AerospaceHuman ResourcesArchitectureInnovationBanking & FinanceNonprofitsConstructionReal EstateEconomy RetailEducationSales & MarketingEnergyTechnologyGovernmentTransportationHealth Care
Listening devices, mysterious cash payments and multimillion-dollar corporations hemorrhaging money while company executives publicly battle with their boards of directors.
Throw in an economic climate comparable to the Great Depression, and the nonprofit community as a whole is trying to pull out of a PR tailspin.
Marnie Taylor, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, trains Oklahoma nonprofits on how to do it right. Her lobbyist husband keeps insisting that all press is good press.
“I don’t know about that. I think what that has done in the few instances we’ve had in this community where things have not gone correctly for nonprofits, is it really has drawn attention to the industry,” she says. “It’s made boards of directors ask questions maybe they weren’t asking. It’s made funders ask a lot of questions on grant applications, and the state is changing the law to start asking tougher questions for nonprofits.
“These (changes) make those things come to light. I’m sort of grateful, in an odd way.”
FEED THE CHILDREN
The most publicized story in the local nonprofit industry has been the saga of the charity founded by Larry and Frances Jones.
Founded in 1979 as a Christian, international relief organization, Feed the Children’s mission was to feed starving children around the world.
The Joneses eventually were ousted by the board after allegations of mismanagement and nepotism, but the internal fighting between the Jones family and the board, and eventually between the Jones family members themselves, was played out in the media.
The American Institute of Philanthropy repeatedly has given the organization an F rating for financial inefficiency, charging that less than 25% of cash donations make it to those in need.
Now the group is in the process of rebuilding its reputation and refining its mission. One of the first steps was to change the organization’s face by hiring former American Heart Association CEO Cass Wheeler as interim president.
“I was so impressed by their deep commitment to the mission of the organization,” Wheeler says. “The organization has done some really good work, and they deserve to survive.”
Wheeler admits the nonprofit industry is understandably taking a wait-and-see approach to Feed the Children, but COO and interim CEO Travis Arnold says the $1 billion charity isn’t slowing down.
“I feel very good today,” Arnold says. “We feel like we are going in the right direction.”
There’s no doubt the organization has ramped up a PR campaign that was sorely needed after the public sparring between the company and its founder.
Recently, the charity partnered with Oklahoma City Public Schools to give a food-filled backpack to every homeless child attending Oklahoma City schools.
“It seems like the public, many times, perceives us one way, but yet there are so many facets to this organization and things we are involved with that sometimes we fall short of getting that message out to the public so they can really see what we do and what we’re about,” Arnold says. “Maybe we’re not real good at beating our own drums.”
But they’re getting better. “Here lately, we provided 112 semi truckloads of disaster relief supplies to storm victims in the southeast and an additional 39 truckloads to Joplin areas and in Oklahoma City and a few areas hit in Arkansas,” Arnold said.
Charges of financial mismanagement eventually led to the retirement of Jesus House President and CEO Janis Mercer.
In May, Mercer tendered her resignation at the request of the board of directors at the same time the state attorney general’s office was probing the organization’s finances.
The resignation ended months of public outcries regarding Mercer’s $177,000 per year salary and nearly $100,000 in personal loans paid out to Mercer, her son and others. During the same time, she made a public plea for donations as the Jesus House’s operating account was overdrawn.
OKC attorney Michael S. Homsey served on the Jesus House Board of Directors in 2010 before resigning to represent the group in future legal matters that may arise from the attorney general’s investigation.
“It’s a bigger job than people think,” Homsey says of the president and CEO role. “I think Jesus House still does a wonderful job. We’re now in a position of trying to start over. It’s not easy. It’s never easy in the charitable world when you hit a bump in the road.
“We need to get on with our lives, and so does the Jesus House.”
Even charities that are doing it right have found themselves in the headlines, thanks to the recession.
Melanie McDonald, president and CEO of World Neighbors Inc., says her $10 million grassroots charity had to lay off half of its workforce when the economy tanked. Her international staff of 160 was cut to 80, and the group’s operating budget shrank to $6 million.
“Like every other nonprofit in the U.S., we had a couple of pretty miserable years through the recession,” McDonald said during a fundraising visit in New York City. “I’m confident we’re coming out of that. The economic environment is still pretty fragile, but we are beginning to rebuild slowly.”
Taylor says power struggles and missing cash make for great headlines, but they’re isolated incidents in the nonprofit world.
“We don’t often have our opportunities to sing our praises in a positive way,” she says. “There are a lot of ‘good news’ stories. The truth is, we can’t afford full-page ads to talk about how great things are going and what nonprofits do.”