Info You Can Use: Does Friending A Candidate Endanger Your Non-Profit Status

The Non Profit Law blog linked to a really great publication put out by the Alliance for Justice that explains whether your online activity might run afoul prohibitions in your 501 (c) 3 status. This is the clearest explanation of these issues I have read.

“This guide aims to answer the questions nonprofit managers most frequently face regarding the Internet and social media.”

The document covers situations that don’t involve online activity, but really it is the social media element that comprises the uncharted territory that people aren’t clear about. The document makes a distinction between lobbying, which a 501 c 3 non-profit can do and supporting a candidate, which they can’t.

Though sometimes the distinction is very subtle. For example, you can make a post on Representative X’s Facebook account, “Rep X, support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123.”and that is direct lobbying. If you post a slightly different message, “People of My State, tell Rep X, to support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123, ” and that is considered grassroots lobbying because it is a general call to others to take some action. If you post, “We love Rep X because she supports the arts and voted Yes on Bill 123,” that is promoting a specific candidate.

Except in some very specific circumstances, you can’t link to a candidate’s website. In fact, you can’t link to any website that promotes a candidate and you are responsible for making sure the content of the site doesn’t change since you first linked to it.

For example, you are doing a renovation and link to the website of the company that is providing you with sustainable wood as a way of proving to your constituency that you are acting responsibly. If the supplier changes their website to criticize a candidate’s stance on logging, your organization might be in trouble.

There are also restrictions on allowing employees to use company equipment, even on their time off, to express support for a candidate.

In answer the question posed by the title of this entry, no, you can’t friend a candidate on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. They are free to friend and follow your organization. Even though etiquette suggests you follow them in return, the IRS suggests you don’t.

About the only time you are safe to have a promotion of a candidate on your website is if you allow Google to place ads on your website and have no control over what they are placing.

There are a lot of other questions answered in the document as well. Since a lot of 501 (c) 3 organizations are associated with 501 (c) 4s which have looser restrictions, they provide some detailed guidance about how closely connected their activities can be. The guide also deals with setting policies for renting your mailing lists, guest bloggers, moderating blog commenters, using photos, hosting videos.

It is clear that there are going to be a lot of nuances specific to the activities of different organizations. However, if you have had questions about what is permissible as lobbying and prohibited as campaign support, and don’t have a tax lawyer immediately available, this is a good place to start to find your answers.

Will Buffet Family Foundation Influence Other Funders?

Non-Profit Quarterly linked to an interview in Fast Company in which Warren Buffet’s grandson talks about his approach to philanthropy as he takes up the reins of the family foundation.

As I read the interview, I vacillated between mild dread where I hoped no one else decided to adopt the approach and feeling that his approach was sensible and might provide leadership that would strengthen the general non-profit infrastructure in the United States.

What made me most uneasy was his focus on quantity over quality.

“The first question, for instance, is “Assuming we are successful, how many people would we reach directly with the funding of this gift?” Proposals gets 3 points for affecting +1 million people, 2 for greater than 100,000, and 1 for less than 100,000. Those proposals with a less ambitious scope can secure a coveted spot on the portfolio team by being particularly unique or cost-efficient.”

While he does allow for funding of smaller efficient and effective organizations, I just wonder if that will get lost in the desire to report numbers served and therefore reinforce the idea that you have fudge numbers and always report success or lose funding.

Where this is coming from for him is wanting to get away from non-profits making emotional appeals and move toward discussing the complex factors which contribute to the problems the non-profit is trying to address.

“In the philanthropic world, the problem is the product, in the business world, the product is the solution.” says Buffett, who argues that NGOs are forced to “sell suffering.” The needless focus on sappy narratives often overlooks sophisticated solutions that can’t be easily marketed with a T-shirt-clad celebrity holding a small child.”

This is where I feel he is most sensible because he is determined to fund every step in the chain to addressing a problem, including the unsexy areas. But to do that, he wants the redundant organizations to either get out of the business, partner with other groups or refocus themselves.

“…rather than dolling out cash to independent, uncoordinated actors with the most heart-string-tugging story, they could take on an entire social problems (like food security or breast cancer) by systematically lining up nonprofits to tackle each part of the causal chain, from federal policy to victim resources.

“If you are an NGO, doing the exact same thing as another NGO, and that other NGO is doing better than you’re doing it, then you are in business for the wrong reason,” Buffett says in an exasperated rant against the individualist nature of charities. Overlapping operations, he says, not only waste money through redundant overhead, but keep brilliant minds occupied with logistical distractions that sap their potential impact.

“We will give you money to execute your mission,” Buffett says, “if you work together and identify the most cost-effective and successful ways to achieve that.”

Meanwhile, looking at the entire causal chain of a crisis is key to revealing missing links in the solution, such as political or logistical hurdles that are essential to success, but not appealing enough to raise dollars.”

Granted, the focus of the foundation he is leading is on agriculture, water and feeding school children rather than arts and culture. However, the practices of a Buffet family foundation is bound to have widespread influence with funders in other areas. It is possible that other foundations may use the same criteria.

Given that the question about whether there are too many arts organizations in existence has been a hot topic of late, it is conceivable that funders are already thinking along these lines.

So let me ask-

-how many arts organizations would seriously discuss merging or refocusing if a major funder told them they were redunant and less effective than another organization?

-how many might consider abandoning major activities that were redundant if the funder offered major support to expand in their areas of strength?

-would the arts in your community be more vibrant if there were groups that focused specifically on different niches within the chain? Such as:

-organization that handed advocacy for the arts with local government
-organization that focused on advocacy for the arts in education in conjunction with other advocacy groups
-organizations that purely perform
-organization that coordinates outreaches to schools by designing programs that emphasize the strengths of the performance and presenting groups

There are more functions that different groups might handle, of course, but this serves as a good example. You might look at this and think about how difficult it would be with all these tasks so decentralized, but think about how more schools would benefit if there was an organization that was making an effort to provide uniform coverage of your entire city/county. How much easier would it be for artists to make a living in the community if there was an organization that was hiring them to do outreaches in schools or connecting artists with students seeking instruction.

All this in an environment made conducive for these activities by groups who solely focused on influencing law and policy in government and school boards. Their advocacy is made credible by the existence of organizations who attract and employ strong performers and other organizations who develop exemplary education/outreach programs and train the artists to execute them effectively.

This approach may decentralize efforts and require a lot of cooperation between different groups, but does improve on the current situation where everyone does a little of everything with different degrees of success provided they have the funding and personnel.  As Howard Buffet acknowledges, there is a lot of unsexy infrastructure that no one really wants to fund that is crucial to the success of non-profit efforts. What a boon it would be if someone would fund all those places at a level smart people would be willing to engage in the work.

Yeah, Sometimes It IS Boring

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to post about today, but Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox decided me with his post today about reducing the opportunities for audiences to be anxious about their attendance experience.

He starts his post:

When I picture someone entering a live performance venue I imagine a thought bubble above their head. Here’s the thought inside that bubble:

“Man, I hope this doesn’t suck.”

Interestingly enough, that is what I was thinking when I was driving to see a dance show this Saturday. I didn’t have too much basis for real concern since I knew the curators who put the show together and had worked with close to half the groups who would be performing. On the other hand, the event was billed as cross cultural and you never really know how successfully performers will execute their vision of what that means.

I think most of you with any experience in the arts know what I mean. Like me, I am sure you have seen some pretty awful stuff performed right after some pretty good stuff and are uncertain how the night will turn out.

Question is, do most people in our audience members know we have the same concerns abut enjoying the as they do? Do they know we can be worried about not liking the performance or being bored?

I suspect they don’t. I suspect they feel our disappointment with a performance will be expressed in terms of the failure of its attempt to illuminate the futility of the post-modern vision against the fin-de-siecle fatalism of the last decade.

Andrew Taylor once wrote he felt it was counter productive for arts organizations to never admit any program supported by a grant did not perform as planned or better.

“It’s an insight as old as theater — conflict, flaw, and tension are what make narratives compelling. And yet, read through most arts marketing materials or grant applications and what will you find? Perfection, triumph, success, and positive spin. Their performances are always exceptional. Their audiences are always ecstatic. Their reviews are always resounding (or mysteriously missing from the packet). Their communities are always connected and enthralled. In short, they are superhuman, disconnected, and insincere.”

I would say the same is true with audiences. We advertise everything we do as the most exciting and seminal work they will ever see but never concede audiences may not be in ecstasy every moment they are in the theatre. As a result, audiences expect to be in ecstasy and may either decide there is something wrong with them for not feeling amazed or decide they have been had by a bunch of B.S.

One of my favorite episodes in Drew McManus’ “Take A Friend To The Orchestra” program came about 6 years ago when Drew took the brother of WNYC Sound Check host, John Schaefer, to a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry Schaefer had never been to an orchestral concert before. One of the parts that impressed me the most was that Drew admitted that he often gets bored at times during a concert and that it was okay to be bored at times.

I am not suggesting a full confessional after every performance outlining everything that went wrong. One common theme on this blog has been the idea that we need to speak about the arts experience in everyday life –when we are waiting online in the supermarket, at parties and picnics, in elevators and on buses. I am not talking about announcing your boosterism aloud in public places, but rather getting people to talk about their experiences, fears, anxieties, passions, etc., in relation to the arts. Part of that conversation needs to be acknowledging that, yeah sometimes it is boring; sometimes is it bad; sometimes it is confusing, even for those of us with a lot of experience.

The benefit people in the performing arts have as audience members when it comes to artists who are not household names is that we may often know more about the artist’s reputation than most. We can enter a performance space or gallery with a higher degree of confidence about the experience than others might.

This isn’t a peculiar characteristic of the arts, it just comes with exposure and experience. Sports fans will know what match ups are likely to be most exciting than will a new attendee to a game. Sports fans will recognize when a high stakes situation is developing while a novice allows their attention to wander.

While there are entire cable channels and sections of newspapers dedicated to educating people about why certain sports match ups will be exciting, the Arts and Entertainment channel shifted its focus in other directions and newspapers are dropping their culture reporting. The arts have to mostly rely on word of mouth and those with the most knowledge aren’t really speaking often or in a compelling manner that acknowledges the beauty and the flaws that make the beauty all the more remarkable.

And believe me, I include myself among those not communicating in a basic, honest manner devoid of marketing spin.

Funding The In Between Places

Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas has been looking at how the National Endowment for the Arts distributed funds for its “Our Town” grant program. In the last three posts on the topic, he has been critical of the way the granting process is structured and executed, perceiving a surprising bias against rural communities given that it takes its name from Thornton Wilder’s play set in a rural location.

Scott’s initial criticism sort of deflated my sails when, by his criteria, the award to the Wallkill River School, Inc. in Orange County, NY where I grew up was not being made to a rural arts organization given the population of the county. I was excited to see that their project whose purpose is “To support the development of economic strategies for long-term, sustainable partnerships between the arts and agriculture in Orange County,” was funded.

I have to concede that the population has increased quite a bit since I was growing up and its psychological distance from New York City has diminished since then. (Though it still qualifies as “way upstate” in minds of NYC residents.)

I was also happy to see that the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), headquartered in Boise, ID had gotten a grant. (Full disclosure, we will be presenting the dance company in Spring 2012.) Though it isn’t rural per se, Boise qualifies as fly over country in many people’s minds. I have found Trey McIntyre’s decision to locate there rather than NY, Chicago or L.A. to be commendable—and so has the population of Boise who treat them like celebrities. The group has made great efforts to expand the concept of a dance company’s place in the community by appearing anywhere and everywhere from flash mob like performances to dancing at the local NBA farm team games to creating their own art installation in a hotel room (forward to 3:30 to hear McIntyre talk about the installation)

I was also very happy to see a local burgeoning effort in support of Hawaiian culture was funded as well. I can probably devote an entry explaining how valuable this award is going to be in planting seeds for greater things.

All this being said, I felt Walters did a credible job in his entry today arguing that many elements of the application and review process placed rural arts organizations at a disadvantage.

As Walters acknowledge in his analysis on Monday, the NEA did make an attempt to enlist the participation of arts centers in rural areas and didn’t receive a very strong response. However, in reviewing the comments on his failed grant application, Walter notes that the criteria being used to evaluate his application wasn’t appropriate for the project he was proposing.

“When I consulted the NEA as to why my own “Our Town” grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported “professionals” from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.”

He also notes that since rural arts organizations don’t have large staffs, the three weeks notice they were given between being invited to apply and the deadline was barely enough time to compose a proposal. When they made it past the first stage, they were given only a month to assemble a complete proposal, an immense task given the length of the application and the limited staff with which to do it. These small staffs may also lack the experience and advisers to guide them in infusing the grants with the polish that granters like the NEA have come to expect.

I actually faced a similar situation here. A grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities specifically focused on community colleges was announced in June with a deadline in August. One of the things they are looking for is involving up to 12 other colleges in a partnership. So not only do you need to try to assemble a work group of professors and administrators on your own campus during the summer after everyone has scattered to the winds, you have to get buy in from the same nearly non-existent groups on other campuses as well!

Via the citation of a comment by Ian David Moss, Walters wonders if the NEA is suited and equipt to directly pursue its mandate of geographically diverse funding. He discards Moss’ idea of directing more funding to trusted partners in rural states and letting them make decisions in favor of asking the NEA to become more accountable by cultivating stronger relationships with organization that work closely with rural arts groups and making a better effort to recruit people with an understanding of rural arts operations to serve on grant review panels.

While I disagree with Walters’ criteria about what constitutes rural, I am generally with him about the need to make the grant process more accessible to arts organizations in small communities. A decade ago, heck, even 5 years ago, I would have said the NEA faced an immense task trying to identify and reach out to rural organizations. But with email and social media, it is fairly easy to create focused email lists and Twitter feeds with which to deliver information to these groups.

It is just a matter of enlisting the rural arts service organizations that provide support to these groups to assist them in making them aware of the channels the NEA will be using to communicate with them. As Walters suggests, a time table and structure that recognizes both the limitations and different array of opportunities specific to rural arts organizations. Given how few organizations applied, even an increase of participation by a handful of groups will allow the NEA to claim a many fold percent growth in rural program support.

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