Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Discernment and nonprofits

In recent days, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) has come under fire for the way it uses donations.  It has been pointed out that key personnel have high salaries and that the headquarters of the organization is quite nice.  What I don't think was as well covered was all the good done by this organization or how nonprofits really work. 

I have worked with a number of nonprofits in my career, including WWP, and all of them have done good work.  The problems arise when a nonprofit has to explain their budget line-items in a kind of vacuum to its supporters. There is a rule of thumb that says the "overhead" for a nonprofit should not be more than 15 percent of it's total operating budget.  Everything else should go toward direct services to the intended recipients. In the nonprofit world having money left at the end of the year is frowned upon. 

Look at what has to fit into overhead: the salaries of the executive director, his or her secretary or assistant, an operations manager, a bookkeeper, the development officer and any grant writers, and depending on the individual organization, there might be other, necessary, jobs that are not directly related to service for recipients. Then there is the cost of whatever facility is involved.  And the cost of any services that are contracted out, such as advertising for donations or an annual audit.  Even janitorial services cost money.

Then the nonprofit has to pay whoever provides the services to clients.  These are likely professional people such as social workers, psychologists, nurses, etc. Even volunteers represent a cost to an agency.  They must be trained, supervised, supplied with space and equipment and some come through programs, such as AmeriCorps, that charge a fee.

In the private sector, a business would be considered practically insolvent if it ended a year without some funds left in the bank.  As individuals we all know the value of having savings we can tap for emergencies, special needs, or upcoming costs.  Why should we expect nonprofits to simply trust that if their plumbing requires repairs or some other unbudgeted expense arises, someone will donate them? Having a little surplus at year's end for a nonprofit is not a bad thing.  It is a hedge against falling donations, recession, rising salaries due to competition, and emergency expenses.  

As an example, let's look at a modest nonprofit, one that raises $500,000 a year. Let's say it provides after-school care for at-risk kids.  The executive director has a PhD in child psychology and has never worked for less than $65,000 a year.  Her office assistant requires $30,000 and she doubles as the bookkeeper. A part time counselor needs another $20,000 and the agency pays two people each $10 an hour to help out with the kids after school.  So on an annual basis, the overhead salaries total $95,000 out of a $500,000 budget.  That's nearly 20 percent right there and no one is getting rich. And that doesn't even begin to touch the liability insurance the nonprofit must provide or any modifications necessary for handicapped children, or attorney fees or security costs to protect against angry parents who don't like the services.  Reasonable costs can count against a nonprofit.

People think nonprofits run on volunteer labor and they do not.  They need skilled executives to make excellent decisions about the money collected.  These executives need to make good hires.  They need to see that services are provided and they control the quality of the organization.  These people do not come cheap. Professionals of every stripe expect to be paid according to the market for their profession.  Lots of small nonprofits start with a well-meaning person and an idea.  Most of them fail because running a nonprofit is no different than running a business. Someone has to pay the light bill; someone has to sweep the floors; someone has to fix the driveway.

The larger a nonprofit becomes, the more important it is to get and keep excellent people in key positions.  People who work at nonprofits are no different from those who work at a tire factory or in advertising, or at a security firm.  They all have to pay mortgages, buy insurances, save for retirement.  They may work for a nonprofit out of passion for the cause, but their families still have needs.  If we expect a well-run nonprofit, we must expect to pay competitive salaries to all who work there.

Granted, some nonprofits are simply scams.  These donate just a few cents on the dollar to those who are supposed to receive assistance.  But we should not lump successful nonprofits such as WWP in with them simply because their costs are high or because they pay their people market rates or because they have a positive balance at year's end. Most people in that organization are veterans themselves.  WWP has helped countless veterans overcome war injuries and find their way back to their families and communities.  They have helped the families of veterans.  They give out grants every year to other nonprofits that provide all kinds of services, all over the nation. 

WWP does a lot of good, not just on its own, but also with other organizations. One organization with which I work has received funding through WWP and due directly to that funding, more than 19,000 veterans have received homes, jobs, employment, counseling, healthcare, and other services.  That is no small thing and it is just one of the many efforts paid for by WWP. 

The nonprofit sector is not without its flaws, certainly, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let us evaluate them as the businesses they are.  As businesses they have legitimate costs.  They cannot get office supplies for free and they cannot get excellent executives and directors for less than what the market offers.  They must pay for the services they render. 

It is far too easy to look at a handful of salaries or a nice building and think, that money should have gone somewhere else. Comparing nonprofits is also risky.  A multi-million dollar concern can't be compared to a mom-and-pop nonprofit where one or two people do everything for a few clients.  Let us develop discernment.  Let us ask ourselves, if I had those qualifications, how much would I expect to be paid? Let us be realistic.  Nonprofits must compete for our money against not only each other, but also against our own desire to keep every dollar we earn. 

When feeling charitable very few of us go under the bridges where we can find the homeless and start passing out tens and twenties.  We don't go up to a mother on the street as ask if her child has a defect and then give her $5.  We don't go into hospitals or research centers and stuff our money in their desk drawers. We rely on nonprofits to represent us to our concerns. We rely on nonprofits to find those who need help, to sort out any freeloaders, to provide efficient, useful help. Let us do our homework, certainly, but let us keep in mind the totality of the business of nonprofits. 

Rather than asking if a nonprofit is spending more than an arbitrary 85 percent on its clients, ask, what is being done for those it serves?  How does it reach that population?  How effective is it? What opposition does it have?  Do its values line up with my own? Who supports it?  These questions will give a far better evaluation of a nonprofit than simply looking at the salary of its top executives. 

I support WWP because they help a lot of veterans in meaningful ways.  They are always looking for ways to be better, to help more, and to be more efficient. They do pay their executives well.  I have no problem with that as long as they keep providing significant services to those they help.  I hope the recent bad press causes all of us to look carefully, not only at the nonprofits we support, but also at what we expect of all our nonprofits.  We should develop reasonable guidelines for running and evaluating a nonprofit.  It costs a lot to help people. Nonprofits are businesses, businesses with tenuous incomes, difficult clients, and many responsibilities. It is hard work. It is not done for free.
That's just the truth. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Take a hammer to it!

As a pottery student, my work was criticized, along with all my fellow students, on a regular basis.  The comments would range from, "I love the glaze combination!" to "That handle is weak."  Nothing personal was ever meant, or taken, during such criticism.  Exposing one's work to critical thought is supposed to teach, not tear down.

Writers are more delicate creatures, it would seem.  Though many in my various writers' groups post their work frequently, some are so defensive as to repel critical thought.  They question the critic's qualifications and the criticism's validity. It is like watching a mother protecting her child.

In large groups it is not unusual to find someone who enjoys being negative about others' work just for the sake of doing so.  A perceptive writer can tell the difference between an honest criticism and a simple tear-down.  One appreciates the former and walks away from the latter without comment.  Not all criticism is bad; not all require discussion.  Take what you need and leave the rest.

I learned that in crafting my clay vessels many things could go wrong:  handles could warp in the fire; glazes could craze or crawl; they could just turn out ugly.  When this happens I take a hammer to them, not wanting them to continue to exist in such a flawed state as a testament to me, its maker. I take the same approach to my writing.

Tell me - please - where my errors are.  I want to know if I have misspelled something, shifted my tense, lost track of who is speaking.  I want to fix it.  I want to know if my words sing or clang.  I want to know if my reader understands the story, the message behind it, or if I've gotten off track.  I want to know if I should make massive revisions, tweak it, or take a hammer to it!  If you just want to tell me my character should be wearing blue, save it.  If you are grasping at straws and just spewing negativity for the sake of sounding critical, I will understand and roundly ignore you.

We writers need criticism the way plants need sun and water.  It is a good thing.  Welcome it, use it, or if need be, ignore it!


Saturday, January 23, 2016


Someone in my writer's group asked for my opinion of his article on happiness.  It got me thinking about the subject and I thought I'd put my thoughts here.

Happiness, like love, is hard to define, but we know it when we feel it. Sometimes happiness feels like relief, for example when you receive a little windfall just in time to avoid some small financial problem.  Or, it may feel like fun when you play with your child and peek into her world.  Exhilaration may make us happy, if only for the time it takes to realize that it is gone as quickly as it came.

My view of happiness is two fold:  We must be content and not get overwhelmed.

Contentment has to do with having enough.  We each have to define what enough is for ourselves. And - this is important - we have to know we have enough.  I think it is the striving, the competition, the constant comparison to others that make us unhappy.  I think certain things are important to happiness, but perhaps not essential:  food, health, connectedness.  Obviously, if our lack of food or health is too great, we die.  But food and health are not in themselves, happiness.  We must have enough.  Connection to others, even to an animal companion, is also important.  I think it possible to have only past connections and still be happy, if those connections were enough.

So what is enough?  For me, enough is paying my bills, having satisfying work, being competent, being needed and knowing I can fulfill my responsibilities.  It means having only manageable pain. It means accepting my limits even while I reach beyond them.  My enough includes both people and animals I love and who love me back, though often they are aggravating or not actively engaged in making me happy.

The second part is the dicey part.  It is so easy to become overwhelmed.  At times it seems life beats us down.  The car breaks down, the boss is unhappy, the child is sick, a friend dies, responsibilities pile up, we are unjustly accused - it all feels so out of our control.  The truth is, much of it is out of our control. Equally true, is that a good part of it has as much to do with our attitude as with circumstances.

Understanding that life is just as it is whether we like it, or can change it, or even if we can understand it, brings a kind of relief.  It is not up to me, or you, to change the nature of life.  It is what it is.  If we are fortunate, our children will outlive us and our parents will die before us. Our pets will die. We will have heartbreak and hardship.  We will also know love, adventure, friendship.  We will taste wonderful foods and see beautiful sights. We may create something. We may make a difference in someone's life.  We will die but we also will live.

The happiest people I have known are not those who are rich, though having enough to remove financial stress is helpful.  The happiest people are those who can roll with life's punches.  I knew one woman who was simply never happy.  Every blow life dealt her was new each morning. She hoarded them as surely as she hoarded the bins of shampoo, dry mixes, and other sundries she kept in her spare room. I knew another, a homeless woman, who laughed everyday at something, even her own situation.  She also cried.  She was not delusional, but she kept her grip on what was good in her life.

This is what happiness looks like for me:  I can sit in my home, warm under a blanket, while it is cold outside, full from a simple dinner I cooked myself, tired from meaningful work I did all day, knowing my family and friends are just a phone call away.  It is enough.  I will keep reaching for more, not because I need it but because the challenge exists and I will be satisfied with all I achieve.  When I feel overwhelmed I wait.  I know it will pass.  I breathe in contentment and breathe out strife. It is enough.

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Daughter's Day Off

My elder daughter has three children, one with special needs.  Since his birth, her life has been one of constant care, anxiety, and work.  The little boy, now 15 months, was born with the rarest of genetic disorders that a generation ago would have killed him within days.  Now, due to newborn screening and constant vigilance, this little kid has a chance of a very good life.  My daughter, however, has not slept a single night for two years, has eliminated dairy and egg from her diet because of his allergies, and has learned how to cook almost exclusively with coconut oil to accommodate his disorder.  So, I thought for Christmas I would give her what she most needs: time to herself.

I made her a little basket with gift cards and items to use while shopping or on her personal care.  Yesterday she took her "Day Off" and put me in charge for one day of her kids and her household. I drove the little girl to school and the older, homeschooled girl, to her PE session at the community center. An hour later, I picked her up and drove her home. My daughter handed me the baby and left -  not without some anxiety about taking a day for herself.

I homeschooled my older granddaughter while I chopped veggies for a Crockpot soup for dinner. Her brother woke early from his nap and I prepared his special foods.  His disorder affects the way his body digests certain fats and the only fat safe for him is coconut oil.  So I prepared his dry peanut butter with his special oil and made him his sandwich. I washed his fruit and cut it up for him. All the while I listened to my granddaughter recite her math problems. I cooked burritos for lunch using my daughter's raw tortilla shells.  I burned the first one. 

I read and re-read a single book to my grandson, took countless items from his curious little hands, and followed him around the house.  While he sat playing with some toys I was able to unload the dishwasher but not load it again.  I wiped down surfaces in the kitchen and picked up some of the fallen food from around the highchair.

When it was time to pick up the little girl from playschool, I bundled my grandson up against the cold, strapped him into his carseat and took off.  Following that, I spent about 40 minutes in the playground at the school and while the girls played, I followed after my grandson, he got into the sand, wanted repeated lifts to the slide and enjoyed swinging for a bit.

On the drive home I listened while the older girl whined and sulked about the behavior of a little boy half her age on the playground. Back at home it was time to do some serious chores and I set the girls to work folding laundry while I put a dark load in to run.  I changed the boy, set him up with some toys, and for five minutes got to load the dishwasher again. 

Finally, I got the baby back down for a nap and got each girl settled in separate rooms to watch their favorite shows.  I swept the kitchen, wiped the table, fixed the folded laundry the four-year-old had stuffed into the linen closet and seasoned the soup.  It was nearly four o'clock and I hadn't sat down all day.

My hat is off to all you moms who do this every day!  Whether you work a job or work at home, you are responsible for a lot that no one ever sees or thanks you for.  So, thank you!  I hope you get a day off soon.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Why do anything hard?

I've been thinking a lot lately about why we choose to do difficult things.  Some things we simply have to do.  For some people, getting up everyday for work is difficult.  Others may find themselves in life-or-death situations where the choice is clear.  However, many of us choose to do what is hard when it is not necessary.

Who has not seen a jogger out in shorts on a cold morning and thought, "Why is he doing that?" For that is surely a choice, one that most people, driving by in heated cars, would not make.  But for the jogger, there is no choice.  Like mountain climbers, joggers do it because "it is there."

Some hard choices are made out of love.  I once gave a kidney to a relative.  I don't choose surgery easily, but I felt the benefits to her outweighed the risks to me.  Following my divorce, years ago, I chose to stay in the town where my children grew up, though other parts of the country beckoned to me.  Again, I balanced their need for stability at a vulnerable time in their lives against my desire to start anew elsewhere.  Both things were hard. I regret neither.

Sometimes it is the challenge of the thing itself that drives us.  My significant other has endured numerous surgeries to continue as a competitive fencer and coach. At 73, he still teaches five nights a week.  Other choices are made out of duty.  People join the armed services out of duty.  Some people take care of elderly relatives more out of duty than love.  Still others choose a difficult task because it needs to be done and no one else is doing it.

I recently took on such a task. I decided to write a layman's guide to a class of rare genetic disorders. My goal is for it to be useful to both patients and their primary care doctors.  My research for this project keeps me humble.  For every time I think I understand my subject, I look up one last thing only to find myself scrambling down yet another complex rabbit hole of a tangent.  At times this is exhilarating, at other times it is discouraging. I often feel like Alice - sometimes 10 feet tall, other times, very small. It is the nature of the hard task.

No one is making me do this.  I am not being paid to do this.  I anticipate that I will find a publisher but I hold out no hope for monetary reward anywhere near commensurate with my efforts. I am doing this out of love for my grandson, who has such a disorder. I am doing it because, like the mountain, it is there.  Mostly, I am doing it because I think I am the best person to do it.

I am not an academic, though I am smart.  I am not a scientist, though I worked in the sciences for years in an auxiliary role. What I am is someone who has spent her career digesting complex subjects and making them accessible to the appropriate audiences.  I have written about the natural history of lily pads, about backroom political deals, about animal behaviors, about drug addiction, homelessness, veteran issues and more.  I am also someone who has heard the pleas of parents for more information, for explanations they can understand, for the right questions for them to ask.  I have the skills, the desire, and the time.  I do this by choice.