Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How Howling Reminded me of Commons Values

     When I have writing or very focused work to do, I work from a studio behind my house.  Generally it is quiet and I have the added benefit of being able to take breaks and sit in my backyard.  Recently I started to hear a dog howling,  as if in great psychological pain or loneliness.  He would start with a low mournful howland gradually progress up the scale to a full throated cry of anxiety.  This would give way to a few actual barks, then he would settle down to moan.  This went on all day and sometimes into the evening.   I began to not be able to concentrate because I was so upset for this poor dog.
     Back up:  My partner and I had a dog for almost 17 years.  Brooklyn would bark incessantly and mindlessly if left outside and we faced neighbor complaints more than once.  I knew that Brooklyn was not being mistreated or neglected.  She loved to bark and we tried many methods to get her to stop. Ultimately we left her inside when we were gone so at least her barking would be muffled by the walls of the house.
      So I have a lot of sympathy with dog owners and I like dogs.  I also know that I tend to make up stories about what animals are feeling and thinking based on their behavior.  “Your cat just wants to sit on the couch and look out the window.” Or “Your dog is so sad you are going on vacation and didn’t pick a place you could take her.”  This drives people around me crazy and I do my best to keep my stories to myself.
    Coming back to the howling dog:   I knew that I could be making up a story that the dog was lonely although all the neighbors who heard him came to the same conclusion. I also concluded he was neglected, which led me to conclude his owners were terrible people.  Fortunately I live with someone who challenges me on my big leaps from one opinion to another.  “Maybe they work all day and don’t know that he howls,” she said. “Remember Brooklyn?”
I knocked on their door a couple of times but never found them home. I thought of calling the authorities.   I decided to write them a letter.  Channeling my partner and remembering the rule I have for myself (not strictly enforced),  “assume good intent,” I wrote a very nice letter and asked them to call or e-mail me with their response.
An e-mail came very soon.  “The dog belongs to our son and his wife, who is in the hospital.  I am attaching a video to show that the dog moans and whines even when he is with us.  He simply misses his owners and he has to stay with us until she is out of the hospital.  I am so sorry he is bothering you.”
I felt a wave of relief and shame.  I had a made an entire movie starring a noble dog living with self-absorbed narcissistic creeps rescued by yours truly, the hero.  I resolved (again) to follow a rule of a commons based life:  “Do unto others…”  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Seeking a New Meaning of "Independent"

     If you are around my age (61) and having a living parent or parents, you are probably spending a lot of time dealing with the issues they are having  which is very different from simply visiting with them.
     My mother is 88 and lives on her own.  She manages with the help of a part time caregiver and very good health care provided by Medicare and Kaiser.  (I can be critical of both of these systems but overall they work well for her.)  She can’t hear very well and has gradually lost most of her sight to macular degeneration.  Certainly she cannot read or see anything in print that is less than a large thick headline.  She is unsteady on her feet, having broken her hip last summer and has some heart problems.  But she eats well, enjoys company, follows Downton Abbey closely and watches the PBS NewsHour. 
      I have one sibling and neither of us lives near my mother.  We visit almost every other month and sometimes spend considerable time with her.  One of us and often both of us talk to her every day and sometimes several times.  My sister also handles a lot of other arrangements for her.    
     What bugs me most about my mother’s situation is the way that people say, “She was so independent before.  It is so sad that she is so reliant on others.”  Or, “Your poor mother has lost her freedom and now has to ask people to help her.  How awful.” 
      I feel it is the essence of individualism and one of the many toxic consequences of capitalism, that independence and freedom is equated with not having to ask for things.  The notion that my mother or any person in the world is not reliant on others is a joke. We rely on others every minute of every day—I rely on people to obey traffic laws, to keep their dogs on leashes or under voice control, to hold the door for me when I am carrying too many things.  I panic when my internet goes down for 20 minutes and I can’t reach the IT person.  I believe that what I buy at the Farmer’s Market is organic because they say it is, and that the electrician who fixed the wiring under my house did so because he said he did.  I rely on my knowledge that I have good friends and that my partner loves me.  I rely on access to air and to clean water in order to even have a life in which I can rely on my cat to make me laugh.  My life is only possible because of a other people, nature and systems. 
My mother has always relied on others.  And others have relied on her.  For example, my mother knows everything about how city planning and zoning laws work in her community.  Her neighbors rely on that knowledge and to this day, some of the people who come to visit are coming for advice.
     The reason that individualism and capitalism want my mother to be seen as “losing her independence” is so that she can become a commodity—part of the “aging market.”  She can then be sold many things:  security systems, annuities, all kinds of living options for prices that can reach stratospheric levels, medicine, therapies, and more and more products designed for elderly people.  To be sure, many of these are helpful but even the helpful products (like a lightweight walker) is marketed to my mother as an individual so she can get places without asking for help.
      As I watch my mother age, I realize than an essential element of creating  a commons based society  has to be the willingness of each person to ask for what they need (or to meet needs without being asked.)   The act of asking is an expression of freedom and independence.  Our refusal to be turned into a commodity will be sorely tested in the next 20-30 years as Baby Boomers age.  We can use our aging process to really promote a commons based society—where everyone recognizes what they need and what they can offer: or as David Bollier puts it, “as communities with shared, long term, non market interests.”  Or we can become a commodity to be bought and sold in a very and profitable market. 
(This is an interesting article which touches on the latter:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fatty On the Commons

Note from Kim Klein: 
     This week I am very pleased to introduce a guest blogger, Amy Benson.  Amy is Project Coordinator at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and I got to know her because she was an early adapter of the idea of talking about the commons in the context of nonprofit work.  She is a friend and colleague and a very strong ally with my pet project, Nonprofits Talking Taxes.  Amy provided a lot of thought guidance for that project as well as an enormous amount of technical support.  Among other things, she asked me to consider the impact of a common nickname I was using for a proposed tax on soda.  The nickname was ‘the obesity tax.’   Thanks to her we stopped using it and came to see how this discussion belongs squarely in the commons.

Fatty On the Commons
Hi, my name is Amy, and I’m fat.  I’m also attractive, nice, and funny (and humble!), and if you were standing here with me right now, odds are, you would try to argue with my opening sentence.  People hear the word “fat” and all kinds of unflattering assumptions come to mind.  I suspect that’s why people argue with me when I try to state a very basic fact, saying “no, you’re not fat! Don’t say that about yourself!”  It’s absurd.  I’m 5’7” and I weigh about 275 lbs.  I’m fat.

If you’re uncomfortable saying or even hearing that word, then we have some talking to do.

I assume you're here "on the commons" because you're interested in co-creating a space that's welcoming to all people.  You wouldn't want the commons to be hostile or uncomfortable for fat people, right?  As a person who's navigated plenty of fat shame in my life, and as a person who's been Fat Activist for the last 15 years or so, I have some tips and ideas for our work together to make sure the commons is welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes.

1. Don't medicalize fat.  Words like "overweight" and "obese" assume fatness is a medical problem.  Do you assume fat people are unhealthy?  That is a very common myth!  Many many resources* exist to debunk that notion, so we’re not getting into it here (because the commons should actually be available to people regardless of how much wellness they’ve got, right?).  Your choice of words can be tricky, though, since a lot of fat people don’t embrace the word “fat”.  Other possibilities include thick, curvy, chubby, chunky, fluffy, voluptuous, big, BBW/BHM, or something else that doesn't imply there's such a thing as a "normal" weight.  In a fat positive perspective, the word “overweight” doesn’t make any more sense than “overheight” as a synonym for tall.  Weight diversity is a normal part of human diversity.

2. Challenge your assumptions about fat people.  Think of the stereotypes you hold about fat and fat people.  What if you had to say them out loud to a fat person you know?   Consider that you may be unconsciously communicating those biases to the people around you.  We can tell (sometimes) when you're silently judging us.  It's okay, don't get lost in a shame spiral.  We've all been affected by fat phobic messages.  Start noticing when you're making assumptions about fat bodies or using fat-negative language, and ask yourself to stop.
This can be extremely difficult when it comes to our own bodies, especially if you're fat.  Seek out fat community, fat-positive photography and fashion, fat-affirming books**.  Notice the diversity of bodies around you in the world!
*Note, as you take this journey, and start challenging stereotypes in your mind, it's normal to want to talk about your transformation.  Please do not tell a fat person about how you used to stereotype them or people who look like them!  Those gory details are hurtful.  If you must discuss, tell a thin person who understands the changes you’re trying to make but hasn’t been as impacted by weight oppression.

3. Use your positions of influence and power to hire fat people, promote fat people, introduce fat people to influential people in your field, invite fat people to serve on boards, use fat people in your advertising in respectful ways (no headless fatties! hyperlink:, go see fat dancers and actors and performers, elect fat people...and make sure you have chairs and bathrooms to accommodate us!

4 - Incorporate an intersectional approach in creating a space free from size hostility
Fat oppression affects people differently depending on race, class, age, gender, ability and disability.  As you reflect on your biases and notice the structural advantages and disadvantages in the world around you, notice how these factors interact.  Systems of oppression enforce the idea that one type of body is better than another one.  We must challenge and dismantle all these heirarchies if we ever hope to take advantage of the full brilliant potential of the commons.

There's a lot to be gained for people of all sizes by changing the way we think and feel about fat.  We could get better health care, if our medical professionals weren’t invested in blaming any and all problems on fat.  We could stop competing with each other in a beauty culture where there is just one (thin, white, young) beauty ideal, and start appreciating the diversity of human beauty that’s around us all the time.  We could start living our lives more fully!  I know far too many people who won’t take a vacation or a dance class or a date until they lose some weight.

When I picture the commons, fat people are there and we’re smiling.  We’re smiling because we know the commons is a safe place for fat people, and that no one will try to take away our humanity by reducing us to a stereotype.  What do you picture?

* Resources about health and weight:

**Some of my favorite fat-positive resources:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few"

Vaccination and the Common Good:  The Limits of Individual Rights

I start with two facts and a belief: 
1) I do not have children.
2) I have been vaccinated. 
 3)    The measles vaccine is safe and very effective.    
     The recent measles outbreak which started at Disneyland and is spreading daily to more and more states, brings back a disease declared almost eliminated in 2000 in the United States.  It is so rare that many health professionals don’t know how to recognize it.   
        Several Republican presidential candidates have jumped on this issue, pandering to their anti-government base, by saying this is an issue of individual and  parental rights. Chris Christie first said, “parents should have some measure of choice about vaccination” although later came out in favor of vaccination.  Rand Paul claims to know many normal children who “wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Is he referring to his Republican colleagues?  Seriously,  they want to let people make their own decisions about vaccination but not about abortion.  Sometimes I wonder if they even listen to themselves.       
       There was no vaccine for measles when I was a child.  Getting measles, mumps and chickenpox was part of childhood. It was better to get these diseases as kids and then be immune to them as adults.  Measles was particularly scary because it is so contagious and can be quite dangerous.  When I was nine, I wound up having measles and chickenpox at the same time.  I lay in my bed for many days, taking baths in oatmeal to soothe the itching from the chicken pox (I can still hear my mother say, “don’t scratch or you will be scarred for LIFE!”).  The doctor came to our house and made clucking noises.  There was nothing to do but live through it.   And I did!   The measles vaccine was introduced the following year, in 1963. 
       Wikipedia says,  “The benefit of measles vaccination in preventing illness, disability, and death has been well documented. The first 20 years of licensed measles vaccination in the U.S. prevented an estimated 52 million cases of the disease and 5,200 deaths. During 1999–2004, a strategy led by the World Health Organization and UNICEF led to improvements in measles vaccination coverage that averted an estimated 1.4 million measles deaths worldwide.”  
You get vaccinated for two reasons: 
1) to prevent getting the disease yourself;
2) to help prevent others from getting it, particularly those people who cannot be vaccinated.
     The first reason falls clearly into the camp of individual choice—I can get vaccinated or not, or I can make this decision on behalf of my children who cannot make it for themselves.  

        The second is about the common good.  If you have decided not to get vaccinated and you catch a disease that is preventable by a vaccine, you live with the decision you made. Your choice, and none of my business.  But the problem is that you put everyone around you who cannot get vaccinated (babies, people with suppressed immune systems, the elderly) at risk of catching the disease from you.   When the vast majority of people are vaccinated, it creates what is called a “community” or “herd” immunity.  According to Dr. Robert Siegal, a professor immunology at Stanford, herd immunity brought about by large scale vaccination contains the spread of an infectious pathogen to one or two people.  It is essentially a firewall.  When one person gets sick with measles, the virus bumps harmlessly off those who are vaccinated.   This is particularly important with infectious diseases that can be symptomless.  For example, most people infected with the polio virus have no signs of illness and are never aware that they have been infected. These symptomless people carry the virus in their intestines and can unknowingly spread the infection to thousands of others before the first case of polio paralysis emerges. This is why even one case of polio is considered an epidemic.(  Because of the Salk vaccine, we have not had a case of polio in the United States since 1979. ( 
     From a commons point of view, the limits of individual rights are very clear in the arena of public health.  A person acting alone cannot achieve hygiene and sanitation, clean air and surface water, uncontaminated food and drinking water, safe roads and products, and control of infectious disease.  And yet, everyone needs these.   Each of these collective goods, and many more, are achievable only by organized and sustained community activities. 
     Or, as Spock says in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one.”  

Friday, January 23, 2015

How Income Inequality Affects Fundraising

        Income inequality has been in the news quite a bit for the last several years, and during that time, it has only grown worse.  The United States has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal developed country in the world and our inequality even surpasses many less developed countries.  The situation is so bad that Janet Yellen, head of the Federal Reserve Bank, (not an institution known for its socialist tendencies), said in a major speech, “I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend (inequality) is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.” She noted that income and wealth disparity are near the highest levels in 100 years and probably much higher than for much of American history before then.  Sadly, she offered few solutions, but that she even spoke about it is striking.
To give you a sense of just what this means, look at these startling facts:
--From 2009, the beginning of the so-called recovery, until now, 95% of all the national income gains went to the top 1%  (from economist Emmanual Saez (reported in Poverty and Race, Vol 23, #2, April 2014):
--The bottom 80% of Americans have seen an income drop of about 30% since the 1970’s.  (
--Half of the US population lives in or near poverty.  (Wikipedia
And the facts go on and on.  Follow any of these links, and you will read even more depressing statistics.
       For people who work in nonprofits, income inequality has another consequence, which is that our donors are also increasingly unequal in their ability to give, regardless of their desire to help.
For organizations that rely on foundation grants, the news is mixed.  As long as the market holds, foundation funding will be available, although since foundation funding is only 15% of the total money given in the private sector, that is not enough to fund even a fraction of the number of organizations that will be applying. If the market corrects (a good thing and generally temporary) or if it crashes again (the market goes down and investors begin to flee, generally leading to a recession), foundation giving will once again go down. Because grantmaking is tied to market returns on endowment investments, foundation giving goes up when organizations need it least (when the economy is on an upswing) and down when they need it most (when the economy is doing poorly).
         However, for the thousands of nonprofits that rely, even in part, on a broad base of donors, income inequality is a big problem. Already many of my clients are reporting that while their donors are still giving, they are shaving down the size of their gifts. So $50 donors are giving $40, $35 are giving $25, and so on.  The bottom 90% will continue to give, and will give as generously as they always have, but their giving will reflect that they have less money than they used to.  John Havens, associate director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, notes, “the average household donation of the middle class and poor has declined from $1,156 in 2006 to $977 in 2012. These folks really have not recovered from the recession.”  Other studies show that the poor and middle class gave a bigger share of their income to charity in 2012 than in 2006, however, that does not show up as an increase because their income fell during that period. On the other hand, wealthy people decreased the share of their income that went to charity but their overall giving increased by $4.6 billion because their income surged so much.  (CSM  Weekly, ‘Giving Rates Reveal US Income Gap’ Nov 24, 2014, pg 34)
           Inequality affects younger donors even more.  An Urban Institute study from March 2013 reported that while the net worth of those people 47 and older is roughly double that of someone the same age 27 years earlier, today’s adults in the mid-30s or younger have accumulated no more wealth than their counterparts 27 years ago. Specifically, those ages 29 to 37 actually lost significant ground; they saw their average net worth drop 21% between 1983 and 2010. The study’s authors blame stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities and lost home values during the great Recession, which hit the younger generation the hardest.
        We also know that income inequality causes a psychological reaction in a donor’s willingness to give.  When people for whom $100 or $250 is a large gift are surrounded by stories of mega gifts ($1 million donations are now common), they begin to feel that their donations are not worth making, particularly when they have less money than they used to.  
       So given all this cheerful news, what should your organization do to address the effects of income inequality on fundraising?
1) Learn what fair and just tax policy would look like. We must reverse the redistribution of wealth that is placing the majority of wealth in the hands of the fewest people, and the only way to do that is through progressive tax policies.  Yet most of us don’t really have a lot of opinions about what and how much any person or corporation should pay in taxes.
2) Make sure you thank all your donors and that you truly value all gifts.  This requires focusing on donors and not just donations.  Tell stories of how smaller gifts have made a difference in your work, and how aggregating small donations leads to big change.   Consider not putting your biggest donor’s names in big print and your smaller donors in small print, but rather listing them all in alphabetical order.  (You will have far fewer anonymous donors if you do this.)
3) Focus a lot of attention on your monthly or recurring donors.  People who can’t afford $200 all at once often can afford $20/month.
4) Make sure that common ordinary people feel invited to donate to your organization.  If your newsletters and reports just focus on foundation funding or your corporate sponsors, ordinary people will not think, “I could be a donor.”
        Many social scientists and economists believe that income inequality is one of the most corrosive problems a society can face.  Nonprofits are already being called on to handle the poverty, health, education and environmental problems caused or exacerbated by the widening gap between rich and poor.  We must also show leadership in proposing lasting structural change that will close this gap.  For too long, fundraising programs have simply tried to adapt to whatever was going on in the economy, but now we have to lead the way out of this unequal society—engaging our organizations, our donors, and our sector to agitate and advocate  for real change.
(This blog post is similar to an article I just published in the Klein and Roth e-newsletter:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Being A Donor: Post Year End Reflection From a Fundraiser

  Welcome back to my blog
      I took a year off from writing for my blog.  My last post was Dec 13, 2013.
I am not sure why I stopped writing.  I have small “r” reasons, such as I had too much other work, my elderly mother needs more and more care, and I had other writing I wanted and needed to do.  I had intended to take a month off and it wound up being over a year.  I think the bigger reason became that I was out of the habit of writing, and with each passing week and month, getting back into the habit became more difficult.  
     A few people have let me know they miss my blog—bless your hearts!  I hope they are the verbal front of a larger group of silent people who wonder, “Whatever happened to Kim Klein’s blog?” but I am way of flattering myself.   I am returning to the blogosphere because I missed doing these blog posts.  I like taking the time to think about how I can live my life through a commons frame:  what does that mean on a daily basis, how does that inform the way I interpret the news, what habits should I cultivate and what abandon?  I hope people read my posts—if I didn’t want that, I would just write in my journal.  Writing knowing that others will be reading (even if a small number) makes me more disciplined and careful about how I say things.  How I say things is a habit I need to cultivate in every part of my life!  My blog is a gift to myself which I hope others may find useful or enjoyable or provocative. 

Jan 7, 2015:  On Being a Donor
We have just come through the “Season of Giving” which, if I look just at fundraising, would have to be renamed, “The Frenzied Season of Seeking Donations.”  I have never seen so many requests for money jammed into such a short space as I saw this past December.  Now that organizations are counting up how much they raised and deciding whether it was a “good year end” or not,  I think it is useful to go back to one of the greatest summaries of how to think about giving ever written.  It is Maimonides’ “Ladder of Tzedakah” which is a list of eight ways to make a donation in order of their usefulness to the giver.   
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was born in Spain and spent most of his adult life in Egypt as a court physician. (  “ Tzedakah”  is  a  Hebrew word usually translated as “charity.”  It carries the traditional notion of charity—helping people in need, but also the idea that when we help others, we do the work of God, and in so doing, we help ourselves.  Maimonides knew that giving can hurt or help the giver as much as the receiver and his essay deals mostly with the motives of the giver.  These  eight ways are traditionally presented from best to the worst, but I think they can be more instructive when done in the David Letterman style of worst to best.   
So with apologies to Maimonedes, here they are with a brief commentary from me:
#8:  Gives Unwillingly:  The donor is forced to give.  With 30% of the adult population not being givers at all, and with the top 1% of wealthy people giving both far less than they can afford and  less as a percent of income than the bottom 90%, this way of giving is one of the roles that taxes play:  insuring that everyone contributes to the common good whether they want to or not.    
#7:  The Giver and Receiver Are Unknown to Each Other: for Maimonides, this way of giving insures the receiver complete dignity and forces the giver to let go of control of where the gift goes.  Ideally, this would be the role of foundation giving.  Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Again, this is a role for taxes.    
#6:  Gives Only After Being Asked:  this person gives cheerfully, but does not think of giving unless a request has been made.  I don’t know why this one is so far down in Maimonides list because, as a fundraiser, #6 is our basic premise.  In study after study, when people are asked to consider why they made their last donation, 80% will say, “Someone asked me.”   People who give when they are asked are my kind of folks!
#5:  Gives Before Being Asked:  When you give someone money who hasn’t asked for it, your intention may be good, but the result can be to embarrass the receiver.  I see this one way more commonly with advice—“Have you tried?” “Have you thought of?”  “Maybe you should consider?” 
#4:  Giver Does Not Know Receiver, but the Receiver knows the Giver and #3:  Receiver does not know the Giver but the Giver knows the Receiver:  Smack in the middle of his list is a balancing act.  Suppose I know the identity of an anonymous donor, but that person does not know I know.  Do I tell her?  Do I tell others until almost everyone knows except the donor?  Do I keep the secret? Suppose I pay off a friend’s debt without him knowing?  What does that do to my friendship?  I am carrying a secret from my friend which concerns my friend.  I think Maimonides may have put these in the middle to show how we must be constantly examining our motives, both as givers and receivers, particularly since most people in real life are both. 
#2:  The Giver and Receiver are Unknown to Each Other:  I am glad this is #2, the “we try harder” of the ladder.  Certainly there are far worse descriptions of fair and just tax policy than this. 
#1:  Help a Person Help Him or Herself:  Prevent poverty by creating a society in which people don’t have to ask.  Maimonides left it there, but clearly a society without poverty frees up all voluntary giving for all kinds of other pursuits:  arts, culture, continuing education, expanded libraries and community centers, the list goes on.  More important is that people can ask for what they think will make their communities more livable and their lives more joyful.  Asking and giving will still be present, but more as a dialogue than a power struggle between the haves and the have nots.  So the highest form of giving is not as much about giving as about how a society is structured. 

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.