Posts Tagged ‘non profit’

The pioneers who paved the way

7 December 2009

(Cross posted at Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur)

With fresh non-profit news ventures seemingly turning up left and right, you would think this was a brand new idea.  But it’s not.

A wide variety of non-profit news ventures have been providing unique, professional-caliber, and invigorating perspectives on our world for many years.  A number of ventures – like the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ms., or my own organization, Mother Jones – predate the popularization of the Internet by more than two decades (and let’s not even begin to count how many years The Progressive, Harpers, NatGeo, or The Nation Institute have been around!).

The pioneers of non-profit news cover the full array of media, from magazines, to radio and television, to online. Here’s an incomplete list of nonprofit journalism orgs that pre-date the latest wave (you can find links to many of these at the Media Consortium website – of which many but not all are members):

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Clay Shirky’s “second great age of patronage,” foundations, and journalism.

19 July 2009

I’ve written about foundation funding for journalism before (in fact, it was what got me started doing this thing in the first place). But Clay Shirky’s Cato-Unbound  piece (interesting choice of publication site) arguing inter alia that we’re entering “a second great age of patronage” got me thinking again about this topic.

Shirky writes: this new patronage is

“. . .either of the ‘one rich person’ model, as with Richard Mellon Scaife’s subsidy of conservative journals, or the NPR Fund Drive model, where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit.”

Your local journalism fundraiser says it’s actually got to be both at the same time – since that is what a successful nonprofit fundraising program almost always looks like. It’s a measure of just how far the new nonprofit journalism world has to yet to go, fundraising-wise, that Clay sets up a distinction where it’s actually a continuum. Of course, there are reasons for that: mainly, the way these new projects are getting started – with (relatively) big money, and little or no membership/community base.  And since journalists tend to be lousy community organizers, this could be a problem.

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Friday dog blogging 3 July 2009

3 July 2009

First things first: the main generator/switch at MotherJones.com’s Seattle “carrier hotel” (aka server farm) failed early this morning, which resulted in a fire, which triggered the sprinkler system, which took our site (and several others) off line. No indication of when it’ll be back up; we’re actively looking at a Plan B fix (if anyone has ideas for a quick solution, let me know). Silver lining, I guess: it’s happening over a low traffic holiday weekend. P1030129

That also means no Friday cat blogging from Kevin, no frog blogging from the MoJo interns. (It also means you can’t get a look at the digital version of the new issue of Mother Jones, which has a totally kick-ass special package, “Wasted,” on the failure of the War on Drugs (so go buy a hard copy over the weekend).

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My (belated!) response to Digidave’s video on Spot.us and MoJo…

28 June 2009

I’ve been a doofus:  Dave Cohn posted a video in response to this back at the end of May, and I promised I’d get a reply back to him asap. One hardware crash and MoJo board meeting later, I’m finally able to get into a conversation with him about Spot.us, Mother Jones, non profit journalism etc. (sorry Dave!) mainly because here I am 39,000 feet in the air headed to #PDF09, and finally have some quality time to do just that (although for the sake of my seat mates, no video…).

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MoJo v the IRS and what it might mean for non profit newspapers

15 June 2009

Update 15 June 09: Rich Schmalbeck (who is on the Duke law faculty, btw) emailed me his comments on my post re MoJo v. IRS. With his okay, here’s what he said:

The Technical Advice Memorandum that turned the tide in your case has almost certainly been published, though I didn’t look to verify that.  These are documents prepared by the IRS Chief Counsel’s Office, at the request of either a taxpayer or a field office of the IRS, in the context of an audit that raises difficult legal questions.  They had long been completely private, but a Freedom of Information Act suit sometime in the 1970s compelled their disclosure, but with information that might identify the taxpayer redacted.  They are typically not reviewed at the highest levels of the IRS or Treasury, and so are specifically not intended to establish precedent, but are merely supposed to resolve the issues with respect to a particular taxpayer.  But now that they are routinely published, lawyers do consult them, and do sometimes cite them, though with the understanding that a court may not accord them much weight.

I think the Mother Jones Tech Advice is helpful in this issue, but I’m not as sanguine as you seem to be in this piece that it answers all the questions the IRS might raise about a regular, full-service daily newspaper.  Mother Jones is more like Harpers, Commentary, and the like, than it is like the Chicago Tribune.  And my sense from talking with people in the industry is that while they would like to continue publication of at least some newspapers within a nonprofit framework, they would like nearly every other aspect of publication to remain the same.  And that’s where the IRS may say that the operation is not sufficiently distinguishable from an ordinary commercial enterprise to justify tax-exempt status.  But we’ll see.  In the long run, I think the IRS is going to lose on this question of exempt purpose.  But you are quite correct in thinking that no single newspaper wants to head down a road that might involve an IRS audit, followed by litigation in the Tax Court, and ultimately perhaps up to the Court of Appeals level.  So it would certainly make things easier if Congress would simply enact legislation clarifying that newspaper publication was a suitable exempt purpose, period.  But my understanding is that the bill that would do that isn’t making much progress.

A few days ago, I said I would come back to one specific item from the Duke conference a while back on non profit media, so here goes. It’s triggered by an issue raised in a paper prepped for the conference by Rich Schmalbeck, “Financing the American Newspaper in the Twenty-First Century.” Turns out that a battle royale Mother Jones went through with the Reagan-era IRS has some relevance today. It might point to a way to deal w/the IRS for newspapers and other publications looking to convert to non profit status.

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Digidave talks about Spot.us and fundraising

27 May 2009

Here’s Dave Cohn aka Digidave talking about fundraising and Spot.us. Keywords are “transparency, immediacy, and control” (for the donor, that is). Towards the end of the video (btw Dave, are you suffering from bad bed hair, or is that a hat you’ve got on?!) Dave puts a couple of questions on the table for me. I’ve got a day full of fundraising meetings (okay, that’s somehow completely if ironically appropriate), so I’ll get this up now and get a response up later today…Thanks Dave!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

(BTW Dave – it’s “May-mon-ih-dees.” Maimonides. Greek for Hebrew.)

more about “Viddler.com – Conversation with Steve…“, posted with vodpod

CIR takes on California

8 May 2009

For about six months in 1994, I worked with then-Executive Director Rick Tulsky as the director of development for the Center for Investigative Reporting, here in San Francisco. CIR had just been awarded a pretty good sized “capacity building” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and Tulsky hired me to help build the organization. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, Tulsky (who’s a terrific investigative reporter, and came to CIR from the Philadelphia Inquirer) moved on, and so did I.

Before I did that, though, I saw how CIR’s fundraising worked: besides a relatively small individual donor base (and a couple of important major donors) at that time most of the foundation fundraising they did was organized around film or video projects they were working on, usually in conjunction with WGBH’s Frontline. [Over the years, CIR and Mother Jones have collaborated on a number of stories.]

They did some great work, but that always seemed like a tough way to fund an organization, project by project.

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More on Rick Cohen and the charitable deduction fight

6 May 2009

As I reported the other day, Rick Cohen at the Cohen Report took the NGO trade associations to task for their resistance to – and in some cases outright opposition to –  the Obama administration proposal to help pay for expanded health care by capping charitable deductions at 28% for households earning $250,000 and up:

Though the comments CR [Cohen Report] received here for posting have been uniformly supportive of issues raised in the article, I suspect that the majority of readers is staunchly opposed. Or are we wrong? In at least two forums I’ve been in recently, when I raised generic concerns about the shortcomings of foundation grantmaking, the audiences were pretty much in agreement.  But when this issue was broached, one could feel the change in the rooms.  It as pretty remarkable.  I guess I’d be curious regarding follow-ups about:  (1) the extent of pro and con discussion this proposal is getting versus either strident opposition or, as my article described, public reticence in favor of behind-the-scenes opposition; and (2) how people feel about Brooke’s point that for the very wealthy, the tax incentives is really of little consequence. I’d love to hear feedback from CR readers on these issues and more.

Re the first question: no idea. If anyone out there has thoughts/knowledge on this, would be really interesting in hearing about it.

Re the second question: I’m inclined to agree with Brooke, pretty much. My experience working with wealthy donors is that if it factors in at all the tax deduction plays into the amount they’ll donate but not into the more fundamental decision about giving in the first place.

And that’s for the most part the exception, not the rule: what’s much more important is the value of the pile of assets they’re sitting on, and (just as importantly) their perception of relative wealth at the time the gift is made. The tax deductibility – or in this case, a modest reduction in the amount of that deduction – is a second or even third level factor in a philanthropic decision making process.

I’m not sure about this, but I can imagine one big exception to this, which is when a donor is deciding to set up a donor-advised fund at one of the big firms like Fidelity, or at a communitiy foundation. Only because (and please let me know if I’m completely off base here) this seems to me to be a much more transactional relationship, where the calculus of tax benefits could be seen as a much more important factor. . .

Rick Cohen takes on the charity biz – again

4 May 2009

Without exception, the best writing on the intertubes these days about the “independent sector” – or whatever you want to call the gaggle of trade associations that claim to speak for the millions of non profits active in the US  – is coming from Rick Cohen at his blog, The Cohen Report. Cohen is the ex-ED of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Well, Cohen just posted an absolutely devastating piece detailing how  the big  charity associations – Independent Sector, Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and the rest – have lined up against the Obama administration’s proposal to help fund health care reform by reducing the tax benefits that the top 1 percent of Americans currently receive when they itemize their deductions – including their charitable deductions. Cohen shows how these trade groups have completely failed to look beyond their narrow self-interest to the larger public interest – not to mention to the huge gain that thousands of small NGOs and millions of non profit workers. Here’s his conclusion:

Is the potential loss of a small portion of charitable donations, even if a “small portion” is measured in billions, perhaps $4 billion, maybe even $6  billion, depending on economists’ estimates and models, a price worth paying in order to help finance comprehensive health care reform?  For nonprofits as a whole, the short term savings are clear, the long term benefits undeniable, [and] the nonprofit sector itself is “net winner” from universal health coverage…

You want to know what’s really going on in the non profit biz? Read Cohen.