Friday, December 7, 2012

Pay More. Give more. Get more.

The December 7th  New York Times detailed the increased marginal  income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. I have a modest suggestion. There is  no question in  my  mind that these"folks" (Obama's preferred term) should and can pay more. Instead of threatening to cut the charitable deduction rate, or cap it, how about the Republicans and Democrats agree to increase it as the marginal tax rate goes up for the wealthiest? It helps charities. It's a sop to the rich and though I am  no economist I sense that it would have little bad effect.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Big Government and the Charitable Tax Deduction

The fatalistic conjunction of Super Sandy, President Obama's re-election (whew!) and the fiscal cliff has  put big government and the charitable tax deduction on the board in a way we couldn't have imagined a month ago. Sandy showed both the vibrancy of generous Americans and charitable impulse - as well as the simple fact that private charity, no matter how well intentioned, cannot really function very well in a disaster setting without a supervening mammoth federal. state and local government presence. Government assures adequacy of broad scale effort; charity is at best  interstitial, filling  in the cracks - essential yes, but really quite limited, highly selective, not easily quantified, and pretty much  unaccountable.

A lame duck congress has gathered and must forge a compromise that ideally will address the need to  increase revenues and decrease expenses. As we know mandatory across-the-board cuts, deep cuts, in federal spending  - including the Republican untouchable, Defense - kick in at the end of the year. Everyone  knows the super-rich and the just-rich ($250,000 and up) are favored  in the tax code. Simply put my view is the rich can and should pay more in taxes. There are various ways to accomplish this end. One way is  by capping the charitable tax deduction - a kick in the rubber parts that reportedly will have a profound impact on giving by the very rich.

The usual suspects have already begun a furious lobbying effort to assure that the deduction isn't touched. I'm of course part of the "industry;" I'm on the receiving end of this agitprop and as a matter of self interest I should huff and puff with everyone else. But I'm not so sure. I keep asking myself what is best for the country? What is best for the greatest  number of taxpayers in all brackets? Yes some mega-donations might be  lost or reduced. Would that cost bring a greater social benefit? I don't  like singling  out the charitable tax deduction when the entire tax code is such a dog's breakfast of forgiven revenue - everything from mortgage interest to offshore tax  loopholes, etc. But the prospect of a split congress actually reforming the tax code? That chute won't open. The best we'll get, in my view, is a spatchcocked compromise with most of the inherently bad stuff unaddressed.

If  other giveaways  by the federal tax code are seriously addressed I really can't honestly argue that the charitable tax deduction is untouchable. And I  itemize.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Health Care and the 1%

Some years ago I went to work for PROSTATE CANCER FOUNDATION then run by Leslie D. Michelson, a tough but fair marketing-oriented guy. Leslie left  in 2007 and founded a company called Private Health to help his clients " ... obtain the best possible health care.  We knew just how dysfunctional the health care 'system' was and have worked hard to develop the expertise, resources, systems and discipline needed to navigate it."

The article below, written by Joe Rago of the Wall Street Journal will be of interest to anyone concerned with the equities and inequities of health care specifically and of American economic life generally. This piece is very troubling to me yet it is on head-on. Like charter schools, Ivy League colleges or anything else that attracts an elite sub-set the argument reduces to one ethical conundrum: if you can't help everyone should you help anyone? A corollary is if you do so does or can society as a whole  ultimately benefit?

Friends - this is a dose of the salts.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Thanksgiving is  my favorite holiday. No presents. Lots of food. Unhappily it's followed  by "Black Friday" - that outpouring of retail frenzy - followed  by "Cyber Monday,"when the computer manufacturers, cell phone makers etc. unload the old  inventory and ring in the new. 

In an ambitious, well intended, possibly naive, but much needed new idea a small group of people (disclosure: I'm one of them) have started Giving Tuesday urging retailers and consumers to recognize the philanthropic  impulse that has always  inspired Americans by giving to the charity of their choice.

Please join us. Visit --

On Tuesday November 27, 2012, charities, families, businesses and individuals are coming together to transform the way people think about, talk about and participate in the giving season. It’s a simple idea. Find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to join in acts of giving. Tell everyone you can about what you are doing and why it matters. Join a national celebration of our great tradition of generosity.

And together we’ll create ways to give more, give better and give smarter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Kay Partney Lautman died of Alzheimer's disease  on July 9th at age74.

When I came to the Oram firm in 1964 all new girls were dunked in the steno pool. Harold Oram fished  in that pond. He had a keen eye for intellectual ability, spunk,  humor, feminine grace and the ability to relate to our often wacky and always demanding clients. The best of the best were reeled in and promoted. Kay was one of those; she rose from the pool and began to work as a very junior direct mail person. Kay was Miss New York Career Girl then - pillbox hat, gloves, tight skirts, Texas drawl and she  loved being the center of attention. Harold Oram was way ahead of his time giving brilliant women and  minorities (and  minority women) a chance to show excellence. Kay was an extraordinary talent.

One of our clients was World Wildlife Fund and Kay worked with Harold  on the account. In addition to all kinds of royalty she met one of the great advertising spinmeisters of all time, David Ogilvy. David really  liked Kay, I guess he saw the same gifts in her that Harold did. His regard for her is why he agreed to do the foreword to the book she and I wrote on direct mail. That direct mail campaign was of  pivotal importance to nonprofit fund raising because no environmental  organization up to that time had ever attempted to reach a mass market in the mail. Now of course they're all in it. Harold convinced them to try it, Kay did the work, Ogilvy encouraged us and  it was eminently successful. (Go Panda!). Kay had many other great pioneering successes in direct marketing. But that was the first.

Then the firm was "Mad Men" on steroids - full of goofy, quirky and wonderfully gifted people.Clients loved coming to the office, to drink Harold's Scotch, smoke his ropey cigars and, of course, go fishing. Kay easily fended off rambunctious CEOs and raunchy development types with a smile and a pithy word or two but this wasn't necessarily true of everyone and there were some memorably delicious moments. For the most part, though, the exotic stuff was among the spirited staff and led to one of Kay's great Dorothy Parker-like one-liners. Tartly observing a threesome (none of us could visualize all those arms and legs) she opined "well, better to be AC-DC than  not  plugged in at all."

In the fullness of time Kay was invited to be a guest  on "The David Susskind Show," one of TV's early talk drills. He decided to do one on career girls and Kay is sitting there with a manner so syrupy you could  pour it over pancakes. They covered this and that and finally Susskind brings up affairs with married men. Three of the ladies pitch snits and then Kay sweetly sticks  in the stiletto: "well I don't know, you have all your holidays and weekends free."

Kay was seconded to Washington and opened the Oram office there in a rabbit hutch on N Street near the Tabard Inn. She met Bob Lautman an architectural  photographer, a guy totally out of Kay's world. The Miss Career Girl persona was dropped, the pillbox hats and  little white gloves went, Kay matured, became a savvy businesswoman and their narrow town house on Wisconsin and 41st was a wonderful place. The best word I can think of to describe Bob is "fey." He was slightly built, had an elfin, gentle personality and he was a prodigiously great chef. I still have a memory of Bob poaching a fish nearly as tall as he was. Another time, I flew down there on the Eastern shuttle with a fish he had asked me to courier. 

Kay had a great sense of humor always. And she had a really zany side. She had a friend named Donal McLaughlin ... and this is the story as reported  on a page evoking Donal's memory:

"In 1977, an East African giraffe named Victor - distinguished by age, experience and virility --- lost his footing and spread-eagled himself while attempting to be of service to Arabesque, one of the three female giraffe friends at the Marwell Park Zoo, 70 miles south of London. The plight of the fallen lover attracted the sympathy and understanding of kindred souls throughout the world. They agonized with him as various desperate efforts were made to get him up again. Finally, on the sixth day, he made it ---inspired by the nudging nose of Arabesque and assisted by a crane operated by Her Majesty's Navy. Sad to relate , Victor did not survive this sling of outrageous fortune. But he never gave up, and he died trying. That is his legacy and our inspiration."

That legacy and inspiration led to Donal, Kay and a few other folks to start the Society of Victor Invictus, whose motto and crest "upward ever upward" drew  in 150 other people. Once a year we would have a great party and whatever we raised went to giraffe care somewhere. I think. I hope. Because there was never a membership list, never an organization. It just was.  A lapel pin was designed and  one day on a plane the guy next to me had the pin on his jacket. Wow! 

In 1992 Kay left Oram and struck out on her own. Our parting was not without tension but over time we navigated those shoals and remained friendly. 

I've never figured out how to end an obit. The gone are still gone. So Kay, upward ever upward!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

NonProfit Update Trend
May 2012

This post is the work of friend and colleague  MARILYN HOYT and is published with her permission.  She is at

Here Comes the Sun…It’s been a long cold lonely winter…
Beatles, 1969

Our Nonprofit trends are starting to creep up in 2012…but not as quickly as the needs of those we serve or the expectations of those to whom we report.   The fundamentals are getting better…but we are not feeling the tailwind yet...we need to plan for increased momentum, without spending resources we do not yet have.  A new sort of volatility!

So maybe this is a good time to share research that 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen (2 Tylenol) actually does make us more able to maintain our focus and confidence when we are criticized or rejected.  Our liver may get grumpy if we try this every day, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind for tough interactions... J  (

Quick Overview of Funder Trends Right Now:

Major Donors – I’m hearing often that new major gifts are expected, but timing is unforeseeable as donors  continue to hesitate in a volatile environment. I’m also still hearing about unfulfilled pledges. (Robert Frank, the Wall Street Journal wealth columnist, reports that half the 1% turned over since 2008.) 

Foundations – 2012 is the first year without 2008 in the 3 year average that often defines total grant making. But the market didn’t suddenly rebound in 2009, so we are not going to see a bigt rebound in grant making. We are seeing signs that funding priority changes made in the tough years are continuing. We are also seeing more forms and e-forms as foundations seek ways to streamline administration.

Corporate – Mixed.  Corporate giving staff laid off are not being replaced, so a lot of community knowledge and grant making experience has been lost.  There are repeated signals that business marketing/branding is more closely related to contribution priorities. E-forms and outsourced grants management growing in some regions.

Government – Overall weak as states and localities continue to struggle with a diminished tax base.  In addition to the impact of lower real estate values on tax rolls; in some states, business is gaining massive relief from taxation by threatening to cut jobs or move out of state. Federal funding is mixed, but generally weak in traditional areas of education, health and human services and culture.

Naïve Theories Abound and Naïve Voices Can Overwhelm Our Messages:

Hard times seem always to breed their crops of fast talkers, simple solutions and willing listeners.  We need to work really hard – every one of us -- to communicate the value of what we do and our authority as those who do it well.  Where we are as a sector ten years from now is dependent on our capacity to make our case now.

Naïve Programs Undermine Our Missions and Our Support:  Easy solutions…sound so good.  Here’s a current example --- It’s not surprising to see new philanthropists punching wells all over dry areas.  Entrepreneurs use the logic model which includes high volume “filling orders” and may see is as a superior approach to all problems. But it’s a failure of strong communication on our part over the years when even experienced resource-funding foundations fall into this simple thinking. In our reports did we include the back story of how we identify well sites and train villagers to maintain their wells?  Did we ever include context for why these extra steps are necessary -- .like references to villagers pulling arsenic-tainted water from new, flash-sited wells? ( of Social Innovation)

If snap actions could yield durable solutions, these problems would have been solved long ago. We work in  fields, where accrued experience across the field yield superior results. We need to be sure that we are touch with the best and brightest in our fields.  And we need to draw more new philanthropists onto our boards and advisory committees, or simply every so often to lunch so they can become informed problem solvers.  We need to ensure that our proposals and reports truly inform and educate our funders.

Naïve Public Policy Undermines Our Capacity to Support Our Communities:  The Payment-In-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT) movement is gaining steam monthly.  Hungry communities turn to us for new income.  If your nonprofit – regardless of size or field – has not yet developed a set of bullets articulating how you enhance the local community, NOW is the time.  Here are typical assets nonprofits bring to their communities.  They can be quantified.  Taxing us reduces our capacity to deliver these assets:

-          As Employers:  Private jobs you provide in your zip code

-          As Taxpayers:  Payroll taxes you pay (UBIT too?)

-          Bringing $ to town:  Grants/contracts/earned income you bring to your town/city from outside its borders

-          More services to taxpayers without  higher taxes:  Investments in schools, parks, libraries, parks, needy populations (any directly served by government agencies) provided by nonprofits using private and/or state and federal dollars

-          Public money multiplier:  How many times do you match any public dollars you receive with private dollars from earnings, grants and gifts

-          Leveraging community growth/assisting business:  Social, cultural, health and/or education services that “brand” your community as a quality place to live, shop and visit.

And we should talk about endowments.  They are in the crosshairs…even sometimes internally with our own staff and Trustees.  Endowments keep wealth in town even as business and bellwether families change through the generations.  And endowments deliver earnings that ensure opportunity for innovation or against catastrophic loss of quality and quantity of core services through times like these.   

And Sometimes We Let Ourselves Fall Into the Naïve Trap and Forget What We Know And Can Measure:

Old ways of doing things are producing uneven results.  And new techniques and media for doing our work and raising resources are still not yielding very consistent success.

We need to work so smart as more positive trends begin to emerge. What do we really understand from shrewdly watching the outcomes of our programs?  How can we change the execution of our missions to yield even better results?  Is there anything the naïve philanthropists or micro-managing authority figures, or needy-government policymakers are doing that we should consider utilizing?  Certainly in all this bathwater that’s being thrown around, there must be a baby or two.
Likewise, as many jobs begin to open, we need to be smart about our own careers:

If we remain pretty much confident in the trustees and staff with whom we work, and they in us, we should likely stay put until this first tsunami of job openings washes through over the next year or so.  Too many of these jobs are made up of a whole bunch of former positions that were downsized again and again.  Walk on water jobs are not a good next move.

On the other hand, if our sense is that we can accomplish very little in the position we currently hold…either because of dilution of confidence in us or the dysfunction of our agency, then we continue our highest level commitment at work and begin looking to move.  Life is short.  Careers are even shorter.  There is no reason to mark time where we could really make a difference if we positioned ourselves well in a new job. We need to try hard to truly assess our own strengths (and weaknesses) and avoid stereotypical aspirations (I need to become a director of development or a CEO)  In interviews, we need to engage in discussions that yield insights into the position and agency.  Is this a good fit for us?

It is Helpful to Keep Renewing Our Understanding of the Kinds of Leadership our Sector Needs:

Our work is tough and complex and sometimes we forget why. This terrific article from The Financial Times superficially references political campaigns.  Look past that – it very meaningfully addresses the nature of our work and the leadership it requires of each of us: 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

What’s New in Nonprofit Consulting? Everything.

Consulting for philanthropic groups bears little resemblance to what it was a decade or two ago, when the field was dominated by large firms and most consultants focused on basic fundraising. These days, the work is broader, more specialized, and more strategic. And in many ways, it offers greater flexibility—and broader appeal—than ever before. Here’s how:
  • Greater specialization: Information technology, social marketing, globalization, donor-directed philanthropic advisers, and blurring of the lines between profit and nonprofit (e.g., cause-related marketing) are a few examples of consulting specialties that have emerged in the past 25 years or so.
  • More breadth: Though consulting specialists abound, there is an equally strong demand for experienced consultants who can advise clients strategically–meaning the problem a client walks in the door with is seldom the real problem. Increasingly in our practice at the Oram Group, an engagement is a troika of fund development (not just fundraising but funding alternatives as well), governance, and strategic planning.
Consulting for nonprofit groups these days is big business: The private nonprofit sector is a substantial economic driver in the U.S., employing over 10 percent of the work force. Anyone can apply the consultant label and the cost of professional entry, and ongoing costs can be kept low. Technology and portability have really enabled our work. First the laptop and now, for many, the iPad and smartphones have unalterably changed us and our work. (I look at my fax machine and think “how primitive.”)

There are still large consulting firms with staffs of “resident” campaign managers and costly fixed overhead. But client visits to their offices are not that common, so they are cutting down on headquarters space, and their senior staffs work from their homes or hotel rooms.
When the Oram Group had 40 employees and offices in three cities, it was fairly rare that clients came to us. We went to them, and that’s still pretty much the rule. Having given up a midtown office three years ago, I now work from my SoHo loft. Clients who meet with me at my home enjoy the side benefits of shopping and good restaurants. It’s cheaper for me and works perfectly.

Working alone takes discipline, but the rewards of consulting make it well worthwhile.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Blessed Use of Tainted Money ...

Nonprofits have long struggled with the provenance of  money. Gifts flowing to environmental groups can be especially fraught. Do you take  money from a polluter? Or do you renounce him for his evil ways? And do you keep raising  money from your base either way? For some groups there is no choice but to reject "tainted"  money. But others - including the biggest names in tree-hugging - National Audubon, Environmental Defense Fund, and now it comes to light, Sierra Club have taken the King's shilling and in essence, many would argue, become the King's man.

During the time he headed Sierra Club, Carl Pope, one of the best known environmentalists in the country took $26  million from oil, gas and energy interests and told  no one. “Runners shouldn’t smoke, priests shouldn’t touch the kids, and environmentalists should never take money from polluters,” John Passacantando, a former director of Greenpeace who is now an environmental consultant, said in an interview with The New York Times (published February 14th).

But the other view is perhaps best expressed by the old Southern  preacher who when confronted for taking tainted money to fix the church roof replied: "tainted  money? T'aint enough!" The failure to disclose is Mr. Pope's real sin.It's an embarrassment to Sierra Club's board (who supposedly didn't  know) and to the new CEO who came  on in 2010 and took two years to 'fess  up. It may Sierra a few donors;  about that I'm not so convinced. Sierra is pretty  much in the center for environmental stuff. Greenpeace is an outlier on one end and other (not to be named here) groups are  little  more than PR blankets for the dark side.

This sad episode once again demonstrates the fragile relationship  between a  nonprofit board and management: the board is  utterly reliant on management to provide information - not  only  on operations  but especially  on policy as well. I  love jumping  on boards because so many trustees have mastered the art of sleeping standing  up with their eyes open. But  not in this case - unless it turns out that any of Sierra's board did  know  but covered up. No one has said that yet as far as I  know. I'll stay tuned.As should we all.