Some time back, I’d noticed a set of great articles in the D.C. LGBT newspaper, Washington Blade. The paper had surveyed 30 national and local LGBT non-profits, as well as examined each group’s 990 forms, the tax returns non-profit organizations submit to the IRS each year.
The result of the Blade’s non-profit review and coverage was phenomenal. Organizations with over-paid executives were held accountable and community members were given a rare look into the health of our nation’s top LGBT advocacy and welfare groups. The paper’s coverage was of national importance in the LGBT community; editor Kevin Naff even appeared on Sirius/XM host Michelango Signorile’s show to discuss the issues raised by their investigations.
Partly inspired by the Blade’s coverage, qnotes launched its own “Community Assessment Survey.” We sent questionnaires and 990 requests to 22 LGBT non-profits, AIDS service organizations (ASOs) and Pride festivals across the Carolinas.
Our purpose was relatively straight-forward. First, we wanted to gauge the financial health of our community’s largest organizations. Second, we wanted to assess these organizations’ strengths, weaknesses and needs. Third, we wanted to provide organizations an extra means for exposure and outreach — hoping the information they provided might benefit community members who might not know about them, their missions or their programs and services.
But, what also inspired us to undertake such a mammoth project was a simple, basic need to see transparency and accountability in action. After the demise of Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) in 2008, after years of financial and leadership troubles, we realized that many of MAP’s problems could have been solved if only the group’s leadership had been more open about their problems. Although qnotes dug in, asked questions and looked at their 990s (which showed a massive $259,906 deficit in 2008), there still remained too many questions and too few answers.
In my experience working with non-profits and reporting on them here, there are only two concerns I believe are as important as the services provided by our community organizations. First, a no-brainer: organizations must raise money in order to continue the services they’ve committed themselves to undertaking. Second, and just as important: community organizations should be transparent about the money they raise, how it is spent, who makes financial and organizational decisions and how those decisions are made.
When community organizations are completely transparent, they can be held accountable by the people and communities they serve. If there are problems, community members can rally behind the group and offer them support when and where needed. But, if organizations’ board members, officers or employees choose instead to circle the wagons and keep tight-lipped then they are destined to eventual failure, as they succumb to what I call “The Five D’s of the Lack of Transparency.”
Dysfunction among board members, donors and supporters inevitably leads to Discord and infighting. As Discord mounts, both internal leaders and community members come to Distrust a group, its leaders and purpose. Because of the Dysfunction, Discord and Distrust, Disinterest sweeps through membership, leadership and community. Eventually, like MAP, a group is forced to Disband.
Despite at least a couple groups’ attempts to sidestep transparency and honest communication, we have mostly positive news to report:
— Most, but certainly not all, of the groups were more than willing to operate with a sense of transparency: Some responded to our survey almost immediately. Others took some time, but kept lines of communication open and honest. Many either provided us in a timely manner (as the law requires) their 990 by mail, fax or email, or pointed us in the direction where they could be found on their websites or on GuideStar.org.
— Most organizations are operating smoothly, even as they face challenges from a tough economy. Like many individuals, businesses and other non-profits, they are surviving and some are thriving.
— Despite a trend of deficits, flat-lined or reduced grant and government funding and decreases in private donations, our ASOs continue to provide the life-saving and -sustaining services upon which HIV-positive people and their families have come to depend.
— Organizations are spending your money wisely: Of those employing executive directors or CEOs, most are paying reasonable and comparable salaries. In fact, LGBT non-profit CEOs are earning less than their counterparts in many non-LGBT organizations. In fact, nearly half of the organizations we surveyed operated entirely with part-time and/or volunteer staff and board members.
— Our inquiries regarding 990 forms and other financial information resulted in a discovery for one non-profit: Despite being out-of-compliance with IRS regulations for several years, the organization is now on its way toward correcting the problems. Hopefully, their oversights will be solved and they will be able to continue the great service they’ve provided our statewide community for over 25 years.
As you read through this issue, we hope you’ll take the time to look for ways in which you might be able to help the organizations and people working so hard for you each and every day. Take time to look at our article on organizations’ strengths, weaknesses and needs — perhaps you have knowledge, experience or talent you can volunteer. Be sure to look through our collection of organizations’ wish lists — perhaps you have a new or gently-used computer, filing cabinet, desk or other item on a particular group’s list of needs.
As always, our purpose and intent at qnotes is to provide our community the best up-to-date, most accurate information about their community and the issues affecting it. At the same time, we hope our coverage results in positive outcomes as our community grows stronger and, ultimately, freer. : :