Latest From Nonprofit Quaterly

Pittsburgh Community Foundation Sets Precedent with Amicus Brief in Gerrymandering Case

January 15, 2018; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Today, in Pennsylvania, the State Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of the League of Women Voters v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “on whether Pennsylvania’s politicians have drawn legislative district maps so favorable to themselves that they violate the rights of voters,” reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

And among the briefs the state’s justices will have in front of them will be an amicus brief filed by the Pittsburgh Foundation. The foundation, which was established in 1945, notes on its website that, “The Pittsburgh Foundation is one of the nation’s oldest community foundations and is the 13th largest of more than 750 across the United States.”

According to the Post-Gazette, “The Foundation has never waded into a lawsuit this way before.” But foundation president and CEO Maxwell King, explains the foundation’s community-building mission compelled it to act. King elaborates, “It’s all part of our concern about the strength of the civic fabric. More and more voters feel as if they don’t matter, they don’t have a role. I can’t think of anything more threatening to the civic strength of the community than that.”

The foundation’s amicus brief labels the state’s current congressional district map a “draconian infringement of the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania citizens.” The brief adds that,

The Pittsburgh Foundation firmly believes that ensuring a fair, responsive, and representative electoral system is essential to success in fulfilling its mission to improve the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region by evaluating and addressing community issues and engaging in responsible philanthropy. A fair, responsive and representative electoral system fosters public confidence in Pennsylvania’s elected officials, increases civic engagement, and promotes the representative goals that form the bedrock of our democratic system of government.

The practice of gerrymandering can be traced back to Massachusetts Governor Edmund Gerry, who, as the Boston Globe noted last year, in 1812 “signed a now-infamous bill allowing his Democratic-Republican party to redraw state Senate districts to its advantage.” King, a former journalist, acknowledges that both parties employ the practice and says he recalls “when the Democrats were doing the gerrymandering.” But the foundation chose to act out of a sense that “gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is at a critical stage.”

Last month, Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson rejected the plaintiffs’ claims on grounds that there is no clear line where a map “crosses the line between permissible partisan considerations and unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.” But the case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court, where a majority of justices have been appointed by Democrats.

Public Interest Law Center Executive Director Jennifer Clarke, whose organization represents the plaintiffs, says that getting such a brief from a prominent foundation  “was unusual. I haven’t seen that before.” Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz adds, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Pittsburgh Foundation is respected” and suggests that its position “carries more weight because they don’t have self-interest here, and they don’t usually weigh in.”

According to Ledewitz, an amicus brief “probably doesn’t change a judge’s mind, but can have the effect of solidifying the views of a judge who is wavering.”

In this context, the message is, “We don’t usually do this, and you know that, and you judges know us as a group that has the community’s good at heart.”

King adds that he hopes the foundation’s action, in addition to influencing the justices, also serves to educate: “I hope this will [help] inform the public about how critical an issue this is.”—Steve Dubb

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$30M Donation: Too Good to Turn Down, or Too Risky to Accept?

Photo via HomesOfTheRich.net

January 16, 2018; Current (Carmel, IN)

The Great American Songbook Foundation is around 10 years old and has an annual budget of less than $1 million, so accepting the donation of the $30 million Asherwood Estate is…well, complicated.

The estate, donated by Bren Simon, widow of shopping mall magnate and Indiana Pacers co-owner Mel Simon, includes a couple of golf courses, a pool, a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, and a clubhouse—all set on 107 acres. There are no conditions on the contribution.

The upkeep alone could easily eat up the entire current budget of the organization, what with the nine staff required to maintain the property, and it should be pretty darn clear to any manager or board who have taken a trip or two around the block that such a gift could potentially ruin the organization. On the other hand, as Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard says, “It’s an opportunity to do something special with national significance.”

This isn’t the first time the Simons have tried to move the property, which has covenants that disallow certain kinds of development. In fact, the property has been on the market since 2014 at $25 million with no takers. Additionally, a previous attempt to contribute the property to the Indiana University Foundation in 2008 fell through.

For now, the board says it will take three years to explore every option, which might include a museum, the sale of part of the property, or some level of development allowable under its covenants. But when they accepted the donation, they also accepted the carrying costs, so every day of that three years will cost cash money.

Is this a gift horse or a Trojan Horse, as Clara Miller would urge us to ask? She writes, “Happy gifts are memorable, well-timed, and appropriate to the occasion; and they make everyone feel great. Unhappy gifts don’t work for familiar reasons: they don’t fit, or are ill-timed, age-inappropriate, too expensive to own.”

“Most organizations are not well-equipped to deal with asset donations like that,” said Bryan Orander, president of the Indianapolis-based Charitable Advisor, who was quoted in the Indianapolis Business Journal. “Their business is not events; it’s not managing real estate; it’s not really anything associated with this lavish property. It’s a potentially tough situation.”

Foundation CEO Jeff McDermott thinks the gift could jumpstart the Foundation, speculating aloud that charity events could be held on the golf course and that the size of the gift might spark other gifts. But we are reminded of Clara Miller’s caution that you have to be clear about the core of your purpose and essential business model and not just willy-nilly heap real estate on top of that.—Ruth McCambridge

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Nonprofit Museums Face a Core Quandary: At What Price Art?

January 10, 2018; Chicago Tribune

Last week, the Chicago Park District Board announced modest admission fee increases for two of eleven institutions on Park District property—the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago History Museum. The week before that, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it was making significant changes to its almost-50-year-old blanket “pay-what-you-wish” admission policy, limiting that option to New York residents and imposing a range of fixed fees for other visitors. As of January 1st, admission to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum increased by 25-40 percent. In each case, increasing operating costs were cited.

It’s a rough time to be in the business of running a nonprofit museum—on any scale, in any city. In some places, declining attendance and increasing expenses have forced the hands of administrators and boards and led to increased ticket prices, at least for some visitors. At the same time, visitors increasingly have higher expectations in terms of blockbuster shows, interactive experiences, and museum amenities—all of which cost real money.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun notes that in Baltimore and elsewhere, declining museum attendance is also part of the problem, citing National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reports that indicate attendance at US art museums has decreased by 16.8 percent in the last 15 years, even as the population has grown by 33 million people. Museums experiment with free admission on certain days or at certain times, or for specific groups of visitors. As noted in the Sun article:

Foot traffic at art museums climbed steadily throughout the 20th century. Now, for the first time in modern history, it’s falling. And the decline is expected to accelerate, a prospect that alarms museum officials.

The Sun article takes a deep dive into the history of American museums: how they originated, how they have evolved, and how critical it is for the country’s 35,000 art, science, and history museums—most of which were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—to develop effective strategies to attract new (and repeat) visitors and to make everyone feel welcome.

Creative pricing strategies may be part of the solution. For example, while some admission fees are going up in the Chicago museums mentioned earlier, Illinois teens may now visit the Chicago History Museum for free; previously, teens paid $12 to $14. Two of the Chicago Park District Museums remain free, four more raised their fees in recent years, and three others have had no fee increases in the last four years. And while out-of-state visitors to the Met in New York must now pay fixed fees—$25 general admission, $17 for seniors, $12 for students—their tickets are good for three consecutive days and also include admission to the Met Breuer and the Cloisters.

Across the museum landscape, seniors, students, and young children often benefit from free or deeply discounted admission fees. Many museums continue to offer free admissions to all at certain times, to ensure those who cannot afford to pay still have access. And NPQ has previously reported on programs that encourage low-income families to visit museums at very modest rates. Fees are often waived for school groups or deeply subsidized by grants. In the end, virtually every museum visit is, in fact, a subsidized visit; the cost of keeping the lights on and the doors open is far higher than what most visitors pay at the door. Grants (from foundations and various government entities), private donations, and even memberships help to offset admission costs for everyone.

Still, news of increasing admission fees—and in particular, the new fixed fees at the Met—have some critics questioning the fairness of ticket prices, challenging museum leaders to explore other options before raising their prices, and even suggesting that all museum admissions should be free. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael O’Hare argues that museums should sell off some small fraction of their treasures—particularly those hidden away in storage that the public never sees—to endow free admissions in perpetuity. While deaccessioning pieces of collections is harshly sanctioned in museum circles, except to further build a collection, O’Hare makes a good argument for revisiting the rules and getting some buried treasures into other public or private collections.

But should all museum admissions be free? Probably not. In 2015, an NPQ newswire raised interesting points about the perceived benefits of free museum admissions in the UK versus paid admissions in the US.

A commentary by Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker bears the somewhat over-the-top headline, “The Metropolitan’s New Pay Policy Diminishes New York City.” Schwartz makes the case for swaying big donors to subsidize admission fees rather than putting their names on new buildings or public spaces, although she acknowledges, “It’s presumably easier to raise funds for a specific, tangible project, one that will allow the donor’s name to be inscribed on walls and fountains.”

Part of the problem with the Met’s (and, perhaps, any other museum’s) “pay-what-you-wish” policy is that visitors (including Schwartz) have increasingly been decreasing what they wish to pay:

The Met says that the change is an economic necessity. According to the Times, attendance over the past decade has gone way up, from 4.7 million visitors a year to seven million, but the proportion of visitors who pay the full suggested price has fallen from sixty-three per cent to seventeen. Admission fees provide forty-three million dollars a year, which amounts to 14 percent of the museum’s annual operating budget; the Met anticipates that that amount will now increase to forty-nine million dollars.

That additional $6 million may seem like a drop in the bucket for a cultural institution on the scale of the Met. And, philosophically speaking, Schwartz is probably correct when she says,

The people affected by the change will be families visiting our ruthlessly expensive city from out of state or from another country; students who have taken the bus or train to fill their heads with arts; immigrants without the right papers.

But as Schwartz concludes, relative to her own visits to the Met:

There’s another lesson in all this. More of us should pay our fair share. Ten years ago, more than half of visitors were paying the full price, and now it’s less than a quarter. Why have so many of us decided to be less generous? It can’t just be the clearer signage. I think it has to do with a sense that the Met is a monolith run on donor money that our admissions dollars sink without consequence, like so many pennies in one of David Koch’s fountains. Certainly, after all the news last year about the Met’s egregious mismanagement of funds, I felt no desire to give more. But habit is also to blame. It’s become second nature to me to pay five dollars and go in, without stopping to reconsider.

Perhaps for all visits to cultural institutions by those of us who want to see those institutions thrive and carry on into the future, it’s time to reconsider—not just the math, but the underlying reasons why we believe museums matter, for all of us, regardless of our ability to pay for admission.—Eileen Cunniffe

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BlackRock CEO Urges Private Industry to Consider its Overall Impact

Americasroof at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 16, 2018; New York Times

Laurence Fink, the CEO of BlackRock and “one of the most influential investors in the world,” has made headlines this week for his annual letter to his shareholders, which encouraged companies to show how they were “making a positive contribution to society.” While it’s good to see people with huge amounts of capital and influence acknowledging the importance of social responsibility, and Fink’s models for good reflect some practices of the nonprofit sector, the degree to which he will be willing or able to enforce his edict is up for debate.

Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times claimed that Fink’s letter differed from other highly publicized but largely ineffectual lip service to public responsibility “because his constituency in this case is the business community itself. [The declaration] pits him, to some degree, against many of the companies that he’s invested in.”

Readers may remember Buzz Schmidt wrote about the need for this kind of moral accountability and leadership among businesses in his 2011 NPQ article, “The Wherewithal of Society: an Accountability Challenge to Private Enterprise.”

In the final analysis, how an enterprise operates is fully as important for our productive future as what it produces or what it earns. For society’s purposes, the so-called externalities that result largely from the “hows” of enterprises doing business are intrinsic, inseverable components of their core activity. Before we spend any more time building new corporate forms and collaborative constructions, we must recognize the vast differences in the net contributions these enterprises make to society’s wherewithal and put our money where our values are. This recognition is especially critical in an era in which everyone understands the limitations of government. We can no longer cavalierly ignore the net positive or negative contributions that our enterprises make to society’s wherewithal and effectively abdicate our voting rights in this resource allocation process to financial intermediaries, the interests of whom, it would seem, diverge significantly from our own.

But Fink’s letter does not argue for corporate restructuring, a look at problematic corporate practice, or even metrics of public good by which companies’ efforts could be measured. In fact, in some sense, his recommendations follow a pattern from a letter he sent in 2014, urging fellow CEOs to invest in growth instead of share buybacks and “engage in issues of corporate governance.” The growth investments he recommended then included innovation and employee development, two areas of public impact that made their way into his 2018 letter.

Fink warns that companies who do not pay attention to the public good “will ultimately lose the license to operate from their key stakeholders” and “will remain exposed to activist campaigns that articulate a clearer goal.” The argument is not public impact for its own sake or even a publicity stunt for a populace still very suspicious of large banking and investment firms; his audience is the business community, and his message is about its continued ability to thrive. Still, that doesn’t make the letter toothless or devoid of potential for good.

One of Fink’s stated enforcement mechanisms rings a bit hollow: He reminds readers that “BlackRock can choose to sell the securities of a company if we are doubtful about its strategic direction or long-term growth,” but Bloomberg’s Stephen Gandel pointed out in the Washington Post that “BlackRock does nearly all of its stock market investing through index funds. So, no matter how much it disapproves of a company’s stance on the environment or whatever, it can’t actually sell.” Fink is more on target when he says, “our responsibility to engage and vote is more important than ever.” The Wall Street Journal advised that recent trends have “given large index-fund managers like BlackRock increasing clout on important corporate decisions such as takeovers and the fates of chief executives.”

Fink is correct: our responsibility to engage and vote, no matter where we are or for whom we work, is important. So is another recommendation, to “publicly articulate your company’s strategic framework for long-term value creation and explicitly affirm that it has been reviewed by your board of directors.” Whether the value is money in an index fund or food on pantry shelves, these frameworks and a more active stakeholder engagement are good practice for creating it. If companies follow the instruction to “emphasize the importance of a diverse board,” new and newly empowered stakeholders could lead to change that is genuinely beneficial for the public.

Fink’s gesture is not without its skeptics. Gandel notes,

Last year, BlackRock and other large investors got index providers like Standard & Poor’s to bar companies with dual-share classes. If Fink is serious about social responsibility, why not at the very least push S&P to require companies, like Exxon, to disclose their social impact?

By far, Fink and BlackRock’s largest stick has to do with CEO pay. Yet, according to the last report…it rarely whacks companies and executives with it. BlackRock has voted its shares 99 percent in support of CEO pay packages of the companies in the S&P 500.

Fink and BlackRock have already pushed Exxon to disclose an environmental impact report and to allow meetings between shareholders and independent directors, in line with the more active governance role the firm expects to play.

So, do nonprofits have a large new ally in the fight for social good? Probably not; Fink seems to maintain some loyalty to Milton Friedman, tempered by a long-term understanding that everybody suffers eventually when gross social ills are allowed to fester. More likely, what BlackRock has provided is a tool for accountability and an acknowledgement that responsibility to stakeholders encompasses all the people in a community, not just the ones who give you money. But if the for-profit world is borrowing and voicing ideas about governance from the nonprofit sector, perhaps that’s an indicator of the public’s interest in real accountability among our financial institutions.—Erin Rubin

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Wild Horses Couldn’t Keep a Nonprofit Away

By Bureau of Land Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 7, 2018; San Antonio Express-News

When it comes to management of wild horses, Tami Fawcett has a few ideas on what we can do to be both proactive and compassionate to the plight of these gentle giants in 2018.

Fawcett is the founder of the nonprofit Mustangs MEND—Mindfulness, Empathy, Nurturing, Dignity, which came into existence in the summer of 2017 from her Oregon home. Her latest charges are seven mustang colts rescued from a Nevada kill pen. These three- to eight-month-old “kids,” as she calls them, came from tribal lands in Nevada, where their fate was dim. They were headed straight for slaughter until she intervened. (Fawcett says that thousands of mustangs are sold each year and transported into Mexico or Canada to be processed for both human consumption and dog food.)

The plight of the rescued colts is far from unusual; in fact, it will play out thousands of times this year, as communities and tribal entities struggle with the resources and costs associated with herd management. The Democrat-Herald reports there are thousands of mustangs on Native American tribal lands spread across the United States. The tribes do not have funds to manage the horses, and in turn, the horses suffer from lack of food and the tribal lands suffer from overgrazing.

Nor is it just tribes that struggle with this issue. Elsewhere in Nevada, there is still no update available on the fate of “Annie’s Herd.” NPQ brought readers the story last year of the questions that hang over the fate of the herd after a December vote by the Nevada Board of Agriculture. The group voted 8–1 to hand over control of as many as 3,000 wild horses in the Virginia Range to a yet-to-be-determined nonprofit group in a year-end move that angered wild horse enthusiasts, who say it puts the horses at risk of slaughter and at the mercy of business interests. NPQ questioned the pattern of the government sector handing over a problem to the nonprofit sector that they can’t or won’t get their arms around themselves.

As for the colts currently in her care, Fawcett’s new year’s wish is to get all of them into good, vetted homes. Mustangs, she told news outlets, can be gentled into fine riding horses and maybe even more. One of her rescued horses was named the In-Hand Reserve Champion at the 2017 Oregon State Fair. Fawcett hopes we can come together, get beyond politics, and think about managing the wild mustang population long-term.—Carrie Collins-Fadell

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Arson Nonprofit Closed in Michigan after Sole Funder Pulls Out

Photo from Patch.com

January 4, 2018, Bridge

The Michigan Arson Prevention Committee closed its doors on January 1st. The nonprofit, a 501c4 civic league and social welfare organization founded in 1973 with an IRS designation in 1987, had a single source of funding, the Michigan Basic Property Insurance Association. The group has disbursed more than $1 million in individual $5,000 rewards in exchange for information that has led to the arrest of over 1,200 arsonists. An effort to find a replacement funder over the summer to pay for the rewards and overhead, such as marketing and prosecution, failed.

Patrick Riney, the Committee’s executive director, said, “This isn’t just going to affect cities where arson is a big issue, like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, or Flint. Every city at one time or another has used this program. It’s really unfortunate, but we’re out of business.”

The FBI reports that in 2015, only 20 percent of arson cases were solved. The chief of the Detroit Fire Department Arson Squad, Capt. Patrick McNulty, confirmed that arson is a difficult crime to solve, as the evidence usually goes up in smoke. “People sometimes need a motivation to talk and come forward, so the rewards help,” said McNulty. “Getting rid of them is taking a tool out of our toolbox that was really successful.” Detroit has led the nation in per-capita arsons for years. Numbers were still being tallied this week, but McNulty said suspicious fires declined by 20 percent in Detroit to about 3,200 in 2017.

FBI records estimate Michigan had 1,999 arsons in 2015, with another 6,000 suspicious ones that caused nearly $200 million in damages. Those numbers include Detroit, but only fires that are investigated and proven intentional are counted as arson in the numbers. Due to limited resources and the volume of fires, Detroit is only able to investigate a fraction of all suspicious fires.

According to D. Jane Howard-Carlson, general manager of Michigan Basic Property Insurance Association, there is about $37,000 left for rewards; another group could still take it over. Bridge reports that “her group stopped funding the committee because it is losing customers. Michigan Basic was established by the legislature after the 1967 civil unrest in Detroit and was subsidized by other insurers when it lost money.” The subsidies ended in 2012, however, after state lawmakers required Michigan Basic to charge market rate for its policies.

Although it’s not easy to measure success with reward programs, fire officials tend to support them. The US Fire Administration currently lists five states with rewards for information that leads to catching arsonists: California, Florida, Maine, Missouri, and Texas. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have the Arson Watch Reward Program, sponsored by Property and Casualty Insurance Company. Since Michigan still has Crime Stoppers, a 501c3 that offers rewards for crime tips, it remains to be seen to what degree the absence of Michigan Basic rewards will affect the crime of arson in Michigan.—Marian Conway

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Hunger Persists in the Shadow of Abundance

January 15, 2017; Associated Press

As the face of hunger has changed since the Great Depression, so has its address. Hunger Free America produced a national report in November 2017, declaring “approximately 15 million American adults lived in food insecure households with at least one person employed in the years 2014 to 2016.” States with higher minimum wages had lower levels of food insecurity among working people. The states with the highest rates of food insecurity among working adults were New Mexico (15.3 percent), Mississippi (14.0 percent), Louisiana (14.0 percent), Arkansas (13.5 percent), and Maine (12.9 percent).

The Associated Press review of the report focused on Arkansas.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock senior research economist Gregory Hamilton says Arkansas’s large rural population may explain the state’s food-insecurity performance. Hamilton says agriculture doesn’t offer wages as high as those for specialized industry jobs or manufacturing, which have decreased in Arkansas.

Founded in 1983 under the moniker of the New York City Coalition against Hunger, Hunger Free America is a nonpartisan membership movement in 50 states whose mission is to enact policies and programs necessary to end domestic hunger. In addition to their extensive New York City-based programs, Hunger Free America runs HungerVolunteer to help facilitate volunteerism on anti-hunger projects and manages the National Hunger Clearinghouse and National Hunger Hotline on behalf of USDA, helping families to source food, among other national initiatives such as research.

The nonprofit sector puts a human face on these and other statistics every day through on-the-ground work and vivid reporting to their own constituencies about this pervasive and completely avoidable affliction. This harrowing compendium of human stories tumble into one urgent message: Rampant hunger is impossible to reconcile with our national image of plenty.

Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, offered his stark assessment of hunger and other manifestations of poverty in America last December. Alston asserts that America essentially stands alone among its peer states in the West in its levels of inequity. Not only is America’s infant mortality the highest in the developed world, neglected diseases are making a comeback. Here are other findings that will not shock most NPQ readers:

  • In terms of access to water and sanitation, the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand, and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly five times the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty, compared to less than 14 percent across the OECD.
  • The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
  • In the OECD, the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
  • According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.”

These and many other reports are meant to inform and to hopefully stir outrage. The facts are so disturbing that they should speak for themselves. The suffering is immense, like the nation’s wealth, and the wealthy are in fact taking notice. Last September, leading billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio warned, “I think the greatest issue of our time is the disparity of wealth and the problems that exist for the lower 40 percent of the population.” Yesterday, Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment firms, dispatched this letter to the chief executives of the world’s largest public companies saying that they need to “contribute to society” to receive his firm’s support.

What will counter America’s economic inequities, hypocrisies, and the unending and gloomy tabulation of statistics? What must be done to help people doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles? Will a government hardly by the people counter the American plutocracy? Can wealth managers genuinely grow a conscience, even if they feel threatened by the growing malignancy of poverty? The preponderance of power may be with the wealthy, but poverty is spoiling their view.—Jim Schaffer

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The Leadership Ethos: How What We Believe Can Inform Our Leadership Practices

“CORNUCOPIA” BY PACO VILA-GUILLEN / WWW.PACOVILAGUILLEN.COM

This article is from NPQ’s winter 2017 edition, “Advancing Critical Conversations: How to Get There from Here.”

These days, each morning’s news offers us yet another abhorrent reminder that the practice of leadership is anything but neutral. Although often portrayed as such in management literature and popular culture, leadership is not a generic set of behaviors that can be codified and transferred across generations, industries, values sets, or presidents. Instead, leadership is an expression of a group’s particular ethos, where ethos is defined as “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.”1 Clearly, we have a multitude of leadership ethoses coexisting across political parties, industries, and communities in the United States. This is true in the nonprofit sector alone, which at over a million organizations is not of one mind but of many.

When we acknowledge that the practice of leadership is not neutral—that it is not apolitical—we necessarily embrace that nonprofits (that is, the people who work and govern in them) are going to make different leadership choices depending on their values and their politics, whether consciously or not. Moreover, we acknowledge that different leadership practices will create different results (or impacts) at the levels of the individual leader, teams of staff and board, organization, and field or sector, and in communities at large. The opportunity then—some might say the mandate—is twofold: as organizational and movement leaders, we must become conscious of how the practices of leadership we are employing and cultivating in others reflect (or not) the broader ethos of our work; and we must have our ears continuously attuned to how shifts in that broader ethos need to show up in our leadership practices, so that how we do our work keeps in step with what we want to see change in our organizations and in the world.

As someone with the privilege of engaging in day-to-day leadership practice as an executive director at CompassPoint—and who participates in the leadership discourse at the same time (given CompassPoint’s work)—I want to lift up some of the permanent shifts in the leadership ethos among progressive organizations that have become (and will continue to be) inspiration for new leadership practices. I am speaking explicitly to progressive organizational contexts, because I am not served—and nor are you, as reader—by rendering opaque the progressive values and politics I bring to this conversation. When we do that (whether as leaders or as leadership commentators), we perpetuate the illusion that we can all be trained to lead “the right way”—to believe that a generic “good leadership” will resonate with everyone.

The Four Leadership Domains

Given that the impacts of leadership practices manifest at multiple levels of engagement, I will locate practices and their impacts in the four leadership domains identified in the graphic to the right.2

In the domain of leading yourself, perhaps the most significant shift in the leadership ethos is the mandate to examine one’s own identity and bring a consciousness of it into all leadership domains and contexts. Aspects of identity here include race, class, gender, tenure, and access to power both internal and external to the organization. Many of us have been acculturated to believe that we can lead and manage across race, power, and privilege without acknowledging the entitlement explicitly. For those of us who are white, middle or upper class, and/or educated within the established system, this has often meant an obliviousness to the effects of our privilege on our own analysis of situations, on our decision making, and on the quality of the relationships we can forge with diverse staff, boards, and constituents. At times, for marginalized groups, this pressure to not discuss identity in an organizational context fuels an internalized oppression that thwarts contributions to organizational impact and change. The belief now is that self-awareness and emotional intelligence—which are terms that have often been used in color- and class-blind ways—are dependent on our capacity to understand how identity influences our leadership.

So how can we support the open and ongoing reflection by all staff on the connections between their identities and their leadership practices? Leadership coaching can be extremely effective in this regard, although hiring coaches who bring identity consciousness to their work is obviously essential. If leadership is a practice, not a position, all staff should have access to coaching if at all possible. Peer coaching is an alternative if professional coaching is not financially feasible, or an excellent complement if it is. (And if you are providing professional coaching to senior staff and not others, consider the message that sends with respect to the leadership ethos.) Coaching methodologies are well suited to individuals’ exploration of why they are making certain leadership choices and to resetting intentions to achieve different results where desired. Another powerful practice is to staff affinity groups by identity—for example, race or gender. In my personal experience at CompassPoint, for instance, being part of a white staff affinity group has given me an unprecedented and invaluable space to explore how whiteness informs my leadership and to identify and work to rectify the results of my unexamined whiteness that have manifested destructively in our organization.

The concept of shared leadership, which has numerous potential structural and practical expressions, anchors the progressive leadership ethos in the next domain: leading (with) others. For decades, we have discussed the executive director job as not doable, as inevitably leading to burnout, as reinforcing a “martyr syndrome,” and so forth. But those assumptions still focus on the individual leader and what he or she needs. Today, when we think of leadership practice politically, shared leadership becomes about more than just sharing the work: it becomes about sharing the power. As leaders with positional power especially, how do we build the power of others through our approach to leadership? Sharing power may indeed make the job more doable, but that is not the only reason to share power. We are also trying to explore new, more equitable and constructive ways of holding power that will ripple out into all of the work we do.

The shift in practice here is a focus on building deep, transformative relationships across traditional lines of power. Sharing power is far more complex than “delegating” or “managing up,” so it requires an investment in relationship that is atypical, in my experience, in mainstream organizations. If I am going to share power with you—that is, take a risk with you—I have to know you and trust you. There are no shortcuts to knowing and trusting—no efficiencies, at least in the near term. A practice introduced at CompassPoint by my colleague Asha Mehta to support this kind of relationship building is called designing the alliance.3 This is a practice that can be used in relationships in all power directions, including between staff and board, and on teams. At its essence, the practice is about prioritizing the relationship by setting up understandings about what’s important to each person, how people react when they are upset, what they will do to reset when their relationship is inevitably challenged, and so forth. I have seen firsthand at CompassPoint how this practice has supported the development of powerful team relationships that have yielded dramatically stronger programmatic results. Prioritizing relationship building can change how you approach all kinds of staff and board interactions: meeting agendas that focus on storytelling rather than report outs; increased frequency of social gatherings; even reimagined work spaces, so that people connect with one another often over the course of the day. In short, it is relational organizations, not transactional ones, that will advance the practice of sharing power elegantly.

In the leading the organization domain, the opportunity is for progressive nonprofit organizations to view themselves as laboratories for new, more equitable and effective management structures, policies, and practices. For so long, we have tended to replicate the structures, policies, and practices of the for-profit sector, on the premise that they were “best practice,” more efficient, more protective of organizations from risk, and so on. It is noteworthy that we have done this even as we have seen (and even protested in our outward-facing work) the results of many of these practices in the for-profit sector for low-wage workers, people of color, women, and the environment. As we align our organizational leadership ethos with our broader ethos for social change, we can reimagine any number of traditional organizational practices, including how and who we hire, how we develop people, how we compensate people, how we engage with our constituents, how we communicate our impact, and so forth.

Human resources, for instance, is an organizational leadership arena ripe for new practices that align with a progressive ethos. One of the typically unchallenged assumptions of traditional human resources is confidentiality: confidential salaries, confidential performance reviews, confidential management-team decisions about whom to promote and whom to terminate. As my CompassPoint colleague Spring Opara said recently at an all-staff meeting, “Confidentiality is the enemy of equity.” She said this as we were discussing the work of a new organizational structure we had instituted: an equity panel of nonexecutive staff who now review all salary decisions for equity across race, gender, tenure, et cetera. The experience of moving to this transparent, nonconfidential salary approach has profoundly transformed my own view of management and deepened trust across CompassPoint with respect to the historically mistrust-inducing practice of setting staff compensation. The results of our reimagining of compensation through the lens of a progressive leadership ethos include: raising our compensation floor so that everyone makes a true living wage for the Bay Area; people of color who are emerging as important organizational leaders getting substantial raises and being better recognized for the contributions they are already making; eliminating the persistent discrepancies between administrative staff’s pay and program staff’s pay; and a collective belief that we can create our own structures and systems to reflect our own assumptions—not those of the dominant culture—about what work to value.

At the levels of our particular fields and the nonprofit sector overall—reflected in the leading within the field, sector, and/or movement domain—aligning our leadership ethos to our broader vision for change means confronting the nonprofit-industrial complex in our everyday decision making, just as we demand that other sectors and industries challenge their own self-preservationist habits and tactics. I believe that we have passed the moment when progressive leaders—both of nonprofits and philanthropies—can credibly ignore the nonprofit-industrial complex or pretend that their organizations are exempt from some degree of collusion with it. It is not a question of whether we each collude, but to what extent—and how much effort we should put toward using whatever influence we may have to highlight the consequences of that collusion and promote alternative approaches. This is important, because our legitimacy as agents of change is inevitably undermined when we don’t openly acknowledge the incentives that drive our choices.

In practical terms, this means leaders being willing to risk capital—financial, social, and political—in requesting and/or modeling changes to how our sector operates, so that it responds better to those for whom we exist. It means more powerful organizations being ever conscious of what resources they are garnering, what communities they are entering (and with whose permission), and how they are or are not partnering with other organizations. It means the leadership of our infrastructure organizations—nonprofit associations and networks of all kinds—using their collective power and platforms to challenge rather than uphold the status quo, even when some nonprofits may stand to lose something. And it certainly means leaders in philanthropy—with their disproportionate financial capital and influence—taking the necessary risks to finance and promote the work that is most needed to accelerate social change.

The first step is a series of conversations among your staff and board about how your current leadership practices reflect your shared beliefs and assumptions about where the world is going or needs to go. If you believe that racial justice is core to the change that needs to happen in the world, for instance, how can you better reflect that in your leadership structures, policies, and practices? If you believe that creativity and artistic expression are essential to that change, how can you better reflect that in your leadership structures, policies, and practices? If you believe that a deep ecology and respect for the Earth are core to that change, how can you better reflect that in your leadership structures, policies, and practices? Leadership and management are not generic methods but rather powerful potential means for experimenting toward a desired future.

Notes

  1. Dictionary.com, s.v. “ethos,” accessed November 29, 2017.
  2. Adapted by CompassPoint from the work of the Center for Creative Leadership, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Daniel Goleman, David Day, V. Jean Ramsey, and Jean Kantanbu Latting, and the Building Movement Project.
  3. Academy of Leadership Coaching & NLP; “Designing the Alliance: How to create healthier personal and professional relationships,” blog, accessed December 4, 2017.

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Examples of Digital Campaigns that Inspire Positive Change

January 15, 2018; Charity Digital News

Rob Edwards of UK-based FARM Digital shares his top five picks for the best 2017 digital nonprofit campaigns. They are Be the Match’s Be the Guy campaign, the Brain Tumour Charity’s HeadSmart campaign (voted the UK’s favorite National Lottery funded health project), the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) virtual reality Christmas film for corporate partners that explores life on the ward for patients at GOSH who are receiving dialysis as part of their treatment, Breast Cancer Now’s #wearitpink day campaign, and Movember Foundation’s Unmute – Ask Him campaign linked to World Suicide Prevention Day.

Edwards notes the differentiating attributes and significant outcomes of each campaign. Knowing your audience and being clear about objectives are uniform priorities. Selecting the right digital platforms (e.g., Reddit and Twitch for Be the Guy) made all the difference for this campaign that “flipped the script” by focusing on what the opportunity to save someone’s life means for bone marrow donors. HeadSmart used digital and print tools to deploy their educational initiative. Great Ormond Street Hospital’s VR Christmas included VR headsets, e-cards, PR, and social media support. The Wear It Pink Day campaign amazingly thanked each of the 267 advocates who tweeted #wearitpink with a personalized video, including the person’s name, profile picture, and the image the person used in her or his tweet. Video also played a primary role in the Unmute – Ask Him campaign: “Tapping into the typical online behavior of watching videos with the sound off, it included captions that appear to relate to the content, however, when asked to unmute, the actor tells another story.”

As thrilled as we are for their individual successes, the good work of these nonprofits also inspires us to be creative for and to recommit to our own causes. Inspiration does not always require the most sophisticated teams working rolling out a campaign. Sometimes, a charity can inspire the world and us nonprofit practitioners with a humble flash mob music video that gathers more than 10 million views. Using visual and other forms of digital storytelling to communicate a nonprofit organizations’ purpose increases audience engagement and inspires change.

For insight or simply to be energized, you can see many more examples of smart and compelling nonprofit digital campaigns by perusing the Shorty Awards winners and nominees. And sometimes for-profits create wonderful digital content that speaks directly to our missions. Consider the New York Times’ response to the fake news phenomenon with its “Truth is Hard”; Heineken’s real-life social experiment, “Worlds Apart”; and Airbnb’s Super Bowl ad “We Accept,” which aired just days after President Trump’s travel ban, followed by the #weaccept campaign.

We all need to take a romp through these campaigns to consider why and how they work to affect the public’s understanding of the issue at hand. It is, after all, part and parcel of our work to inform and inspire hearts and minds.—Jim Schaffer

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CMS Opens Door to State Medicaid Work Requirements

January 11, 2018; Washington Post

In a radical departure from previous administrations, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued new guidance for state Medicaid programs, allowing states to implement mandatory work requirements for “able-bodied adults” eligible for Medicaid. To date, 10 states have requested that the feds grant permission for them to enact these requirements, and three more are considering doing so. According to the Washington Post, Kentucky’s application is first in line and could be approved as soon as this Friday.

This federal action is the latest in a series of Republican attacks on the program, from trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act to failing to failing to fund the Children’s Health Program to the refusal of many Republican governors to expand Medicaid.

Though CMS attempts to clear the way for mandatory work requirements by claiming that “working promotes good health,” the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that work requirements that force people off of public benefits “are more likely to harm their health and well-being” than to positively contribute to their climbing out of poverty. In fact, data from Michigan and Ohio indicate that the expansion of Medicaid helped residents improve their health so they could look for work or remain employed.

So why implement policies for which the evidence is not just thin but counter-indicative? It appears that there are two goals: to further humiliate and punish America’s “undeserving” poor and to cripple the Medicaid program in whatever way possible. Since Congressional Republicans have been unable to transform the program into block grants as they hoped to do with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, they have sought other policy hooks to begin to dismantle the nation’s largest safety net program, which provides health coverage to one in five Americans.

To understand the policy goals here, it is important to look at who is covered by Medicaid. Of recipients, 60 percent are already working. They have Medicaid coverage because they earn poverty wages and don’t have access to employer-sponsored benefits. Of those who are not working:

  • 36 percent are ill or disabled;
  • 30 percent are taking care of homes and families (something it should be pointed out that is lauded on the Right for middle class women who sacrifice careers for family); and
  • 15 percent are in school already.

In other words, the new rules are not likely to drive more people to work (since those who can work already do so), but they are likely to force people off of Medicaid. Why is that?

As with work requirements imposed on welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (food stamps) beneficiaries, failure to complete onerous paperwork will disqualify recipients. Kentucky, for example, expects to see its Medicaid population decrease by nearly 100,000 people within five years, according to the state’s waiver application. People will be removed from Medicaid, for example, if they don’t report a change in income status or fail to report they are meeting the program’s requirements. (The Post reports that Kentucky’s application says that state plans to give people only 10 days to report any change in income they may experience). For people who may struggle with homelessness, drug addiction, mental health issues, poor English skills and the many other barriers to stability that come with being poor in America, such paperwork can be a bridge too far.

“Work requirements are completely counterproductive—they block access to health services that individuals need to get and keep a job,” states attorney Catherine McKee of the National Health Law Program (NHeLP) in a press release. “Repeated research shows that the vast majority of Medicaid enrollees work or can’t work for an understandable reason, such as a disabling condition.”

NHelp and other advocates suggest that the Trump administration is on shaky legal ground. Explaining, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the goal of the Medicaid program is “to provide comprehensive health coverage to low-income people so they can get needed health services.” Waivers, such as the one issued for Kentucky’s program, must “promote Medicaid’s objectives.” Mandatory work requirements are intended to reduce access to coverage, and therefore, the Trump administration is likely to be defending this policy in court sometime soon.—Karen Kahn

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Communities of Color Develop Resident-Owned Groceries in Food Deserts

By Infrogmation of New Orleans (Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans) [GFDL, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.5 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 8, 2018; Civil Eats

Circle Food market owner Dwayne Boudreaux offers a grocery that’s “clean and stocked with locally sourced produce that arrives with days to spare” in the seventh ward of New Orleans, reports Tom Perkins for Civil Eats. This fact may seem unremarkable until one realizes, as Perkins relates, that “fewer than 10 Black-owned supermarkets remain across the entire country.”

The tale behind Circle Food Store reveals some of the challenges that keep the number of Black-owned grocery stores so low. A Tulane University study notes that Circle Food, which opened in 1938, was “the first [Black] owned and operated grocery store in New Orleans. Circle Food Store is named after the traffic circle that used to exist at the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and St. Bernard Avenue.” Boudreaux took over the store in 1991 and operated it until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the business. Even though Boudreaux had a track record of running a grocery store for 14 years, it still took eight long years for the store to reopen.

Getting the store open required raising $8 million, according to Katherine Sayre of the Times Picayune. Overall financing included a “$1 million loan…from the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, […] a $1.7 million loan from First NBC Bank, $1 million through the Louisiana Office of Community Development, $2.2 million in new market tax credit equity, $2.2 million in historic tax credit equity and $100,000 from the city through an economic development grant.” Hope Enterprise, a regional nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI), put together the financing and operates a small credit union within the store.

The 22,000-square-foot-store, which is run as a family-owned, for-profit business, employs an estimated 65 workers. Where it can, it seeks to promote community wellness, even at a cost to its bottom line. For example, Perkins notes that because of the high incidence of diabetes and hypertension among Blacks, who constitute an estimated 87.4 percent of Seventh Ward residents, Circle Food has chosen to offer “$5 worth of free, fresh produce to those who spend $5 on it,” meaning that, with the store’s $5 match, a customer who spends $5 on produce can take $10 worth of produce home.

“You should serve the community, because it’s not all about making money,” says Boudreaux. “I’d sell more liquor, alcohol, cigarettes, and fried foods if I wanted to make more money.” Perkins notes that Boudreaux is in his early 40s and “lives seven minutes from the store he has worked at nearly his whole life, before taking it over from his father.”

The lack of grocery stores in communities is a major problem—and not solely because of the implications for healthy food access, important though those are. Grocery stores, notes Perkins, often anchor “neighborhood economies, recirculating local revenues through wages and nearby businesses. They can also be neighborhood hubs, where people go to buy good food as well as employment centers and sources of community pride.”

Alas, the lack of these hubs can be damaging, notes Malik Yakini, who directs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini is one of a host of activists across the country who are working to foster community ownership of food businesses in communities of color.

“We’re not a place to dump cheap goods,” Yakini emphasizes, adding that Black communities “need to be producers of goods and stand eyeball to eyeball and shoulder to shoulder to other economic groups.” Detroit, a city that’s 79 percent Black, has no Black-owned grocery stores. According to Perkins, “Yakini and the Food Security Network are planning a grocery cooperative for the city’s North End neighborhood.”

Perkins profiles other examples across the country. For instance, in Minneapolis, the member-owned Seward Co-op in 2016 opened a second store in the Bryant neighborhood, which is 66 percent people of color, and “went to great lengths to let the neighborhood’s residents shape the new market.” In northeast Greensboro, North Carolina, the Renaissance Community Cooperative opened in 2016, serving a largely Black neighborhood that had lacked a grocery store for 18 years. To build the 11,000-square foot, $3 million store, Perkins notes that 1,300 neighborhood-based owners “chipped in at least $100 each.”

As with the financing of Circle Foods in New Orleans, raising funds in Greensboro required a slew of supporters. In Renaissance’s case, this included the backing of three CDFIs: North Carolina-based Self-Help (which bought the land), Shared Capital Cooperative of Minneapolis, and The Working World of New York City.

Ed Whitfield, co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, a Greensboro-based foundation that helped to organize Renaissance, notes that, “Unfortunately, we live in a society that says it’s legitimate just to maximize profit at any cost, and that generates a whole set of problems. This is a place that meets a community need and has good jobs, and when there’s a profit, the board can decide how to put it back into the community.”—Steve Dubb

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Jeff Bezos Donates $33M to Support DACA Student Scholarships

January 12, 2018; Politico

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and presently the world’s richest man, has donated $33 million to TheDream.US to support scholarships for the undocumented students of illegal immigrants.

These students, or “dreamers,” have been under attack in President Trump’s push to repeal Obama-era protections and are currently not eligible for federal scholarships. The donation will fund 1,000 scholarships that provide students $33,000 in aid over four years at partner colleges. It will significantly expand TheDream.US’s current reach, which, before this donation, reportedly funded 2,850 scholarships. The nonprofit was cofounded in 2014 by Don Graham shortly after he sold the Washington Post to Bezos in 2013.

The donation is one of Bezos’ largest public donations in a year where the billionaire has started to demonstrate the direction of his philanthropy. In mid-2017, Bezos asked for suggestions, via his Twitter account, on where he should donate, stating that his burgeoning philanthropic strategy was to address issues in the “here and now” at the “intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” While still in its early stages, his philanthropic activity seems to be aligning well: funding Reporters without Borders as a way to immediately protect the free press, and St. Mary’s Center, which provides services for homeless women and children. Some have even—somewhat jokingly—suggested that Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, a struggling business in a struggling industry, was a quasi-philanthropic move to support journalistic freedoms.

This donation to Dream.US certainly fits the bill of urgent need. Should Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) be phased out following current congressional negotiations, nearly 700,000 students could face deportation as early as March of this year.

The issue hits close to home for Bezos, whose father is a Cuban immigrant. Speaking of his father as he discussed this donation, Bezos said, “He landed in this country alone and unable to speak English. With a lot of grit and determination—and the help of some remarkable organizations in Delaware—my dad became an outstanding citizen, and he continues to give back to the country that he feels blessed him in so many ways.”

And while the personal connection is clearly strong, Bezos—and his fellow tech titans, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook—have a strong business interest in DACA remaining in place. They, along with more than 100 corporate leaders, have written a letter pressing Congress to reject the repeal of DACA on grounds that it would result in significant damage to US competitiveness.

The letter makes an economic, not a moral, argument: “Failure to act in time will lead to businesses losing valuable talent, cause disruptions in the workforce, and will result in significant costs. Studies by economists across the ideological spectrum have also determined that if Congress fails to act our economy could lose $215 billion in GDP.”

Regardless of whether Bezos is economically or personally motivated, he’s clearly unafraid of putting his economic might and voice behind his political and social beliefs. We should expect to see more philanthropic headlines of this nature from him in the future.—Danielle Holly

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Employee Ownership Gains Ground in Western North Carolina

January 10, 2018; Fast Company

In western North Carolina, “a growing number of companies in the area, which includes the city of Asheville and smaller Appalachian towns, are considering…a shift to worker ownership,” writes Adele Peters for Fast Company. As NPQ profiled last fall, with a tsunami of small business owners seeking to cash out as Baby Boomers retire, selling businesses to the employees who work there is emerging as an increasingly common strategy.

One North Carolina business owner pursuing this path is Eric Henry, owner of TS Designs, a 20-person, screen-printing business. Henry observes that, “We’re not a publicly traded company, we’re a small business. Those businesses that are tough to sell, you shut the power button off.”

But for Henry, the sale is more than a transaction. Henry also expressed confidence that employee ownership provides a “better way to engage people…. Ultimately, when [workers are] more engaged, they’re more informed, they’ll make better decisions, which in turn makes the company more successful. I think it’s just a good foundation to move a business forward.”

A second business profiled by Peters is Opportunity Threads. Molly Hemstreet founded the worker-owned cut-and-sew factory in 2008. Peters writes that, “Workers at Opportunity Threads have the opportunity to become a worker-owner, through membership in an LLC, after a vetting process of 12-18 months by other members.”

Hemstreet adds that, “We’re not a collective [where] everybody’s making every decision. There’s still a clear hierarchy. It’s just to say that the profits of the business and the risks are shared among a group of people.”

“At Opportunity Threads,” Peters details, “workers make up the board and management teams; the management teams run the business, rather than a traditional CEO. The company is saving some profits to invest in a new manufacturing facility, and has also invested in full benefits for all workers, whether or not they are worker-owners. The rest of the profits, about 30 percent of the total, go to the workers and worker-owners.”

More recently, Hemstreet has also helped start the Industrial Commons to promote employee ownership at more companies. So far, Hemstreet and 14 other businesses have formed the Carolina Textile District, which collectively employ 400. Many of these businesses expect to convert to employee ownership as their business owners retire. More ambitiously, the Carolina Textile District and the Industrial Commons envision organizing “3,000 workers in 50 firms across the Southeast with high quality jobs and good lives, all organized to build and share a competitive advantage and have a collective voice for their industry.”

Hemstreet, who grew up in the textile district in Morganton, North Carolina, notes that, “I grew up at this interesting time—it was the heyday of manufacturing and then it all left.” Hemstreet realized that, “If it’s going to come back, it needs to come back differently, and that needs to include a different labor model.”

It all sounds good: Exiting owners get paid, employees keep their jobs and become owners, and there are even tax benefits in federal law (section 1042) that allow the owner who sells to employees to defer capital gains tax by investing the proceeds in stock. (You pay the tax when you sell the stock.) But how does this all work? In particular, how can workers afford to buy?

In a word, you borrow. With TS Designs, a nonprofit called Project Equity is working out the conversion details. Peters notes:

The amount of “buy-in” for a worker to become a worker-owner varies between businesses, but often ranges from $250 to $10,000. Workers often pay gradually with paycheck deductions. For a co-op, the structure that TS Designs will likely take, the cooperative buys the business, and the loan for the sale is paid for with future revenue from the business.”

Henry is helping TS Design employees become ready to take on ownership responsibilities. Henry remarks, “When you’ve got 20 people here, you got some people that can understand a balance sheet, income statement, all that kind of stuff, you’ve got other people that don’t have that understanding. So we’re going to be spending a lot of time the first quarter, first half of this year just making sure that everybody understands the finances of the business.”

If all goes as planned, Henry says, the conversion process will begin in 2019 and be completed in roughly three years. Peters adds that Henry “plans to then become a member of the new co-op and stay on with the company for a few more years before fully retiring. He hopes to make the whole process transparent, so other businesses can learn from it.”

Hemstreet says that she finds many business owners support worker ownership. “This is about livelihoods, about people’s dignity at what we do all day, which is work,” she observes. “That’s ultimately what worker ownership is. You should have a say in the decisions that affect you.”—Steve Dubb

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Interior Dept. Memo Calls for Sweeping Political Review of Grants

By Piotr VaGla Waglowski, http://www.vagla.pl (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 9, 2018; Science and Washington Post

There’s at least one thing about which the Trump administration continues to be clear and consistent: It insists its federal departments and agencies align with its priorities. This isn’t surprising. But as the Washington Post notes, the scope of “the new approval process appears to be without precedent within the department.”

According to a December 28th memo issued by Scott Cameron—principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget—that was obtained by the Washington Post, literally any award of at least $50,000 “to a non-profit organization that can legally engage in advocacy” or “to an institution of higher education” can be subject to review by political appointees.

The Post quotes at length from David J. Hayes, who served as Interior’s deputy secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and is presently executive director of the New York University School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. Hayes wrote in an email that,

Subjugating Congress’ priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.… Our senior leadership team never set up a process like this—that is, a process that identifies broad categories of contracts, at modest financial levels, that must be kicked upstairs to headquarters for political sign-off. To the contrary, we recognized that government contract processes are complex, and that political interference would sully the integrity of contracting processes that applicants have a right to expect are governed with fairness, impartiality, and integrity as their guide.

This December 28th memo follows in the footsteps of our story last September about the EPA’s new grantmaking process showed that an administration that denies climate change requires that data and good science be ignored. Like its EPA precursor, the memo specifically calls out those “to a nonprofit organization that can legally engage in advocacy” or “to an institution of higher education.” Science Magazine pointed out that the memo warned—in boldface, for emphasis—that “Instances circumventing the secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) spelled out his concerns in a statement released after learning of the Interior Department’s new guidelines: “I’m reviewing this new grant approval regime, but I’m immediately skeptical given the administration’s track record. This grant approval process looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects.”

New grant procedures are only one way the administration is seeking alignment with its worldview. A new study (“Changing the Digital Climate”) by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a consortium of academic and nonprofit workers, shows how aggressively economic concerns now trump the threat of climate change and the need for good science.

In the first year of the Trump administration, we have observed alterations to many federal agency Web resources about climate change. Although there is no evidence of any removals of climate data, we have documented overhauls and removals of documents, webpages, and entire websites, as well as significant language shifts.

According to CNN, the report documents how “the Trump administration has eliminated or replaced references to climate change, renewable energy and similar topics.” Concerns about responding to “climate change” are now referred to as efforts to expand “sustainability”; concerns about the impact of increasing levels of “greenhouse gases” now refer to the less precise and meaningful idea of “emissions.” The report found that “descriptions of agency priorities shifted to emphasize job creation and downplay renewable fuels as replacements for fossil fuels. At the DOE [US Department of Energy], mentions of ‘clean energy; and explanations of harmful environmental impacts of fossil fuels were also removed.”

Each of us has a stake in how federal policy is made, and all of us need it to be based in reality. For educational and nonprofit organizations that rely on government funding, this realignment will be particularly challenging. For example, the Interior Department’s new procedures say that “grants and cooperative agreements of any type in any amount may be subject to an after-the-fact review process to ascertain whether the funds were appropriately expended and whether the anticipate benefits were produced.” Universities and nonprofits depending on grants from the $1.5 billion the department allocates annually now must consider if they must tailor their work to ignore their knowledge of climate change or risk the need to forfeit their funding.

At the same time, it is now more difficult for researchers, scholars, and the general public to find basic information that describes the world we live in. From EDGI’s perspective, this poses real danger as it becomes more difficult “to access the results of years of scientific and policy research funded by tax dollars [and] harder for state, local, and tribal governments to access resources designed to help them adapt to and mitigate the harms of climate change.”

In the fall, Erin Rubin closed her look at the EPA’s new approach to climate change by noting that “some nonprofit creativity may be required.” As we see more clearly how the administration’s priorities are reflected in the work of the executive branch, it may take more than creativity.—Martin Levine

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San Antonio Police Chief Assailed for Releasing Immigrants Found in Semitrailer

International Workers Day march for immigrant and workers rights” by Fibonacci Blue

January 11, 2018; San Antonio Current

City officials are backing San Antonio Police Chief William McManus in his decision to release 12 people who were found in the semitrailer, including his decision to release the immigrants to the local Catholic Charities chapter. The incident occurred on December 23rd, and since then, McManus has said there was no reason to arrest them. They were witnesses, or perhaps victims, but had not obviously broken any laws—and that he “broke no protocols.” McManus said, “I did exactly what my chiefly prerogatives allowed me to do.” The driver, however, was arrested and charged with human trafficking.

McManus says the truck crossed no international borders and that he had no need or right to inquire about the passengers’ citizenship status or run a background check on them because he had no substantive indication they had committed any crime. In fact, he says, there was a federal agent from Homeland Security present throughout the investigation who could have intervened but did not.

“The San Antonio Police Department had no legal basis to hold [the witnesses],” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “The city could have faced legal liability if the police had held them.”

“There were no SAPD protocols broken,” McManus said. “[Homeland Security] was on the scene and they had every opportunity to what they needed to do. They weren’t denied access. Why they didn’t take anyone into custody, I don’t know. But we handled the prosecution of the smuggling incident under the state statute.”

But the lieutenant governor has called for an investigation into McManus’ treatment of the case, which the attorney general’s office has begun, under Texas’ Senate Bill 4, which came into effect last September and slaps fines on cites for implementing sanctuary city measures, such as those that instruct local law enforcement to not cooperate with federal immigration officers conducting random stop-and-searches to determine immigrant status. San Antonio is one of the cities that sued to block the law over the summer. Alex Zielinski writes:

It’s hard to know exactly what made McManus decide to hand the case over to state courts rather than the feds. Perhaps it was informed by the last time San Antonio was hit with a major smuggling case—in which federal agents didn’t allow the passengers to apply for immigrant protection under a certain visa granted for crime witnesses who comply with the police. Instead, the feds deported at least seven potential key witnesses. In that July case, McManus received a wave of criticism from the immigrant advocacy community. Now, he’s getting heat from the other side.

That case, which occurred only five months before this one, resulted in 10 deaths among the immigrants being transported.—Ruth McCambridge

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What’s Plasticity Got to Do with It? Framing the Need for Children’s Programs

Public Domain, Link

Our nation’s children and families depend on funding from the federal government to support programs that promote healthy brain development. Children’s advocates are working hard to build public and political will to protect funding for these vital programs, many of which are on the budgetary chopping block this year. So, what must advocates keep in mind about how their arguments get posed for the public?

These advocates face a major challenge: helping the public understand the complex neuroscience that undergirds these programs. If the public doesn’t understand this science, they won’t understand why our children, our families, and our society need these programs, and they’ll be less likely to support them.

Experts in early childhood development know we need programs and services that support healthy brain development among young children, especially those at risk of poverty, abuse, and chronic and severe stress. These programs help kids overcome “toxic stress” and adverse experiences in their early years and build resiliency. Experts also know that we need to support older children, too; the science of brain plasticity shows that children who do experience adversity can overcome it with the proper support.

Over the last decade, FrameWorks Institute researchers have studied how to help the public understand this science. One of the most difficult things about this work is finding ways to help people grasp two seemingly conflicting ideas: that children’s early experiences fundamentally shape the developing brain and biological systems in ways that have long-term (and even life-long) implications for learning and health and, at the same time, that our brains and our biology can change throughout our lives based on the quality and content of our experiences.

In other words, children’s experiences in their early years are profoundly important. But the effects aren’t immutable; kids can overcome adversity.

Bob Dylan seems to understand these two facts intuitively. In his 2001 song, “Mississippi,” Dylan sings: You can always go back, but you can’t go back all the way.” In this single lyric, he captures the essence of both principles.

The public, on the other hand, has difficulty holding these facts in mind at the same time. We have observed across our work on early childhood, adolescence, mental health, and addiction that this tension is alive and well in the minds of Americans. The problem is that members of the public take an “either/or” approach to early childhood development rather than a “both/and” perspective. People tend to think either deterministically about the importance of early childhood (that kids are “fully cooked” by five) or through unbridled optimism about the subject (that change is possible if we try hard enough to achieve it). Our research shows few hold both beliefs in mind at the same time.

So how can advocates for children and families communicate the both/and perspective to the public? How can they help people understand the importance of spending resources on programs and services that improve the quality of life and education for young children as well as those that serve older children and adults? How can we help people see that “you can always go back, but you can’t go back all the way”?

At FrameWorks, we study how to communicate complex scientific issues and processes to the public. With our partners at the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, we have developed metaphors that have the power to do this.

The metaphor Brain Architecture, for example, compares brain development to home construction. It shows how brains develop in stages (from the ground up) and explains why early development is critical (because it is the foundation for future growth). We’ve also developed the Resilience Scale, a metaphor to communicate the science of resilience. It uses the familiar concept of a scale to show how positive and negative experiences influence children’s developmental outcomes and affect their ability to overcome adverse experiences. In this work, we aim to communicate the complexity of the science of early childhood development, which is a driving force behind all successful science translation work, whether it relates to executive function, epigenetics, or child mental health.

We know that the science of early child development is complex. But advocates for children and families can use these and many other tools we’ve developed to communicate this complexity in simple, accessible ways that the public can understand. And when the public understands how children’s brains develop and how resilience works, they will be more likely to support programs and services that help kids of all ages thrive—and less likely to tolerate cuts to these programs.

We need to help people understand science of brain development and the promise of plasticity. We need to help them understand the truth behind another great Dylan lyric.

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Trump Remarks Resurface Race-Based Approaches to Immigration

By SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia CommonsJanuary 12, 2018; Washington Post

Just this week, we reported that yet another judge used President Trump’s reckless personal communications to help justify the reversal or enjoinment of an immigration order. This, as you may remember, has occurred any number of times in lawsuits filed against the administration over the past year.

No sign of any resulting lesson in caution was apparent yesterday afternoon when the president voiced openly racist attitudes about the people of Haiti, El Salvador, and unnamed African nations in the midst of negotiations on an immigration deal. Trump had seemed willing to craft a bipartisan deal earlier in the day, but when he got into the meeting, all that seemed to fall away. The New York Times reported:

Mr. Trump’s remarks left members of Congress attending the meeting in the Cabinet Room alarmed and mystified. They were there discussing an emerging bipartisan deal to give legal status to immigrants illegally brought to the United States as children, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity without authorization to discuss the explosive proceedings of the private meeting.

When Mr. Trump heard that Haitians were among those who would benefit, he asked if they could be left out of the plan, according to the people familiar with the conversation, asking, “Why do we want people from Haiti here?”

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump reportedly asked, suggesting that preference be given to people from countries like Norway, adding that immigrants from Asian countries might also be a good choice because they help the United States economy.

These comments lend more credence to other ones attributed to but denied by the president; again, from the New York Times:

The comments were reminiscent of ones the president made last year in an Oval Office meeting with Cabinet officials and administration aides, where he complained about admitting Haitians to the country, saying that they all had AIDS, as well as Nigerians, who he said would never go back to their “huts,” according to officials who heard the statements in person or were briefed on the remarks by people who did. The White House vehemently denied last month that Mr. Trump made those remarks.

Why should this matter to civil society activists? Immigration policy has a history of racism that has been hard to eradicate. As one scholar writes:

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, but for most of its history U.S. law treated newcomers differently according to race. Between 1790 and 1952, legislators restricted naturalization – the process by which immigrants become citizens – to particular racial and ethnic groups, with a consistent preference for whites from northwestern Europe. Laws restricted black immigration beginning in 1803, and a series of subsequent measures banned most Asians and limited access by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The author goes on to write that the race based policy of the US was contagious and subsequently affected policies elsewhere. Thus, any explicit revisiting of this territory by the federal government is notable and alarming.

Rep. Mia Love (R-UT), whose parents are Haitian immigrants, deemed Trump’s remarks “unkind, divisive, elitist” and said they “fly in the face of our nation’s values. This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.” And Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), who is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, commented, “My grandmother used to say—dígame con quién caminas y te diré quién eres—tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are. If he’s walking around with white supremacists and supporting them, this kind of talk doesn’t surprise me.”

Few are likely to be surprised by the president’s attitude on race after this past year, but we can still imagine some might be taken aback by his tactical self-sabotage. But perhaps accomplishment of any ends at all has taken a back seat to retaining his base, which has not been enamored of his strange attempts at bipartisan deal-making. As conservative author Ann Coulter tweeted, “He’s trying to win me back.”

So maybe there is, sadly, a cunning logic in the president’s racist remarks. But while we can and should condemn his remarks, as a sector, we can’t afford to allow such vile comments to distract us from our missions. A few months ago, I argued that nonprofits need to use the strategic advantage of being anchored in a broader civil society or risk losing it. This means speaking out and advocating heartily for civic norms of reciprocity, building trust, and forging mutually respectful relationships across barriers of race, gender, sexuality and class.

In that light, please recall that today is the eighth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake. A moment of silence will be observed at 4:53 p.m. to remember those who died in the catastrophe. I encourage you to act in solidarity and join the people of Haiti in honoring those who perished. Catastrophes are opportunities to see our human connection and to become more human ourselves by observing and acting on it.—Ruth McCambridge

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Professors Join Chorus of Opposition to Obama Foundation and Presidential Library

Proposed design for the Obama presidential library. Retrieved from Dezeen.com.

January 8, 2017; Crain’s Chicago Business

Echoing the sentiments of many community leaders, faculty members at the University of Chicago have formally voiced their opposition to the construction plans for the Obama presidential library. The letter addressed to the Obama Foundation, signed by more than one hundred professors, is the latest controversy for a project that has lacked community support due to top-down development practices.

Since plans were announced to construct the library in Jackson Park, near the University of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has received constant rebuke from local leaders demanding a community benefits agreement, green space advocates opposing the privatization of park space, and unions wanting jobs for local workers. Joining this chorus of opposition, professors at the University of Chicago believe the Obama Library is poorly planned to benefit the local economy and South Side residents. In their collective statement, the professors explained:

We are concerned that rather than becoming a bold vision for urban living in the future it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past. We urge the Obama Foundation to explore alternative sites on the South Side that could be developed with more economic benefits, better public transportation, and less cost to taxpayers. We would be pleased to support the Obama Center if the plan genuinely promoted economic development in our neighborhoods and respected our precious public urban parks.

In addition to questioning the pace of the project and its lack of transparency, those opposing the Obama Foundation have been frustrated by the repeated failure to listen to community concerns. Interviewed about initiating the faculty letter, W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, explained, “I would love to hear them actually engage with people who understand the issues in some depth.”

For its part, the Obama Foundation has received strong support from local politicians, elites, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff. Indeed, at a recent inaugural summit attended by global leaders and artists, local resistance to the library was drowned out by national and international celebrities praising the nascent Obama Foundation. Proponents of the library have also pointed to new changes in the design elements of the project and a controversial parking structure as evidence that community input has been incorporated.

This week, the Obama Foundation presented the estimated costs for the project to Chicago City Council. Relying heavily on public resources for infrastructure changes, approval for the $350 million Obama Library is considered a formality by many observers. Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the Obama presidential library will feature:

  • a 235-foot-high, eight-story main building that houses a museum of exhibitions and artifacts telling the Obamas’ story, along with civil rights and African American history
  • A two-story forum building with meeting spaces, an auditorium, and a public restaurant
  • A two-story library, possibly built in partnership with the Chicago Public Library
  • A public outdoor plaza for informal and planned public gatherings
  • A two-story athletic building partially submerged and covered with a green roof
  • A woodland trail for cyclists and pedestrians on the east side of the campus
  • An underground parking facility located between the library and athletic center

Still, as the faculty letter indicates, the growing resistance in Chicago to the Obama library doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Additional community input meetings for the embattled project are scheduled in upcoming weeks.—Antonio Lopez

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Residents Organize Craft Brewing Co-op in Small Montana Town

January 8, 2018; Valley Journal

Ronan, Montana, a town of less than 2,000 located between Missoula and Kalispell, has been searching for ways to build its economy. Ronan, which lies on Flathead nation land and is twelve miles south of Flathead Lake, “boasts a variety of businesses, including a telephone company, a movie theatre, a café, a thrift store, a bowling alley, hospital, and others.” Still, as Valley Journal reporter Nicole Tavenner acknowledges, “many Main Street storefronts remain empty or rundown” with roughly a third of Main Street buildings either vacant or in disrepair.

In listening sessions held with economic developers in 2016, Tavenner writes, “community members identified the revitalization of Main Street and increased business development as priorities for their town.” One strategy is forming a cooperative craft brewing company, since named the Ronan Cooperative Brewery. Led by a steering committee of nine, the co-op brewery is expected to launch this fall.

In a December 2017 article, Tavenner writes, “100 or so people gathered at a Ronan bar on a Saturday night as would-be owners of the Ronan Cooperative Brewery. The Ronan Valley Club buzzed with energy on Dec. 2 as friends, neighbors and strangers connected over a cold drink and an idea.”

Barb Nelson, who chairs the steering committee, enthuses, “You can feel the excitement in the room.”

Brianna Ewert of the Lake County Community Development Corporation’s Cooperative Development Center provides technical assistance to the group. “Ewert, who’s been involved in the project from day one,” notes Tavenner, “said the idea for a brewery came about early in Ronan residents’ discussions with economic developers.”

After a feasibility study came back positive, the group filed an intent to incorporate with the state. To date, the member equity drive is going well. The December 2nd gathering itself, Tavenner writes, raised more than $26,000 “and 48 new owners signed on, tipping the total in shares sold to $52,350. As the business plan is currently written, once $150,000 in owner investment is reached, that money would be used as leverage for additional loans.”

As of mid-December 2017, Tavenner adds, “the total of all funds raised, including development funds that have been awarded the project, was more than $75,000. The number of Ronan Cooperative Brewery owners was 125.”

Tavenner explains that member investments come in two forms—common and preferred shares. “Common stock is $250 per share. All members purchase one share which gets them one vote. Additional shares do not garner additional votes. Preferred stock, offered to common stock members, is sold at $100 per share.” Preferred stock allows for higher returns after the business becomes profitable.

Statewide, Tavenner notes that Montana has 68 craft breweries, with growth averaging roughly 13 percent per year since 2010. To date, according to Kyle Morrill, a senior economist at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, craft brewery growth in Montana has generated “1,044 additional permanent year-round jobs, more than $33 million in additional income for Montana households, [and] $103 million in additional sales from businesses and organizations.” Tavenner adds that Montana’s legislature raised the production cap from 10,000 to 60,000 barrels a year last spring, which might lead to further growth.

Ronan is not the only place to develop a craft brewing cooperative. In 2015, Tim Palmer, research director of the Democracy at Work Institute, authored a report that profiled examples in over 20 cities. The employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is also a common approach—Colorado-based New Belgium Brewery and Boston-based Harpoon Brewery are notable examples. Both co-op and employee-ownership are commonly used in the industry because both have proven to be powerful tools that motivate workers to pay the careful attention required to produce high quality craft beer.

Tavenner herself profiles one co-op craft brewery in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where “April 2018 will mark the three-year anniversary of Bathtub Row Brewing.” According to general manager Douglas Osborn, “things are going very well,” with the business growing 10–20 percent annually. Sales in 2018 are expected to hit $700,000.

Tavenner adds:

After 2½ years in operation, the brewery will begin to pay back its loans this December and is on track, Osborn said, to become debt free within the next three to five years.

Production wise, the brewery operates at almost full capacity and at times can’t make enough beer for their guests.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Osborn noted. “We’re far past the original projections.”

The brewery, which employs 15–17 people, has also seemed to spark growth for other nearby businesses.

Osborn concedes that cooperatives bring challenges as well as advantages. “There are times when it’s cumbersome to work through problems via committee,” Osborn says. But, Tavenner adds, for Osborn, the co-op structure brings the business many offsetting benefits, including the power to tap into worker creativity and to have employees serve as a productive sounding board for business decisions. What’s more, the firm retains employees at a rate far above industry norms.

“Overall,” Osborn concludes, “it’s a huge plus.”—Steve Dubb

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Another Confusing Public/Nonprofit Structure, Another Crisis

From the Facebook page of the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

January 9, 2018; Aspen Times

As reported in the Aspen Times, the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts has just been awarded a grant of $30,000 by the Aspen City Council, along with “verbal support,” following a 2017 scandal with an ongoing criminal investigation.

This modest vote of confidence comes as the City Council and the Red Brick Center—which is now being managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department—continue to explore options for oversight and management that would hopefully guard against future scandals. However, the prior and current management structures beg many questions from a nonprofit governance perspective.

Until the scandal broke last year, the Red Brick Center for the Arts was managed by the Red Brick Council for the Arts, a 501c3 nonprofit that “had a management contract with the city” to run the center and autonomously oversee its operations—which is an unusual way to describe a nonprofit whose only purpose seems to be oversight of that center. City Councilwoman Ann Mullins is among the board members of the arts council. Last June, the Center’s former executive director, Angela Callen, was fired. Callen has not yet been arrested or charged with a crime, but is “under suspicion for stealing approximately $150,000” from the Center. As reported in an Aspen Times article last September, “Because of the investigation, the city has seized control of the Red Brick’s operating and reserve accounts ‘and will now pay operating costs directly until a new agreement between the two entities can be arranged,’ the city said, adding the agreement was mutual.”

Here’s where the organizational structure gets really confusing: Sarah Roy was named as interim executive director of the Center after Callen was fired (presumably by the Arts Council, while it was still managing the Center). Then the city suspended its contract with the Council—which, again, was the governing body for the Center and its arts programming—although the Council continues to serve “in an advisory role,” whatever that means. Since November, the Center has been managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, under the direction of Jeff Woods, although Roy is still interim executive director. The Parks and Recreation Department, clearly a government entity, is one of ten “nonprofit” tenants listed on the Center’s website, and the city’s Red Brick Recreation Center—with a fitness center, climbing wall and other amenities—is located at the same address as the art center. In fact, just over half of the nonprofit tenants identified on the Red Brick Center for the Arts website are arts-related: a community foundation, an organ- and tissue-donation foundation, and a youth mentoring nonprofit are among the others. The Center is home to a gallery, and to 14 local resident artists who rent subsidized studio spaces. An after-school art camp and art classes are available to community members.

It’s not hard to understand why Aspen City Council wants to find a way forward that provides better accountability for how public resources are being stewarded. No elected official wants to be associated with a scandal, especially at a facility for which that official’s branch of government has ultimate responsibility. So, a $30,000 grant instead of the $80,000 requested sends a signal to voters that City Council is keeping a close eye on the situation. But the criminal investigation will take time, and the money that has gone missing undoubtedly has already caused some pain to the art center and its staff. And “demoting” a governing board to an advisory role at such a critical moment instead of doubling down on good board governance practices seems like a less-than-sound approach. In addition, the current organizational structure suggests a muddled approach to managing what is called “an arts center.” It certainly seems that there ought to be an arts-focused governing body to look after the integrity of the arts programming and the dedicated arts spaces, if the city and the community are serious about maintaining an arts center.

Roy and Woods have been in discussion with the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen’s storied performing arts center, about establishing a Cultural Arts Commission—although the role of the proposed commission is described as an advocacy, not management or oversight. Bringing a major cultural institution like the Wheeler into the conversation might help to make the case for further investment in the Red Brick Center for the Arts—hopefully as an entity dedicated to a suite of cultural programs and services for the Aspen community, not as a subset of the city’s parks and recreations department nor as a landlord for a group of non-arts nonprofit organizations.—Eileen Cunniffe

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