Christopher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Last week was a rough week for me:

I recently bought a new house and, after some storms, we discovered water in the basement. That led to the discovery of some broken and disturbed asbestos tile, which will need to be abated before we do any finishing work in the basement.

In an act of petty vandalism, someone threw a rock through my car window. Since the amount to replace the window was less than my deductible, insurance didn’t cover it.

I broke my glasses. I have an extra pair, so I can still see (or I wouldn’t be able to write this), and I was due for an eye exam anyway. Still, it sucks.

While it was a difficult week, I’m fully aware of how fortunate I’ve been through all of this. I have savings that can help with the cost of asbestos remediation. I have savings specifically for automotive expenses that can cover the cost of a new car window. And I have vision insurance that will cover an eye exam and most of the cost of a new pair of glasses.

In other words, I have savings and slack. I can absorb a few unexpected expenses as long as they’re not too big.

Many, many people do not have that ability. For these people, asbestos, even with water in the basement, would be something they have to live with. A broken car window would mean putting up a garbage bag (or something else) and getting on with life. Broken glasses would mean living with broken glasses or trading the ability to see with the ability to pay some other bill.

All of us have bad days or bad weeks. But bad days and bad weeks don’t have the same consequences for all of us. That’s an important thing to remember.

I Am Pleased to See That John McCain Did the Right Thing

The Senate rejected an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act last night. And, despite my somewhat cynical expectations, Senator John McCain did the right thing and voted against the bill. Credit where credit is due: well done John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski.

As usual, the folks at Lawyers, Guns, & Money put it best:

This blog is proud to have always recognized and admired John McCain’s fiercely independent statesmanship.

…Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski deserve a lot of credit too. Deserving even more are every member of the Democratic caucus, who were unwaveringly opposed. And the most credit goes to ordinary citizens who went to the streets, called, and wrote, and made this bill politically toxic. Cheers. The war for universal healthcare is far from over, but this is a huge win for the American people.

Esquire: The Price of John McCain’s Republican Loyalty

But the ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure. He flew all the way across the country, leaving his high-end government healthcare behind in Arizona, in order to cast the deciding vote to allow debate on whatever ghastly critter emerges from what has been an utterly undemocratic process. He flew all the way across the country in order to facilitate the process of denying to millions of Americans the kind of medical treatment that is keeping him alive, and to do so at the behest of a president* who mocked McCain’s undeniable military heroism.

Discipline

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who told me about her need to see a financial planner. Here’s what her reasoning was. When she has money, she is disciplined about saving. When she doesn’t have as much money – when she needs to spend the money she has on other things – she’s not so disciplined. She needs someone to hold her accountable all the time and make sure she’s disciplined about saving.

And, she said, the low-income people she works with need the same thing: someone to make sure their disciplined about saving.

And that struck me as a weird way to use the word ‘discipline.’

Imagine two pieces of rich decadent chocolate cake. One piece is in front of someone who has just had a big meal: an appetizer, house salad, a 16-ounce ribeye, fried, and some asparagus. A feast. That person has eaten so much she feels a little queasy. She says no to the cake.

The other piece is in front of someone who has just been rescued after getting lost on a hiking trip. He hasn’t eaten in three days and is absolutely starving. He gobbles down the cake in what seems like a matter like seconds.

Is either of these people acting on discipline? Is the first person showing discipline? Is the second person showing a lack of discipline?

No.

The difference between the first person and the second person isn’t discipline; it’s need. Of course we’re good at saying ‘no’ when we’re living in abundance. It’s easy to refuse some chocolate cake when we’re full or to put some money into savings when we have extra. And we’re much worse at saying ‘no’ when we’re facing scarcity. It’s hard to refuse the cake when we’re starving or to save money when almost every dollar is going to some necessity.

This is true for my colleague and the low-income families she serves. It’s easy to save when we have extra money. It’s hard to save when we don’t. It has little (if anything) to do with discipline.

What’s particularly fascinating here is the moral dimension to this. We usually understand discipline as a virtue and a sign of good character. People who are disciplined are good. Conversely, we understand a lack of discipline as a sign of poor character. People who don’t show discipline are bad. That’s problematic enough as it is, but there might be some truth in it. Some people might really be undisciplined. And they might be more virtuous if they were able to control their impulses better.

But we make it worse when we confuse discipline and need. If we think that the person who hasn’t eaten in three days is undisciplined because he eats the cake, and we think that being undisciplined is morally suspect, then we eng up saying that being hungry (even after a prolonged period of not eating) is morally wrong.  Similarly, if we think that the person who has just had a feast is disciplined because she refuses the cake, and we think that being disciplined is a virtue, then we end up saying that she it virtuous because she’s had more than enough to eat.

In other words, we end up saying that having very little is a sin and having a lot is a virtue. And I don’t think that any of us want to make that claim. At least, I hope that none of us want to make that claim.

So we need to be careful not to confuse discipline with need.

The United Church of Christ Needs to Invest in Stewardship

Last week, I attended the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. General Synod is our biannual business meeting, full of resolutions to be examined and officers to be elected. There are also exhibits, workshops, reunions, and lots (and lots) of events. Even the extroverts are exhausted after a few days!

One of our tasks at Synod was to debate a resolution about covenantal giving and adopting fundraising best practices (I wrote a little bit about it a few weeks ago). Here’s the key paragraph:

Be it further resolved that the Thirty First General Synod of the United Church of Christ encourages all ministry settings of the United Church of Christ to establish coordinated and comprehensive development programs using best practices that: are sensitive to the needs of all settings of the church; are responsive to changing patterns and practices of generosity across the church and within the culture in which the church lives; are consistent with norms, expectations, and policies of a donor-centered approach to fundraising and philanthropy; and empower congregations and individual donors to donate directly to the mission priorities that are most compelling to them.

This is a great resolution, and I’m glad that it passed. But, as with all resolutions, it means that there’s serious work to do.

As I wandered the exhibit hall and pored over the list of workshops, I noticed that there was a severe lack of compelling materials to help congregations and other expressions of the United Church of Christ to establish those coordinated and comprehensive development programs. Most congregations, associations, and conferences do not have fundraising professionals on staff. Most probably don’t even have fundraising professionals in their pews. In the absence of professionals, this work is going to be left to pastors and volunteers.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But those pastors and volunteers need to be well-resourced by the denomination. They need a way to understand fundraising from a practical, theological, and pastoral perspective that is honest to the history and values of the United Church of Christ. There is a desperate need for the denomination to invest in resources for clergy and laity in all expressions of the United Church of Christ. In my opinion, this means books, manuals, workshops, webinars, and specialized ministers.

When so many congregations are struggling financially, we cannot afford to have this resolution simply be a suggestion for congregations, conferences, and other bodies. We must invest in the work of ensuring that our denomination and its expressions have the financial resources that they need.

Baptist News Global: Diana Butler Bass: SBC Decline Dispels Idea That Only Liberal Denominations Die

“The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative denomination,” she said. “That’s irrelevant. The issue is: Are you a congregation that provides a way of meaningful life for people to be able to navigate chaotic times and to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Spirit, to be able to love and be compassionate? That’s what makes religious communities vibrant, not whether they are liberal or conservative.”

NANOE Advocates for Abolishing Your Board

Somehow, I got on the mailing list of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE). The brainchild of Jimmy LaRose, NANOE is part of the charity skeptics movement that I don’t often talk about. It’s a champion of the idea that the nonprofit sector should be largely replaced by a socially conscious version of the for profit sector.

The latest email I got from NANOE outlined LaRose’s vision for nonprofit board members. According to LaRose, ‘boardsmanship’ is not about governance, visioning, policy making, or volunteerism.1It’s also clearly not about gender-inclusivity. It’s about advice and accountability. Specifically, it’s about doing a weird handful of things:

Complying with IRS regulations. That seems reasonable, but remember that the board shouldn’t be governing or making policy. So, I’m not sure how they should make sure that the organization is complying with IRS regulations.

Supporting a strong CEO by hiring them, evaluating them, supporting their vision, and providing them with expert advice. NANOE believes that actual power should rest with the strong CEO. That is the person who should determine the course of the organization.

Attending three meetings each year, and approving the meeting agendas. And, of course, getting paid for those meetings. NANOE recommends a board of six people, getting paid $300 per hour for teleconference calls and $1,000 per day for in person meetings. Plus expenses. That means a one hour conference call would cost the organization $1,800. And a one day meeting would cost the organization $6,000 plus expenses!

Approving and amending by-laws. But, again, not making policy.

Choosing and reviewing independent financial and program audits. But, again, not making policy. And, since these are independent audits (and I’m an advocate for independent audits), this really means deciding who to pay for them.

And, according to NANOE, this group should include an entrepreneur (as the chair), a program expert (as the secretary), an accountant (as the treasurer), a lawyer, a communications expert, and a nonprofit expert.

Let’s be absolutely clear: this is not a board. This is a group of paid professionals supporting the executive director’s vision and providing advice for realizing that vision. These are consultants.

Now, I have nothing against consultants; I provide consulting services. But this is a recipe for disaster.

First, NANOE is suggesting abolishing any oversight for the executive director. Notice that no one who the nonprofit serves is on this board. No donors or volunteers are on this board. No members of the general public on this board. Only experts are on the board. And they are commissioned to support the executive. Since they are not empowered to set vision or policy, this severely limits their ability to serve as a check on a ‘strong CEO’.

Second, by suggesting that board members be paid, NANOE comes close to advocating for a conflict of interest. Let’s imagine for a moment that the organization’s donors are from a rare breed that won’t revolt at the idea of a conference call costing $1,800. Paying board members – especially at a generous rate like $300 per hour – creates a risk that board members will see service as an opportunity for self-enrichment.

Together, both of these ideas create an environment that will erode trust in the nonprofit sector. Donors, volunteers, and others are not going to accept the idea that an unsupervised CEO is using their donations to pay a crew of consultants. And they shouldn’t. Members of our communities should be able to trust that the organizations they support are using their gifts of time, talent, and treasure for the the greater good; not for personal gain.

There are bigger issues here, of course. NANOE isn’t just advocating for replacing your board with consultants. It’s advocating for remaking the nonprofit sector in the image of the for-profit one. And that’s a huge problem. But it’s a problem that starts here: with the idea that nonprofits should be about money over mission.

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