VOL. 121 | NO. 55 | Thursday, March 09, 2006
Corporate Scandals Create Focus on Nonprofit Accountability
By Andy Meek
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: Brier Turner, director of the Fire Museum of Memphis, adjusts an exhibit at the 7-year-old nonprofit organization Downtown. Turner and other nonprofit officials are adjusting their fund-raising tactics in an increasingly competitive environment. -- Photograph By Andy Meek
School children are given free fingerprinting kits and taught about safety.
Families who live in poverty are able to say goodbye to substandard housing.
Downtown Memphis parks, streets and medians are kept well-manicured, and visitors get to gaze at exhibits in the renovated Fire Engine House No. 1 at 118 Adams St.
That may sound like a lot, but it's all in a day's work for countless nonprofit agencies in Memphis.
By one estimate, the U.S. nonprofit sector is the sixth largest economic market in the world. But pressure is building to make nonprofit agencies more influential, accountable and attractive to donors, and the same goes for the mix of agencies operating in Memphis.
Why dollars make cents
Accordingly, The Grant Center is hosting "Building Public Trust Through Accountability" at its annual conference at The Jewish Community Center May 12. Speakers will talk about the importance of being more accessible - not to mention answerable - to the general public.
"That's important because you've got a lot more organizations that are competing for the same amount of money," said Nancy McGee, CEO of The Grant Center.
Hers is a nonprofit organization that steers more than $100 million in national grants to Memphis agencies each year.
Whether a group has limited means or is well-off, successful nonprofit agencies in the current climate are making the most out of what's on hand.
Sgt. Len Edwards of the local Commission on Missing and Exploited Children gets plenty of mileage out of his group's few resources.
"(Accountability) is important because you've got a lot more organizations that are competing for the same amount of money."
- Nancy McGee
CEO of The Grant Center
He spoke Wednesday to a group of children from Saint Agnes Academy and Saint Dominic School about safety rules, sending each child home with a fingerprinting kit. Their families also had the chance to buy a safety awareness DVD produced by John Walsh of the show "America's Most Wanted." Walsh's son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. Since then, Walsh has become a national figure in the fight for victims' rights.
Edwards' non-profit group does all of that by paying its own way.
Scrapping for limited resources
However, nonprofit agencies do a lot more than make presentations to schools. They're involved in tourism, health care, education, religion, sports and other industries.
But for the most part, the money isn't pouring in like it used to.
Government budgets are tight. Competition has grown. And with more choices available to donors, nonprofit agencies are scouring for ways to step up their efforts.
One way is with the help of The Grant Center, which is in the midst of its third Program for Nonprofit Excellence, or PNE.
A couple of months ago, six nonprofit agencies in Memphis were chosen to get some unique aid through the PNE class. The Fire Museum of Memphis, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis, the National Foundation for Transplants, Memphis Area Legal Services Inc., Memphis Theological Seminary and New Directions Inc. will collaborate with consultants, go through a training series and get an assessment of their organizations. By the end of the 12-month process, they should have an aggressive plan for the future.
"I've been with Habitat for four years, and 'capacity-building' is sort of an area where we have been struggling all along," said Dwayne Spencer, executive director of Habitat. "At some point, you have to take a look at your organizational stability, and it's just difficult to do that without someone helping you through the process."
Guilt by association?
A decade ago, nonprofit organizations usually didn't have to do much to find funding; if they were dedicated to a single issue or something emotional, scoring financial backing was a cinch, McGee said. Recent corporate scandals are one reason that's changed.
Now that Wall Street has zeroed in on corporations and creative bookkeeping, the focus now seems to be turning to nonprofit organizations.
Memphis nonprofit agencies such as the Riverfront Development Corp. and the Center City Commission are funded by taxes and various fees, for example, leaving them open to scrutiny.
"The problem is the spotlight tends to be shone on nonprofits when they have missteps," McGee said.
Sometimes, those missteps are big. A few weeks ago, the former board president of Memphis' Influence 1 Foundation pled guilty to bilking the group for more than $100,000 to prop up his failing private business.
But the spotlight - and help from groups like The Grant Center - can illuminate positive things, too.
Even though the Downtown area's 7-year-old fire museum hasn't changed many exhibits since it opened, it's still being positioned for bigger and better things.
"We now have some pretty ambitious plans," said Brier Turner, the museum's director.
Being involved in the PNE class generated several ideas, she said, such as a major exhibit improvement and renovation that will happen soon.
Nonprofit agencies might often do a lot with a little, but they're always about doing important work, whether it's running a museum dedicated to firefighters or educating children.
"I think a lot of people don't think about that, and they forget about the important role the nonprofit sector plays," said The Grant Center's McGee.