As a straight cisgender man, I don’t know what it’s like to finally accept my sexuality or gender identity after years of terrified secrecy, guilt, and/or ostracism from my family and peers. But I do hypothesize that the pride that happens in a queer parade is a completely different entity than the spiritual pride of Christians who give themselves the standing to look down on others by saying all the right things about their own sin. If queer pride is the complete trust and safety of publicly owning your belovedness, then it’s actually the opposite of the deadly sin of pride, which refers to the facade of infallibility too many Christians use to cope with their self-hatred.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. One day, a crisis pops up and you need to solve it now. In fact, you need to solve it yesterday. So you get to work. While you’re working on that crisis, another crisis arises. There’s no time now to address the second problem, so it gets put on the back burner. But now there’s added pressure. As soon as you finish dealing with the first problem, you have to move onto the second. But by that time, problems three through seven have come on the scene.
Now you’re in a bad pattern, hopping from one crisis to the next and always with another one on the horizon.
After a while, a new culture sets in: the culture of now.
In the face of scarcity – including scarcity of time – we all tend to tunnel. Scarcity focuses our attention on the immediate at the cost of the distant. When we’re busy, that means we focus on now almost obsessively. And that focus on now comes at the expense of the future.
And that makes our organizations weaker.
But there’s an alternative.
I think about processes by nature. I’m will work furiously to solve an immediate problem, but then I have an irresistible need to sit down and figure out how to never have that problem again. That may take more time right now, but it saves time, reduces stress, and increases efficiency in the long run. Just like the person who spends a little more money now on a product that won’t need to be replaced as soon as its cheaper counterpart, a person who spends a little more time now finds that she can spend less time later.
Now, I realize that I’m in a position of privilege. I don’t work in an office where people can poke their heads in and hand me time-consuming projects. I have a fair amount of control over my schedule. There are busy seasons and quiet seasons. So it’s often the case that I can take on projects that would otherwise be neglected. That’s a gift.
But I think many more of us can set aside time to think strategically about how we can improve processes at our organizations. From time to time, we can pick a crisis that we faced and ask what would need to change so that we never had that crisis again. We can set a time for that kind of thinking, just as we would set time for a meeting: we’re going to take an hour, or a morning, or a day each week or month or quarter to change how we operate.
And, eventually, we’ll be able to leave the scarcity mindset behind. At least, we’ll be able to leave that mindset behind when it comes to scarcity of time. We’ll be able to stop being minute wise, but month foolish.
In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.
But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.
It’s a simple fact that fundraisers are writers. Many of us end up writing direct mail appeals, email appeals, social media posts, website copy, newsletter articles, and tons of other pieces with one goal in mind: making words become money for the organizations – and people – we serve. Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has more than 20 years of experience working with nonprofits and is an expert at, well, turning words into money. Future Fundraising Now is one of the blogs I turn to for advice on fundraising, especially when it comes to writing and direct mail.
He also has a book that I highly recommend: How to Turn Your Words Into Money: The Master Fundraiser’s Guide to Persuasive Writing.
Recently, I was talking to the executive director of a small nonprofit. She mentioned that her organization didn’t have a donor database – they were keeping donor information in spreadsheets – but she understood why one is important. A good database is your institutional memory; it’s where you, your colleagues, and your successors will be able to see the history, status, and growth of your relationships with donors and volunteers.
So her organization was getting its first donor database… by having a volunteer create one in Microsoft Access.
Now, it’s perfectly possible to create a good homegrown database. But there are also serious challenges. Not only do you need a well built database – one that you can’t accidentally ‘break’ – you need one that will help you raise money. You need to be able to track donor information, gift information, and interaction information. You need to be able to report on all of that information and more. You need to be able to communicate with constituents through mail, email, and social media.
And those are just the basics.
It’s easy to think that a system that can do all of this would be excruciatingly expensive. When money – and time – is tight, it seems much easier to have a volunteer create a homegrown solution than to get a professionally designed, developed, and supported database system.
But the reality is that there are several affordable database solutions for small nonprofits.
Bloomerang offers a free lite version (without email functionality) for small nonprofits and a very cheap Techsoup version (with full functionality) for slightly larger organizations. Even the standard license is fairly inexpensive at the lowest tier!
Salesforce is a very popular customer relations system in the for-profit world, and they also offer a package for nonprofits. Their enterprise edition plus nonprofit starter pack includes a long list of features. Best of all, they offer up to 10 free user licenses to qualified organizations and deep discounts on additional licenses.
CiviCRM is a free and open source database that works with WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla based websites. Because it is open source and community supported, it’s a bit more difficult to set up and maintain than Bloomerang or Salesforce. But it’s also powerful, customizable, and extendable.
Of course, there are many other development database solutions out there. The point is that there’s almost no reason to create a homegrown database when you can have a professionally designed, developed, and supported system that can actually help you raise money and improve donor engagement.
This is an article that appeared, in a couple of different forms, on previous versions of this blog. Since it critiques an opinion that’s become ‘common knowledge’ in some circles, I thought it would be good to repost it.
A few years ago, the image to the right started popping up on my Facebook feed. For those who can’t see images, here’s what it says: if churches paid taxes, it would generate enough revenue ($83.5 billion) to pay for the entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ($76 billion) and house everyone who is homeless.
The same concept later showed up in an article by Matthew Yglesias at Slate and, in turn, by Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog, who added material from an article by Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega titled “Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States”. Both of these posts were picked up by Steve Benen at Maddowblog’s “This Week in God”.
Yglesias’s argument is fairly general, and there’s something to be said for at least a part of it. Yglesias points out that “discussing moral action is at the heart of many religious enterprises,” and that “much moral action plays itself out in the arena of politics.” It is somewhat perverse – in a soft sense – that a religious organization can advocate on behalf of the poor, but not on behalf of a partisan political party or candidate who also advocates on behalf of the poor. Likewise, it is somewhat perverse that a religious organization can organize against abortion, but not endorse political candidates who would work to end abortion legislatively.
The same issue applies to other nonprofit organizations as well, of course. Environmental nonprofits can advocate and organize to save our wetlands, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would actually protect those wetlands; housing nonprofits can work to increase affordable housing, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would create affordable housing trust funds; hunger nonprofits can operate food banks, but cannot endorse candidates or parties who would protect SNAP; and so on. If Yglesias’s argument applies to religious organizations, then it applies to all organizations that work on issues that have partisan implications. Yglesias’s argument isn’t so much against tax-exemption for religious organizations as it’s an argument against tax-exempt status more broadly.
What I want to focus on in this short series, though, is not the broader issue of tax exemption overall. Rather, I want to focus on the article by Cragun, Yeager, and Vega, as the estimates in this article seem to form the basis for assertions about how much additional revenue the government would have if religious organizations were taxed and all of the things that the government would do with it. As Matthews writes, “they’re not exactly disinterested parties; their research appeared in Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.” However, I must disagree with Matthews’s assertion that “the data seems to check out.” The article by Cragun et al suffers from several major deficiencies:
- The authors use various ad hoc definitions of ‘charity’ that fit neither popular understandings or the term nor the broader legal framework within which nonprofit organizations exist; in fact, the article seems wholly ignorant of that larger framework.
- They make use of incongruous figures, using mixtures of absolute dollar amounts and percentages of revenue from different timeframes.
- They make use of surface-level research without digging deeper into figures that they cite, causing them to make some statements that are simply false.
- They make assumptions about the revenues of religious congregations that are (1) absurd on their face, (2) based on small samples, (3) and/or incompatible with other assumptions that they make in the article.
- They make estimates for various taxes using methods that we would not expect to yield accurate estimates.
I’ll take each of these on in greater detail below.
One final note before we dive into the article. Cragun et al refer repeatedly to the charitable status and subsidies that ‘religion’ enjoys or that ‘religions’ enjoy. ‘Religion’, of course, is an (often poorly defined) abstract concept, and abstract concepts – no matter how well defined – are neither given nonprofit status nor taxed. What Cragun et al are discussing in their article is not ‘religion’ or ‘religions’, but religious organizations. Moreover, they are not discussing all religious organizations – organizations that the authors consider both religious and predominantly charitable are not included – but a particular kind of religious organization: religious congregations. This is more or a pet peeve than anything else – the reification of religion often seems to lead to fuzzy thinking – but it is important to be clear about what we are discussing.
Warren and Tyagi demonstrated that buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.