Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflecting on a Long-Term Trend in Nonprofit Funding, and What You Can Do About It

Posted by Kim Klein

“I would love to give to the Film Festival, but I really have to devote all my giving to my children’s public school.” This sentence, said by a long-time donor in response to a request for funding renewal from a board member at a local Film Festival, helped to start a project called “Nonprofits Talking Taxes." Starting about 10 years ago, many of us started to hear things like this from our donors. At the same time, many of us in the fundraising profession began to notice that organizations with very diverse and dynamic fundraising programs were having a hard time raising money.  This didn’t make sense:  what were we doing wrong?  As it turned, we were doing nothing wrong, but the landscape for fundraising was changing rapidly and the nonprofits most affected by the changes were doing little to address this.

The root of the change was simple: government cutbacks, some of which had begun years earlier, were taking a huge toll on the ability of nonprofits to serve our various constituencies. As government funding was cut, nonprofits funded by government grants sought to raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals. But the math simply couldn’t work: there is not enough money in the foundation and corporate community, or even from the vast number of individuals who make annual donations, to pay for all that they always paid for AND pick up all that the government no longer paid for.

As most readers of this blog have experienced, this is completely unsustainable: more work and more competition for fewer dollars does not give us healthy, happy communities or dynamic and creative nonprofits.

For the most part, nonprofit organizations did not fight these government cuts, or, if they did, they fought for their own funding but not for the principle that government has a role to play in providing funding. There are many reasons why this is true:
  • individual staff people have little or no time to advocate for funding in addition to their work,
  • sometimes organizations mistakenly worry that advocating for government funding is illegal, and
  • many nonprofits don’t know how to mount an effective advocacy campaign.
There are dozens of excellent organizations working to address these problems, such as the Alliance for Justice, the California Coalition for Civil Rights, CA CALLS, the League of Women Voters, just to name a few. But we also saw a more fundamental problem, which was that, by and large, nonprofit staff did not really have any opinions about the role of taxes and government funding. You can’t express an opinion you haven’t formed. Some staff felt that tax policy was too complicated to understand, or too difficult to change. Some staff felt that there were no good solutions, but most were too busy trying to keep up with their increasing workloads to think much of anything.
We set out to change that.

For the past three years, CompassPoint and the Building Movement Project, along with a number of other partners, has been developing, testing and presenting a curriculum designed for nonprofit staff called “Nonprofits Talking Taxes.” Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the workshops which were presented in a wide variety of settings such as staff meetings, professional association gatherings, training events, and webinars. Our goal was to create something that anyone could use with co-workers and colleagues, something that could be used with three people or fifty people.

We evaluated our workshop and changed it many times. We refined the information and now we are pleased to say that we have developed a training curriculum that is fun, informative, and easy to use. We have uploaded it, along with a  (very brief) trainer “manual,” some videos, and some sample webinars onto a website called

At the CalNonprofits Annual Convention in November, the new toolkit made its debut. In honor of our work and of the role that taxes play for all of us, we gave everyone a sticker that said, “_____ is the reason that I (heart) taxes.” Conference attendees filled in the blank with a wide variety of reasons ranging from public parks, schools, and safety to more esoteric things that taxes support such as health and elevator inspectors, the FAA, the CDC, or the most unusual, volcano research. We created flashdrives with the curriculum loaded on them, and people took those eagerly (signing a form which obligates them to use the information on the flashdrive and not just download their own stuff).

We piloted the final workshop to a room full of people interested in learning more about how to talk about taxes, and how taxes are integral to the common good. We had a fun, collaborative, and positive conversation about taxes, the role they play for nonprofits, and the role they play for all of us by promoting the common good.

Please consider having your own conversation about the common good and the role of taxes in creating a society that works for all of us. As you’ll see when you look at the materials, you don’t need to be an expert to share these ideas. We believe, as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone often said, "We all do better when we all do better." We also know that this is easier said than done, and that it will take the combined brain power and creativity of ALL of us to really move our state and our country to an economy that insures a safety net for everyone, a high quality public school education for our children, a clean environment, an accessible and excellent health care system, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and a quality of life that one would expect in the world’s richest country.

There are a variety of resources to support you as you plan your workshop. We will also continue to monitor the website and add information as it seems necessary. All the material is copyrighted into the Creative Commons, which means everyone is free to use it. All we ask for is attribution.

We are very grateful to our funders and to the 4,000 people who participated in the various iterations of the workshops over the past three years, as well as the 30 people who used the material in trainings.

For questions or comments, please feel free to email me at As one of the founders of this project, I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Happy Poverty Day

This post was originally written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld for the Building Movement Project, as part of their blog series on Poverty.  To read more on this topic, head here

You didn't know Poverty Day was a thing? I kid, it’s not really something worth celebrating, but this is the one time a year when we can count on the media to focus on the economy as it is experienced by the millions who are struggling to make ends meet. Most other days we get news about the record profits of the banks that tanked the economy 5 years ago, or the latest worries over how our dysfunctional Congress could threaten the economy by repeating the debt-ceiling drama of 2 years ago. But for today, the headlines read that the poverty rate was “unchanged” and “hold(ing) steady.

But a stable poverty rate is not a good thing when 15% of the population, 22% of children, and more than one-quarter of both the Black (27%) and Latino (26%) communities fall under it. The fact that the poverty rate is “stuck” at a record 46.5 million (it was 46.2 million in 2011) should be a sign to our nation’s decision-makers that we really are living in a country with two contrasting economic realities. Sadly many members of Congress seem intent on shredding the social safety net. This week we could see a vote in the House of Representatives on a heartless Farm Bill that would cut $4 billion a year from the SNAP program (the anti-hunger program formerly known as Food Stamps) at a time when the USDA is reporting that nearly 50 million Americans struggled with hunger last year. And across the states, far too many governors and legislatures have been more interested in playing politics than giving poor people access to lifesaving Medicaid coverage.

For the service providers, organizers and other nonprofit types who are doing their best to step in and help, today’s release of the poverty data only confirms what they see every day in their communities. Workers are struggling to provide for their families, entire neighborhoods haven’t bounced back from the last recession, and more and more people keep falling deeper into economic despair. But it seems that the stories of 15% of the population can’t compete with the 1% who are doing very well right now and paying handsomely to control our “billion-dollar democracy.”

Right now, the organized millions of a few people dominate the public debate and policymaking; and that leads to record poverty, mean-spirited legislation and more austerity politics. The only way to overpower organized money is to organize the millions of people who want and need fair wages, food stamps and a safety net that actually works. It’s going to take all of us.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Commons Frame for Social Justice

Posted by Kim Klein

When people ask how, specifically, a commons frame can be applied to social justice, here is a great example:

 Eminent Domain and More: Green Party Mayor and Nonprofits Create Prototype
From Nonprofit Quarterly

Earlier this year, declaring 2013 “the year of the mayoral races,” a pro-nonprofit political advocacy group called for support for mayoral candidates whose platforms grasped the needs and potentials of nonprofits and proposed policies that would strengthen the nonprofit sector in their communities. The barometer for a mayoral candidate’s nonprofit cred was his or her response to the question, “How will you include nonprofits as part of your economic plan?” To that end, Gayle McLaughlin might be the prototype for this new breed of pro-nonprofit mayor...

Click here to read the full article at

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Social Equity By The Numbers

A commons society is characterized in large part by rough social equity.  Our country moves further and further away from that with each passing year.

This article provides the facts we all need to organize ourselves and our communities to reverse the slide into a society which will be made up of two classes of people:  the super rich and the very poor.

A typical American household made about $51,017 in 2012, according to new figures out from the Census Bureau this week. That number may sound familiar to anyone who remembers George H. W. Bush’s first year as president or Michael Jackson in his prime. That’s because household income in 2012 is similar to what it was in 1989 (but back then it was actually higher: you had an extra $600 or so to spend compared to today).
That sobering statistic gives an indication of where the American middle class appears to be headed. Take a look below at a snapshot of where the middle class is now, the problems they face and what our Facebook audience has to say about squeaking out a living these days.
A note on the term “middle class”: There is no single, universal definition so we turned to economic analyst Robert Reich – who spoke to us this week – for some direction. Reich suggested defining middle class as those with income levels 50 percent above and below the median income. Median is a term that means the “middle of the middle.” Median earnings are a key indicator of how the middle class is doing.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kittens, Cats and the Commons

A few weeks ago, a cat and two half grown kittens showed up in a friend’s yard.   My friend doesn’t have pets and isn’t really an animal person.  I have sometimes teased her by saying it is her only major fault.  She called all the usual places that help you with feral cats and they were all swamped.  The municipal shelter said they had more kittens this year than any other time in their history.  Most places recommended trapping them, fixing them and then releasing them back to her yard.  A few people said you could try to tame them and find homes for them, but that would take a long time and is often impossible with truly feral cats.  My friend was open to trapping and fixing them, and marginally open to releasing them back into her yard.  

To make a long story, which is also not the point of this blog post, short:  we were able to trap the mother and one kitten. (The other kitten took off and remains quite wary).   I took them to a wonderful organization called “Fix Our Ferals” which runs a clinic devoted to spaying and neutering feral cats as well as giving them shots, fostering young kittens and the like.  I brought the kitten and the mother to my house to recover.  They hunkered down in their cages and hissed and spat when I put food in for them.  They ate voraciously but without any gratitude.   I knew the mother had to be released—she showed no signs of being tamed.  The kitten was another story.  He let me pat him and even let me hold him.  He wasn’t happy about it, but seemed to know I meant well.  Ultimately though, the time and effort it would take to tame him, even if that could be done, was more time than I, or the many people to whom I tried to give him, had.  After much thought, I released them both in my friend’s back yard.  We have continued to feed them. 

What I was struck by during this whole period of taming, trapping, neutering and releasing, was the fact that these cats will never understand what happened to them and, particularly, will never think that we did this for their own good and the common good.  To be sure, cats don’t think like that.  They are not regaling the other ferals with how they were betrayed by people who fed them, then kidnapped and tortured them, held them against their will and then, for some reason, let them go.   The mother is not bragging that she never gave in and never stopped hissing.  The kitten isn’t describing how he hoped he would be able to escape when I took him out of his cage, but the time was never right.

The point is how do we get the kind of distance we need to see the big picture of what is really the common good?  In a perfect world I suppose there would be no feral cats.  All cats, like all people, would live in loving homes.  But those of us who work for the common good must be realists, and we must not let the best be the enemy of the good.  If we wait for perfection we may not take the opportunity to do the little we can to make minor improvements.   A big danger is assuming that we see the big picture and not just a big version of our own biases.  There is no one answer to the question of what is the common good, but finding the answers must include conversation and discussion with a wide range of people who have a variety of viewpoints.  In the case of these cats, I talked to a range of people each firm in their opinions about what should happen, which ranged from euthanizing to releasing in a more wild place.  I read studies about feral cats and I discussed all of this with my longsuffering partner and several friends.   I don’t know if I made the absolutely right decision, but I feel confident I made the least wrong decision. 

But the bigger issue is that I had to challenge my assumptions and biases several times during this process, especially including the assumption that I would find the absolutely right decision, know it when I found it, and then make it.  Everyone, feline and human alike, would live happily ever after. That did not happen and probably rarely can.  The common good is a not a constant, but a constant search; a letting go of old ideas, of trying on new ones, and a willingness to live in uncertainty.  For “I’m right and full steam ahead” people like me, that is the bigger picture. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Long and Short of It

Posted by Kim Klein

Last week, the Nonprofit Quarterly featured a piece announcing a large grant that the Skillman Foundation had awarded the Detroit Bus Company, an independent transit provider in the Michigan city.  The grant was for $100,000 and will support a program that will provide free transportation for the city’s children to travel to and from over 90 approved after-school  and summer programs.  The Foundation’s hope is that with the added lure of free transportation more children will enroll in the programs the bus route supports. 
It’s a great idea in theory. The public transportation system in Detroit has been recently decimated by funding cuts.  Funding a program that provides free transit eliminates a common barrier to after-school programs and care- transportation.  These programs are now an option for families who don’t own a car, have parents who work during normal pick-up times, or who depend on city transit with buses that have become, at best, unreliable.  The busses will even drop children off at other pre-approved safe locations, like local libraries or police stations.

So what’s the problem?  I don’t like to always be a wet blanket but I really wish that Skillman, in their award letter, would say something like this, “We are proud to support this program as a temporary solution to the much bigger issue of Detroit’s lack of public transportation.  We will be working with partners in Detroit to address this issue.  Stay tuned.”  Without that caveat, the program stands as yet another example in a string of private enterprises taking over the provision of necessary public services, especially in Detroit. These programs are rightly lauded for stepping in to provide a needed alternative to the public system after cuts to local services render the original programs insufficient, but these programs are rarely, if ever,  set up to cater to the most marginalized people who depend on public services the most.  In fact, the original goal of the Detroit Bus Company was to provide weekend barhoppers with transportation to and from local watering holes downtown.   Regular rides on the bus are $5, compared to $1.50 city bus fare.   While the Company provides the after-school program for free, its need to seek profit will have an impact on how long it can provide this service.  
Short term solutions are important because we all live in the here and now.  But whenever we create something that solves a problem temporarily but is not at all an ideal solution, we have to ask ourselves how are we going to prevent short term solutions from having a cascading litany of consequences that may cause the appropriate long term solution not to ever happen?  When this $100,000 grant runs out and Detroit still doesn’t have proper public transportation, these kids won’t be able to go to their after school programs.   Then those programs will close.  Meanwhile, all the people that need to go somewhere who don’t have cars and who would have depended on the bus system can’t go where they need to:  job interviews, doctor’s appointments, the grocery store.  You don’t have to have much of an imagination to see the problem growing bigger and bigger. 

What the NPQ article fails to highlight is that it is because the transportation system in Detroit has been so gutted (allegedly unconstitutionally) that others have needed to step in, perhaps without a lot of thought about the long term consequences of their short term generosity.  What they also don’t report but what is so important to note is that local groups are uniting in the face of these cuts to organize and advocate for a better public system that services Detroiters who depend on it the most.  The North End Woodward Community Coalition, a partner of Building Movement Detroit’s, has been working tirelessly to force local Detroit officials to restore bus services to pre-cut levels.  They’ve done it all, from filing a Title VI Civil Rights Complaint with the Department of Transportation, to submitting a petition to restore bus services with over 1,300 signatures to the city council.   Perhaps the $100,000 spent on the Detroit Bus Co would have been better spent on this organizing, or perhaps another $100,000 can be freed up to do the long term work required for providing actual public transportation funded by the public to Detroit’s residents. 
To his credit, the founder of the  Detroit Bus Company, Andy Didorosi, says he hopes his service will “get made redundant one day" and appears to be active in the community and committed to a revitalized Detroit.  The nonprofit sector needs to step up and help Didiorosi’s vision of redundancy come true. 

Special thanks to Caitlin Endyke for all the research required for this blog post and for providing much of the original writing.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Turning the Lens Back on Ourselves

Posted by Kim Klein

As we read the reports from uprisings around the world, the satire below, published by the Global Post, serves as a reminder that the lens we use to look at other countries is a little painful when aimed at ourselves.  Interestingly, the Global Post felt they had to note this was a satire even though all the actual facts in the piece are true.

Inside the United States

GlobalPost goes inside the United States to uncover the regime's dramatic descent into authoritarian rule and how the opposition plans to fight back.
This is satire. Although the news is real, very little actual reporting was done for this story and the quotes are imagined. It is the first installment of an ongoing series that examines the language journalists use to cover foreign countries. What if we wrote that way about the United States? 

BOSTON, Mass. - Human rights activists say revelations that the US regime has expanded its domestic surveillance program to private phone carriers is more evidence of the North American country's pivot toward authoritarianism.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported this week that a wing of the country's feared intelligence and security apparatus ordered major telecommunications companies to hand over data on phone calls made by private citizens.

"The US leadership in Washington continues to erode basic human rights," said one activist, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing that speaking out publicly could endanger his organization. "If the US government is unwilling to change course, it's time the international community considered economic sanctions."

Over the last decade, the United States has passed a series of emergency laws that give security forces sweeping powers to combat "terrorism." But foreign observers say the authorities abuse those laws, using them instead to monitor ordinary Americans.

While the so-called Patriot Act passed in 2001 is perhaps the most dramatic legislation to date curbing freedoms here, numerous lesser-known laws have expanded monitoring of news outlets, email, social media platforms and even opposition groups - like the Occupy and Tea Party movements - that are critical of the regime.

US leader Barack Obama, a former liberal community organizer and the country's first black president who attracted a wave of support from young voters, rose to power in 2008 promising reform. He was greeted in the United States - a country of about 300 million people - with optimism. But he has since disappointed those supporters, ruling with a sometimes iron fist and continuing, if not expanding, the policies of the country's former ruler, George W. Bush.

On a recent visit to the United States by GlobalPost, signs of the increased security apparatus could be found everywhere.

At all national airports, passengers are now forced to undergo full-body scans before boarding any flights. Small cameras are perched on many street corners, recording the movements and actions of the public. And incessant warnings on public transportation systems encourage citizens to report any "suspicious activity" to authorities.

Several American villagers interviewed for this story said the ubiquitous government marketing campaign called, "If you see something, say something," does little to make them feel safer and, in fact, only contributes to a growing mistrust among the general population.

"I've deleted my Facebook account, stopped using email, or visiting websites that might be considered anti-regime," a resident of the northern city of Boston, a tough-as-nails town synonymous with rebellion, told GlobalPost. It was in Boston that an American militia first rose up against the British empire. "But my phone? How can I stop using my phone? This has gone too far."

American dissidents interviewed by GlobalPost inside the United States say surveillance by domestic intelligence agencies is just one part of a seemingly larger effort by the Obama administration to centralize power.

The American leader, for example, has in recent years personally approved the jailing - and in some cases execution - of American citizens suspected of involvement in what the regime calls "terrorist activity."

"What exactly is terrorism? The term is used so loosely these days it could include just about anyone," said one anti-government protester, who was tear-gassed and then arrested in 2011 for participating in a peaceful demonstration in New York, America's largest city and its economic capital.

Obama has also overseen a crackdown on whistleblowers, most famously jailing Bradley Manning, a US soldier, for leaking documents that called into question US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The government quietly imprisoned Manning for three years before finally trying him in a military court this week. He spent the first nine months of that in solitary confinement, where prison officials forced him to sleep naked without pillows or sheets and prevented him from reading newspapers, watching television or even exercising.

Activists also criticize the US regime for imprisoning without trial foreigners it deems threatening to national security in an offshore prison camp called Guantanamo Bay. This week an investigation revealed that the US regime force-fed Guantanamo inmates participating in a hunger strike. Force-feeding is illegal under international law.

Meanwhile, whispering in the streets about what the regime might do next has reached a dull roar. But after a national uprising in 2011 by the leftist Occupy movement ended in evictions, arrests and tear gas, Americans appear hesitant to take their anger into the streets.

Most major media outlets, which in the United States are largely controlled by politically-connected corporations - many of them, in fact, financially supported Obama's election - have been relatively quiet on such issues.

Foreign observers, however, say the recent news about domestic surveillance is spreading wildly in other ways - on Twitter and around the dinner table. They say the news has the potential to spark an uprising - at least among urban, educated elites in the country's major cities - mirroring those happening now in Turkey and that earlier swept parts of the Arab world.

One foreign businessman who works closely with the US government on issues of security said he thought Obama was too well-established and had too strong a security force for any challenge to its authority to take hold.

"This isn't Tunisia," he said. "This is more like China, where a massive security presence could easily put down any organized opposition movement."

The businessman added that Obama was democratically elected twice, which he believes gives the leader enough credibility to weather any serious opposition to his rule.

In a small, unassuming house near Boston's bustling seaport, though, supporters of the opposition disagreed, saying the leader had lost "all credibility." The group said the opposition continued to organize and grow, and that it was just a matter of time before the rest of the American population joined them.

Indeed, different political factions are beginning to unite over the issue of domestic surveillance, despite their strong differences.

"We meet in person these days to talk about strategy, phones and email are no longer safe for us," one of them said. "Our goal now is to just get out the message to the world about what is going on here. That's the first step. We need to educate not only Americans but the world about the extent the US regime is controlling the lives of its citizens."