May 2010 Archives

May 25, 2010

Charities Spying? The Data-Mining Debate

It was a catchy headline, the kind that makes your friends say, "Hey, did you see that article in SmartMoney, 'Is Your Favorite Charity Spying on You?'" And you've got to give the author, Anne Kadet, credit for coming up with some colorful tidbits in what could have otherwise been a dull account of how fundraisers research potential major donors. My personal favorites were what I'll call the "swimming pool example" and the "major donor in the hospital example."

In the swimming pool example, Kadet says that the "increasingly sophisticated technology" used by prospect researchers includes using "satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool." The bigger your pool, one presumes, the greater your net worth. That's almost too good to be true. What a fun job, that lets the prospector sit around and ogle people's properties from above! Is that a Rodin sculpture in their back yard? A Maserati in the driveway?

Unfortunately, I suspect that such efforts more often yield views of rooftops and cement. And let's not forget that anyone and everyone can use the same technology to view the exact same things, and for much less socially useful purposes than making sure to ask an appropriate amount when soliciting a donation to the homeowner's favorite cause. 

Now for the major donor in the hospital story. The article says that, when wealthy patients are admitted, they "may enjoy a bedside visit from a 'patient relations director' who offers concierge services. Extra pillow? Free parking passes for visiting friends? The director will make it happen."

By the way, I'm quoting here from the print version of the article in the June, 2010 issue of SmartMoney -- the online version was shortened a good bit.

That example, if true, is admittedly shocking. It's one thing to use research to help design an approach that's attuned to the donor's financial and personal situation, it's another to give special treatment to someone who is a client, not merely a supporter of one's life-sustaining services. The professional fundraising community has been expressing outrage at the article in general -- for example, see  the Working Philanthropy Blog, quoting the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement's statement, and Sarah Connor-Smith's defense in her InFomentation blog -- but I haven't seen anyone address this part of the article head on.

The bottom line, of course, is that we're in a society that hasn't yet come to terms with the amount of information that can be discovered about each of us via public records, most of them available online, via a few taps on the keyboard. So of course we may feel spied upon, whether we find out that it's a nonprofit doing the information gathering or, more likely, a credit card company or retail catalog mailer.  Until we all get more comfortable with that fact, the real takeaway from this article is simply that nonprofits must continue to employ information gained via such research with subtlety and care, following the ethical guidelines already widely employed. (I guess opening a meeting with, "Dude, big pool you've got there," is out.) 

May 20, 2010

Kudos to: Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, After the Fire

It's the type of situation that could give nightmares to anyone working in a nonprofit : A midnight fire, the building gutted, the recent remodeling job in ruins. And in the case of the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society's fire last night, a dozen cats who died.

Today is usually my day to walk dogs at the Humane Society, and I was looking forward to seeing some of my favorite four-footed friends. Instead, I stopped by this morning to find people in tears and staff trying to figure out what was next, with their offices gone or unusable.

But in terms of disaster response, their handling of the situation can offer lessons for any group facing something similar. First off, everyone there has remained positive, assuring the media and other contacts that they plan to rebuild -- and to keep on finding care for the affected animals and placing them for adoption in the meantime. That's crucial for anyone making a donation, because no one wants to think it will go to a lost cause, or to merely reduce the insurance company's liability.

Second, they've made themselves available to the press, with plenty of coverage explaining to people how they can help, where to donate, and how the donations will be used. 

Technology has been a help to them. Even without an office, they've gotten onto email and started sending out messages to volunteers and other supporters, alerting them to the situation and what can be done.

Here's hoping the response leads to a speedy rebuilding, and a better-than-ever space for the animals! In the meantime, think about your own nonprofit's disaster preparedness -- would you be ready with off-site lists of supporters and means of reaching out to them? What steps can you take now to make the tasks easier?  
May 13, 2010

Form 990: Even Tiny Nonprofits Must File Now or Else!

Incredibly, there are said to be hundreds of thousands of nonprofits out there who  haven't heard that on May 17, 2010, the IRS is set to revoke the 501(c)(3) status of tax-exempt organizations that haven't filed tax returns (Form 990) for the last three years.

The problem seems to be that many groups had never had to file Form 990 before, because their annual receipts were under $25,000. And they didn't notice the new law passed in 2006 saying that even these small groups had to at least file an "e-postcard" version of the form.

The LAST CHANCE date to file is: May 15, 2010.

For details, see Nolo's article, "Many Nonprofits Must File IRS Form 990-N to Stay Tax Exempt."
May 12, 2010

Charitable Instincts and Kids

The June, 2010 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine contained an intriguing statistic (among many stats about people's current thoughts concerning their financial situation):

Among parents age 35 to 44, the financial virtue they'd most like to pass on to their children was generosity! The 31% who chose that virtue were followed by 29% who chose thrift and 25% who chose business sense.

Doesn't that seem a mite counterintuitive, given today's tough times? Especially since the same survey found that 41% of this group said their financial situation was worse today than two years ago, with a majority of them "struggling." And it's a safe bet that this group has reduced its charitable giving, as has occurred pretty much across the board.

But maybe it's actually a matter of cause and effect, and these struggling parents want to make sure that their belt-tightening doesn't dampen their kids' sense of generosity.

If so, it raises an interesting question: How can the nonprofits of the world best help them -- and thus foster the next generation of donors?

The first thing that comes to mind is to think about kids and families when planning volunteer opportunities. I've observed many nonprofits treat young volunteers as an afterthought, or even an inconvenience, with little more welcome than a demand that they be accompanied by a person over the age of 18. How about creating a family day of volunteering with your group, or coordinate with schools for particular projects?

Another possibility is to address the matter of kids' awareness of charitable giving in your newsletters and website. I know of families that decide how much they'll give to charity, then involve the whole family in the decision of which charities to choose -- or even require the kids to set aside a portion of their allowance for the charity of their choice. You can educate and encourage parents about such possibilities.

While we're at it, for the kids who are actively engaged in choosing where to donate, could you create a separate kid-friendly Web page explaining where their donations go, and what a difference they make? You might think that your donation pages are already clear enough for anyone to understand, but look again -- many websites offer a confusing array of options, assuming a certain level of financial sophistication, with language like, "Please consider an unrestricted gift," or "tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law."

I'll start keeping my eyes open for charities that do a good job at this, and report back!

May 6, 2010

Special Events: How to Avoid Embarrassment

Years after the fact, a random memory of a certain special event gone bad can cause me to cringe. So I thought I'd collect some ideas for how you can avoid a similar syndrome:

1) Coach your registration desk volunteers on what to do or who to call if someone shows up without a ticket -- it might be a major donor.

2) Coach your emcee on how how to pronounce the names of people who will be recognized or thanked. Stumbling over the keynote speaker's last name, for example, won't endear the speaker to your group, and your guests may conclude that he or she is not so important after all.

3) Attend to the bodily basics -- make sure key people know where the extra toilet paper is, and that whoever has the master restroom key doesn't go home early!

4) Put a time limit on speeches and enforce it equally for everyone.

5) If drinks are to be served at a bar, choose a server who knows how and when to cut people off.

6) If you'll be thanking people, don't rely on memory. Bring a list that you've checked five times beforehand, and follow that with a blanket statement about the "many other wonderful people who have helped out in so many ways."

7) Get the food served on time. Hungry people get grumpy. If you're not having the event professionally catered, make sure that some of the people involved have served food to crowds before, and have a well-considered plan for getting everyone fed by a certain time. (Hint: Buffet lines are fastest for serving, with people able to line up on either side.)

8) Don't give anyone food poisoning. Check with your local health department for its standards on refrigeration and how long different items can safely sit out.

I'm glad to say that not all of these mini-disasters have happened to me -- but I've seen many of them happen! And most can be averted with some advance planning.