journal and the second item in this week's Chronicle of Philanthropy. Both newspapers based their articles on extensive quotes from various parties both on and off the record, and neither item is being denied by anyone.]

The redesign of the federal Form 990 is long overdue; as the Journal puts it the form "has over 100 line items of information in haphazard order, the result of decades of additions by the tax agency without a complete revamp. A reader finds a charity's revenue listed pages before learning what the group does. Questions about officers, directors and other key employees are often scattered many pages apart." The revamp appears to be mainly aimed at reorganizing the thing so it flows in a logical order.

Unfortunately that won't get at the bigger issue which is the lack of any requirement to report actual results other than financial. The head of the IRS's tax-exempt organization unit
says, "I'm pretty sure the public doesn't want the government deciding who's effective and who isn't." She's missing it; no one argues for the federal government ranking non-profits' effectiveness. (I mean seriously, can you imagine? Might as well let a federal bureaucracy decide who's best on "Dancing With The Stars".) No, what would be a real step forward would be simply a requirement that non-profits report each year some measure(s) of effectiveness. Let organizations themselves decide what that is and then let the marketplace of informed donors and watchdogs decide who is being smartest about that. The governmental role here would be simply to enable a free market of comparisons, just like it does with regard to investing in for-profit corporations.

Meanwhile New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom broke the story that IRS chief Mark Everson is leaving to take over the Red Cross, which has recently been in some crisis. Whether he is a good fit for that organization is open to debate (I lean slightly towards yes); it does seem like a good sign for them that they can land someone with a resume of his caliber.

The Chronicle rightly notes, though, that Everson has in his four years running the IRS sharply increased the agency's focus on tax-exempt organizations. While some of the specifics of that have seemed weak (see above) or dubious (the NAACP and All Saints Episcopal Church audits had the scent of partisan politics), in the big picture we clearly need more focus on this booming civic sector not less. Hopefully the next agency director will understand that.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A quick rogue's gallery

The head of the New Jersey chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and his wife have been charged with bilking the group out of $150,000. The guy was not only a local police chief but a member of MADD's national board of directors.

In Milwaukee, charges of $306,000 worth of systematic theft by a key employee at America's Second Harvest raises several serious questions. We can start with, how does it take seven years for an enterprise that routinely collects thousands of dollars in cash per month to notice that large piles of it is not landing in the bank account??

Special mention goes to the federal Office of Personnel Management, which in the wake of tons of criticism of the massive Combined Federal Campaign has decided to make it easier for poorly-run charities to qualify. As Charity Navigator's Trent Stamp put it, apparently the feds decided that restricting eligibility to groups meeting a certain standard of efficiency was onerous, a bit ironic given that the government's own auditors had concluded that made-up charities had no problem getting included. Our tax dollars at work.