Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 8:34am
posted by Jill Watts,
Director of Capacity
Building Initiatives
ASU Lodestar Center

"Abuses found at local charity!" It's not an uncommon headline, unfortunately. And those of us who have toiled for years in the nonprofit sector cringe every time we hear of a new scandal or fraudulent activity because we fear the fallout that inevitably occurs. After all, if one nonprofit has unscrupulous practices, then it follows that we all must.

I recently read an article about the latest nonprofit embroiled in a financial investigation. At this point, I should mention my disclaimer that I have no independent knowledge of this particular case, and the ASU Lodestar Center takes no position on any organization involved in a dispute of this kind. Whether the organization did or didn't do what it said it would do isn't even the point of this blog. The point is this:

When confronted with the funding discrepancies of the organization he had founded, the executive director, who did in fact pay himself a salary, had this to say: "I never said I was a professional at this."

I was utterly astonished and flabbergasted upon reading his statement. In what other field would the head of an organization be allowed to screw up and then claim ignorance? Can you imagine patronizing any other business, restaurant, or store, receiving no product or service in exchange for your money, and listening to the owner say, "Well... I never said I was a professional."


What would a rational response to this excuse be? Are we just supposed to excuse people on the basis of good intentions?

Every nonprofit professional with a shred of integrity should feel some indignation at this poor excuse for an excuse. It's an affront to all of us who have undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in nonprofit studies, who have spent years learning the skills required to run a nonprofit organization, who stay current on the latest trends by constantly reading any book, article, blog, or website that might help us do our jobs better.

None of us could just decide tomorrow that we want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant and simply hang out a shingle. What's the difference? Those fields all have strict credentialing requirements. But shouldn't nonprofit executives hold themselves to the same standards?

Another difference is the very complicated matter of "good intentions." We all know where those lead... Except in the nonprofit sector, "good intentions" are at the foundation of every single enterprise. We can't castigate people for having good intentions. On the contrary, our sector needs them to survive and thrive.


 


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We should find a way to support and further institutionalize the education and training of our nonprofit leaders. For over 60 years the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (formerly American Humanics) has been certifying undergraduate students who complete a regimented curriculum. There's a move now to encourage all alumni who are "Certified Nonprofit Professionals" to use the "CNP" distinction after their names. We at the ASU Lodestar Center are proud to see the ever-increasing number of people putting "MNpS" after their names, indicating their completing of our graduate program.

Every day people are signing up for our Fall Conference, and participating in our leadership programs. The mere fact that you are reading this blog, dear reader, demonstrates that I am preaching to the proverbial choir. We are working towards the establishment of a field of trained, dedicated professionals, the quality of which one could compare to any other discipline.

So, while the nonprofit sector will continue to absorb the blows of crushing headlines, we must continue our work to educate our staff, to inform our board members, to serve as examples for our sector and for others.

That's why we're professionals, right?


Like this article? Get another!

Click here to read "How to Start a Nonprofit Organization: Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Make the Leap," by Robert Duea and Pat Lewis, ACFRE.

Comments

What a great post! Thank you for bringing to light the important issue of accountability in this sector. I could not agree more with your statements about ‘good intentions’. They are clearly an imperative element of this sector; however, real change and impact cannot happen without professionalism and effective and appropriate operational practices.

While I agree with everything you have said, don't believe everything you read. I have reviewed the 990s of this nonprofit and you should all know that this article was highly misleading and inflammatory. The nonprofit in question made all of its money off of t-shirt sales - that's right - no gifts. So everyone who supported it got exactly what they paid for - a t-shirt. In addition, the salary taken was inaccurate from what I can tell from the 990s it was more like 113k taken over a seven year period. Hardly excessive. This reporter supposedly researched 325 organizations yet his story was about 3 that had some questionable expenses. How sad and typical that this is what our media chooses to focus on.

@Ellis, You also make a great point. It's important to truly understand the background, but I think that you're a little bit off when you say that those people "got what they paid for." Yes, they got the t-shirt for the money they handed over, but you're not counting the non-monetary stuff that goes along with that donation. With their money, those t-shirt buyers were also giving their faith in the mission of the nonprofit, as well as their support of the cause.

I think the point here is that, when we give to a nonprofit, we do invest a little bit of ourselves into that nonprofit's mission, even if we receive something physical in return. And, even though I don't know the particulars of the situation, Jill's message is still an important one to consider. We have to hold ourselves accountable.

Thanks for your comment, Ellis! I want to reiterate my disclaimer that I had no knowledge of the details of this case, and because whether the NP was to blame wasn't the point of my blog, I didn't even link to the article. My focus was just on the issue of professionalism in our sector.

You raise a great point about the media's focus, however, and unfortunately hints of scandal will always seem more 'newsworthy'.

I'm not suggesting that if you raise funds selling t-shirts you can ignore your mission but that is also not what happened in this case. This charity traveled around the country meeting with police and fire departments to construct tribute quilts to their fallen comrades - they have over 300 king-sized pieces. They didn't ignore their mission - they had a big hairy audacious goal and not nearly the human or financial resources to meet it. Clearly, it was a failed effort, but that is a big difference from the fraud it has been portrayed to be. My biggest concern is that if the Arizona AG suddenly thinks he has the authority to investigate charities for not meeting their stated goals that is a big problem for the sector.

As nonprofit professionals (or in my case nonprofit professionals in training) it is important that we avoid controversy and scandals. Especially when it comes it finances, after all it is mostly the public who supports and donates to our organizations. Public confidence in nonprofit organizations is consistently decreasing; it would be horrible if contributions dropped further due to scandals and negative media coverage. In a worst case scenario perspective, if such activities keep occurring regulatory settings could be put into place forever changing the nonprofit sector. We must keep control of our sector if we want to continue to service our communities and we can only do that by enforcing best practices in our individual organizations.

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