Thursday, December 25, 2008

Peace - Translations/Connections

At this time of year, when so many people throughout the world celebrate many different holidays, and all of us hope for peace among nations and among individuals, I searched the web for translations of the word, "peace". The number of online translators is amazing (although I could not find a translator for Malinke, a language I learned to speak at a very basic level while visiting residents of Mali). A few of the translations that I discovered appear below. Searching for these, and for others which I did not find, taught me something not only about linguistics, but about different cultural worldviews.

For example, the number of online translators for Somali-Italian languages surprised me at first, but makes sense. The Somali-Italian translations reflect the imperialism/colonialism of the past few centuries. A portion of Somalia became Italy’s first colonial conquest in the late 1880s, as Italy attempted to assert itself as a unified state.

An Ojibwe translator increased my understanding of the importance of context. It would not translate individual words; it only translated sentences. It emphasized that words derive meaning with reference to relationships and the larger setting in which they are spoken.

Paix (French)
Paz (Spanish)
Frieden (German)
ειρήνη (Greek)
和平 (Chinese)
Vrede (Dutch)
Vrede (Afrikaans)
Pace (Italian)
平和 (Japanese)
평화 (Korean)
Paz (Portuguese)
мир (Russian)
أمان (طمأنينة) (Arabic)
Mir (Croatian)
ukuthula (Zulu)
àlàáfíà (Yoruba)
kev sib haum xeeb (Hmong)
nabad (Somali)

In looking for an English to Hmong translator, the directory of online translators directed me to a web page developed by the Saint Paul Schools - with dictionaries for translating back and forth between the two languages. That web site also includes special educational resources. Congratulations to the Saint Paul School District!

If you surf the web and explore different languages and cultures, I hope you find it enjoyable and rewarding. Although the existence of multiple languages does create some barriers to communication, our efforts to understand one another's languages can bring us closer together. In our increasingly globalized world, we need more than ever to make connections across nationalities – both within our own country and with people from different nations. So, beyond just surfing and learning, let’s make a commitment to make the connections that increase the chances that all of us will experience peace with one another.

As the year comes to a conclusion, I wish you "peace"!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Nonprofits: Danger? Opportunity? Or Some of Both?

An economy in peril. State government “unallotting” money budgeted for human services, education, and other purposes. What will happen to nonprofit organizations? What does the future hold for organizations dedicated to the public good?

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reported last week:
· about half of nonprofits have seen a decline in total revenues;
· about half have experienced increased expenses;
· just under half have suffered a decline in individual contributions.

Interestingly, MCN reported that both the number of nonprofit employers and the number of nonprofit employment locations in Minnesota declined, while the number of nonprofit jobs increased by nearly 4% from 2006 to 2007. The increase seems to be in health care, since employment in community relief services (e.g., food shelves) and in social advocacy organizations dropped below previous years’ levels. See their report at:

Some evidence suggests that demands for services may have begun to increase as a result of 2008 economic events.

So, what should we do during a year filled with uncertainty, and one in which resources will undoubtedly diminish while demand to meet needs most likely increases? A couple of strategic suggestions appear below.

First, let’s set our sights on what we can reasonably expect, positive and negative, based on what we now know about the economy.

Paul Anton, Chief Economist here at Wilder Research, exhorts us to current economic crisis in perspective. We have not entered another Great Depression. To reach that point, the 1.8 million jobs we saw disappear this year would have to grow to 30 million in the next few years. Nonetheless, many indicators of economic health have declined and show no prospect of rebounding for at least a year.

Paul sees hopeful signs because Obama’s economic advisors recognize the need to inject the right amount of Federal stimulus into state economies and because we’ve become intelligent enough as a nation not to repeat the huge policy mistakes of the past. That is, we know it makes no sense to fight the forces of globalization and restrict the sale of foreign goods in the U.S. (as we did through the Hoot Smalley Act in response to the 1929 stock market crash, with the result that we created a trade war which probably turned a bad recession into the Great Depression). We also have a Federal Reserve which will seek to support banks, not drive them out of business.

We will most likely need to survive at least a year of bad economic times. We should develop contingency plans based on neither too much optimism nor too much pessimism, but we should not focus exclusively on those plans. We must more than ever before keep our eyes on our missions and ask how to accomplish those missions in a time of increasing need and declining resources – which leads me to my second point.

Second, let’s seize the opportunity to become more efficient and more effective and to use new tools to accomplish our goals.

We never have “good economic times” in our nonprofit work. Needs always exceed the capacity to accomplish goals and deliver services. However, during normal times (however you define them), we can become complacent. We tolerate inefficiency. We feel some desire to innovate, but can encounter difficulty when attempting to create the momentum for change.

So, perhaps 2009, and the uncertain economic climate, can call us to new leadership – to do what we do in new ways, more efficiently, and more effectively. Perhaps the incentive for change will be apparent. Nonprofit organizations have an opportunity, like never before, to re-organize and re-energize.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Housing Trends, Rising Foreclosures, Implications for Our Future

Housing indicators do not look very good, according to a recent Wilder Research report by Craig Helmstetter:
· An increase in the proportion of people paying 30% or more of their income on housing. Events of the past few months will probably push this up further.
· Rents on the increase; vacancy rates down.
· An upward trend in the number of families served in emergency shelters, especially in Hennepin County.
· One of the worst rates in the country here in the Twin Cities for the homeownership gap, that is, the difference between Whites and Persons Of Color in rates of homeownership.

Housing stability, education, the ability to obtain employment and perform well in a job – all of these relate to one another. In the interest of building a strong region, we need to view housing issues as not just a pressing current challenge to overcome, but as a threat to our future.

Solutions need to be comprehensive, visionary, creative, and linked to overall efforts to maintain the strength of our region. In the short term, we cannot avoid the fact that more families and individuals will need shelter; let’s work on that. However, more importantly, we need to address the long term – how can we push the indicators mentioned above in a positive direction?

I encourage you to read the report, “Affordable Housing for Low Income Families,” in the “New Releases” section of the Wilder Research web site. We at Wilder Research look forward to working on long-term solutions.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On November 22, We Weep

Little or no mention in today’s newspapers regarding the assassination of John Kennedy -- very different from the evening papers of November 22, 1963.

During English class that day, the principal announced over the school’s public address system that the President had been shot and that we would be dismissed early. The boys all became silent; most of the girls started to cry.

I delivered an evening newspaper. On this afternoon, we newsboys waited for the papers to arrive. They reached the distribution point about an hour and a half late. The editors only had enough time to splice a special headline story on to the first page. Eerily, the rest of the paper contains all the “America as usual” stories that would have run anyway that day.

Kennedy served less than three years of his first term. Some consider his impact significant. Others contend that, despite the notable achievement of even becoming elected (defeating Richard Nixon in a close race, becoming the first Roman Catholic President, etc.), and despite efforts he initiated early in his presidency (notably civil rights efforts, or, as one T.V. commentator put it in 1963, “dealing with the fomenting Negro crisis”), he actually accomplished very little.

In any case, the events of the 1960s left indelible marks on all of us who had a commitment to social issues and community welfare. Tragic murders of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, other civil rights activists, students at Kent State, and others, shocked us. The land of the free was not supposed to experience these types of events. Protests and other acts of support for civil rights and against the War in Vietnam became a daily focus.

The “up” events of the time created a sense of optimism and hope. They stimulated ideas for a new, changed, improved world. The “down” events were discouraging, depressing, and led to soul-searching. However, they had the effect, for many of us, to increase – not decrease – our determination to pursue the dream of a better political and social future. What we learned and experienced during the decade convinced many of us to enter the human services field, to look for ways to strengthen communities, and to mold inclusive, creative political philosophies that we could translate into just social policies.

Any parallels to the election of Barack Obama? Both Kennedy and Obama, as Presidents-elect, were intelligent, ground-breaking individuals. Kennedy broke the religion barrier (no Internet at the time, but rumors circulated that, “if he’s elected, he will do what the Pope tells him to do”). Obama broke the race barrier (despite many different rumors about his background and motivations, and what he might really do once in office).

One of the newspapers which I saved from the days after the assassination was the November 24th edition of the New York Sunday Herald Tribune. Art Buchwald wrote a column that has appeared in bits and pieces in many places since then (including the Congressional Record). Excerpts from the beginning and end appear below.

We Weep

We weep for our President who died for his country.
We weep for his wife and for his children.
We weep for his mother and father and brothers and sisters.
We weep for the millions of people who are weeping for him.
We weep for Americans, that this could happen in our country.
We weep for the Europeans
And the Africans
And the Asians
And people in every corner of the globe who saw in him a hope for the future and a chance for mankind.
We weep for our children and their children and everyone’s children, for he was charting their destinies as he was charting ours…
We weep for all the tortured and warped people who could not accept the decent things he stood for.
And we weep for all the hatred and prejudice that fill the hearts of such a small segment of our society.
We weep because there is nothing else we can do,
Except curse those who would destroy a man in hopes of destroying all of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

If we can't breathe, we can't do much else ...

“If human society is to approach sustainability…” there should be “incentives for the world economy to be based on nature’s ‘income’ rather than depletion of its ‘capital’.”
--Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in “Visions of a Sustainable World" (1990)

“California has the worst air in the country, and 20 million people living in the dirtiest regions account for billions of dollars a year in economic losses because of premature death, chronic illness, hospitalizations and missed school and workdays.” (The San Francisco Chronicle reporting on a recent study from California State University Fullerton)

“The best estimate of total costs of environmentally attributable childhood diseases in the state of Minnesota is $1.569 billion per year…” (The Price of Pollution)

“A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns … The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin, and North America.” (The New York Times reporting on a just-released U.N. report)

What’s next – for all of us? Human activities throughout the world, the behavior of the world’s human population, seem to be putting a severe strain on our capacity to have a high quality of life, and possibly to survive at all. I personally do not relish the idea of premature death (a fate for many in California). However, what alternatives do I have to breathing the air?

Most of us have a limited focus day to day. We go to work; maybe we run a business. In the nonprofit world, we teach, we heal. In government, we administer critical services. However, no matter what our major interest or profession, no matter how we choose to contribute to our communities, no matter how small or large the focus of our primary daily attention, we can’t afford to ignore environment trends. We can’t deny the change that has occurred in the quality of the world’s air, water, and land. We can’t pretend that the pollution caused in all parts of the world does not affect everyone throughout the world. We can’t ignore our responsibility to change the behaviors that directly and indirectly contribute to a damaged environment, poorer health for ourselves and our families, higher health care costs, and lowered economic productivity. Our best efforts, no matter how diligent and steadfast will bear no fruit if our planet becomes uninhabitable.

Twin Cities Compass has added environment indicators to make environment information more accessible to all of us and to promote action on our part. I encourage you to look at them. As usual, we have “key measures”, which provide a “tip of the iceberg” indication of how our region is faring; we also have “more measures” which enable you to explore trends and issues in depth.

Two thoughts. First, the environment crisis affects all of us – old, young, wealthy poor, no matter where we live. Wealth can help to mitigate some effects; some regions may have less air or water pollution than do others. However, the U.N. report makes evident the interconnectedness of all parts of the globe. Pollution in Asia affects North America, and vice versa. The life-diminishing shadow of an obscured sun will fall on the rich as well as on the poor.

Second, we all need to change. Curing the problems of the environment will require change by virtually everyone on this planet (other than those few who live exclusively in remote locations using only completely renewable resources). It’s not just those with incomes over $250,000 per year. It’s everyone – high income, middle income, low income, or living in poverty. Everyone has to make decisions within their sphere of influence.

We all need to change our individual behavior and to let our public officials know that we expect them to work on environment issues in ways that will produce results.

So, are you willing to take your lunch in a permanent container, rather than disposing of a paper bag each day? wear a sweater, rather turning up the heat another degree? buy in bulk, to reduce individual packaging? purchase wood products only if the seller can prove that the products do not come from illegally harvested timber?

If a hundred million of us take simple steps like this, it will help push things in the right direction. There’s far more to do, but this is a start.

Wilder Center qualifies as a Gold LEED office building. It makes me proud to contribute to the sustainability of our region and the world at the same time that I’m working directly on social and health initiatives that can improve the quality of life for our region.

The most pessimistic prognosticators feel it’s already to late. We’re doomed. I’m more sanguine – cautiously optimistic that we can turn this around. I hope that you agree and that you have the desire to work on it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hotlanta and Our Mayors - Anything Learned?

Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak
Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

The leaders of our region’s three largest cities spent three days in Atlanta last week. What were they up to? Did they work hard? Was it a good use of their time? Which of them snored while sleeping on the plane?

As a member of the Inter-City Leadership Visit, in which these city leaders participated, I can report very positively about the mayors’ hard work and about what they and the rest of us learned on this journey to the “capital” of the southeast region of the United States.

Most significantly, we learned first-hand the importance of dealing with issues on a regional basis. Cities, counties, states--while crucial for some administrative purposes--may be in process of becoming almost obsolete within a global marketplace of regions. What does that mean? It means that Atlanta, while important as a city, constitutes only one part of a socially and economically interdependent network of cities and counties that comprise the region of Atlanta.

The local forces that shape Atlanta’s future and its standing in the world derive not just from what happens inside the city’s boundaries, but from events and activities throughout the neighboring cities and counties for 100 miles. For example, the workforce is a regional workforce; large corporations deciding whether to move to, or do business in, Atlanta look at the region as a whole. Transportation is a regional issue. Infrastructure and quality of life issues, such as water resources and air quality, require regional solutions as individual municipalities have little or no capacity to address them on their own.

The same applies to our metropolitan Twin Cities region. Whether we like it or not, Scott, Hennepin, and Washington Counties share many common issues and must address them together. Saint Paul, Bloomington, and Minneapolis can go it alone on some things, but they have to collaborate on others. Our conversations with the school district and business leaders, for example, prompted several of us to consider whether the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts need to collaborate more to increase their internal effectiveness and decrease expenses and to bring more funding into the region from foundations.

Some things we learned:

Atlanta points to several events which had significant positive impacts on its regional development:
- The location of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- The Democratic National Convention in 1988
- The Olympics in 1996
The first of these created a transportation conduit which facilitated travel to and from Atlanta, providing ease of access that directly supported the growth of Delta and the related airline industry and indirectly supported the growth of many other businesses that chose to locate in the Atlanta region because of its accessibility. The other two events raised the profile of Atlanta, making it more respected and prominent within the U.S. and around the world.

We probably will not sponsor the Olympics in the near future, but we do have a convenient, modern airport, and we just hosted the Republican National Convention. That’s two of the three ingredients. I returned from Atlanta with the feeling that this Twin Cities region has a lot of potential – if we can get our act together to promote regional thinking and regional ownership of the major issues we face, along with regional action to address those issues.

We learned more in Atlanta – about how that region has dealt with race issues, how they transformed their school system from dysfunctional to functional, how business leaders play major roles. Subjects for future blogs.

Who snored on the plane? Fortunately, not the pilot, but I won’t say more than that!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Vote for the low-fat President!

As you reflect on the events in Denver and Saint Paul, you will make the decision to support one candidate or the other. Over the coming weeks, you will hear commentaries from news analysts and pundits about the fitness of nominees for the Presidency and you will thoughtfully consider who endorses whom.

To assist you, I provide my endorsement – who I think should serve as the next President.

It is the “low-fat, total coverage, high-achievement, invest early” candidate.

Low-fat. The data are compelling. The U.S., and some of the other developed countries, face a public health issue like never before. The obesity rate among U.S. adults has more than doubled since 1990 to 25 percent. Diabetes, the sixth leading cause of death, is also rising quickly. Obesity and diabetes cost money and lives. All of us suffer, if not directly, then indirectly through the extra expenses we pay for health care and health insurance and the extra pain we endure because of loved ones who suffer chronic illnesses and premature death. Chronic diseases resulting from obesity are largely preventable. Which candidates know what we need to do and have made a realistic, believable commitment to doing it?

Total coverage. I’ve lived and worked in countries with universal health coverage for all of their citizens. The United States, with all its wealth, has no excuse to allow its residents to lack health insurance. Getting everyone covered requires cutting through political and economic obstacles, but it can happen with bold, enlightened leadership. Which candidates know what we need to do and have made a realistic, believable commitment to doing it?

High achievement. Skills we need to sustain a strong workforce exist in too short supply among our younger population. In Minnesota,, more than 20 percent of third graders fall below reading proficiency standards, and a whopping 68 percent of eleventh graders fail to meet proficiency standards in math. Many factors have produced this situation; solutions may seem daunting. Nonetheless, we must start by working with school districts, teacher education programs and teacher unions, families, and nonprofit organizations, within our communities, if we want to move educational achievement for all children in a more positive direction. Which candidates know what we need to do and have made a realistic, believable commitment to doing it?

Invest early. (This does not mean spend more money.) We must focus attention on how to support the best possible growth and development for children. Everything I’ve mentioned above will improve if we start early. Better health early in life sets children on a lifelong path of better health. Good health care early in life prevents problems and reduces costs. High achievement in the early years increases the likelihood of continued achievement, which extends beyond a single individual to later generations. The economic argument, the return on investment for providing good child care (by families themselves or by others), health services, and high quality education to young people becomes a more convincing argument every day as we see new research evidence. Which candidates know what we need to do and have made a realistic, believable commitment to doing it?

I hope that you use these criteria, along with other criteria that you consider important, to assess the candidates – not just for President, but in any races in your district: Senate; House; etc. Now is the time to put our candidates on the line for commitments which transcend party politics and make good sense if we want to address some of the most significant challenges we face.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Return on Investment (part 2)

I mentioned earlier our "Return on Investment" conference. Here's a bit more.

Michael Stegman, of the MacArthur Foundation, spoke on “The Power of Measuring Social Benefits” and advocated the development of a culture of evidence-based decision making for all of our policies and programs. He outlined the work of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and informed the group of their interest in potentially working with Wilder Research on a return-on-investment study of supportive housing programs. (We are discussing with MacArthur a study which will develop a framework for return-on-investment analysis of different types of supportive housing programs and which will pioneer the use of public agency data for such an analysis. Hopefully, something will develop!)

Steve Aos, of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, described the system used in Washington State to assist state legislators to make the most informed decisions possible, based on current understanding of the effectiveness of specific programs and policies. At the request of legislators, his organization creates “apples to apples” comparisons of different programs and policies, so that legislators can apply their intuition and their perspectives to meaningful information when casting their votes. To carry out their work on a specific program, the WSIPP identifies all studies of that program; they determine whether these studies meet standards of quality; if they do, they combine the results of these studies (using “meta-analytic” techniques) to provide a picture of what the research says.

He took the example of the decision whether to spend more money to decrease class sizes in elementary, junior high, and high schools, as a means to improve academic performance. As you will see from Steve Aos’ slides on our website, the results disclose a very interesting phenomenon: Reduction of class size seems to have positive effects in grades kindergarten through 2; it has positive, though less strong, effects in grades 3 through 6. For junior high (7-8) and senior high (9-12), class size reduction seems to produce no effect. In fact, a glance at one of his charts might prompt you to ask whether additional research might reveal that reducing class sizes in junior high actually has a negative effect on student achievement! (Note: I am not saying it has that negative effect. I’m saying you might wonder whether it does when you see the chart.)

John Roman, of The Urban Institute, offered an overview of ROI analysis of crime control programs and policies. If you have any interest in this topic, you will find his presentation very valuable. He pointed out that DNA analysis may revolutionize policing, because of its substantial return on investment. In addition, he alerted conference participants to the practical dilemmas which we can face in attempting to make policy decisions which may have long term positive consequences, but at a short term increase in costs. It’s often the case with crime control programs, for example, that they produce an immediate short term social return, but they increase costs. Cost reduction may not occur for a number of years. In the meanwhile, somebody (typically taxpayers) must pay those costs.

Christopher King, of the Ray Marshall Center of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin , described ROI analyses of workforce programs in Texas. He demonstrated the likely long-term benefit of workforce services and showed how we can test to see whether certain types of programs are more likely to produce those long-term benefits.

Susan Urahn, of the Pew Center for the States, alerted us to the practical steps we need to take to introduce return-on-investment studies (or more broadly, any sort of good research) into policy-making. It is clearly a process that requires engagement of policy makers and representatives of constituent groups over the long term; it’s not simply a matter of doing research and issuing a report.

Susan Urahn surprised many members of the audience with a graph which showed that, by the year 2024, total mandatory spending will exhaust all Federal revenue sources. That is, spending on items such as Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, other mandatory expenditures, and national debt payments will completely consume the money that the government takes in. Nothing will remain for anything else. The complete solution to that problem, assuming her numbers are correct, will require more than wise spending, but the problem creates all the more need for good return-on-investment studies.

Today’s taxpayers, policymakers, philanthropists, and all of us who care about the future of our communities need return-on-investment information. Limited resources compel us to make wise decisions with the highest likelihood of impact. Not every expenditure can be rated for its return on investment, but many can. We need to do so, and we look forward to working with others to accomplish it!

I encourage you to look at the videos and slide presentations from our conference on our website:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Understanding Whether Social Programs Have Long-Term Value

Does the nonprofit organization where you work, volunteer, or donate your money produce impacts that are worth their costs? Think of any government program – does it achieve results that justify the expenditure of your tax dollars? How would you know? At Wilder Research, we recently had the outstanding opportunity to pursue these questions with a distinguished group of national and local experts and others who joined together for a day of cutting-edge discussions.

Return on investment (ROI) studies can serve as a tool for understanding whether programs that seem to make a difference in the lives of people and communities also have financial benefits that justify continued funding. In an era of scarce resources, such studies can enhance our ability to make wise spending choices. They are not the final word; they do offer more information for our consideration.

Simply stated, ROI studies examine programs (or policies) that have demonstrated positive impacts. They total the costs of a program, estimate the costs potentially averted as a result of that program’s positive impacts, and then compare them. Let’s make up a simple illustration. (Real ROI studies have more complexity; however, this example illustrates the principles involved.)

Let’s say that an after-school tutoring program has demonstrated its effectiveness at reducing the number of children who drop out of school. Based on research, we can estimate the impact that has on reducing delinquency and on improving employment rates for these children who remained in school. Assume the program cost equals $1500 per participant; assume the costs averted by participation equal $9,000 per participant (based on the number who would have entered the juvenile justice system). This program produces a 6 to 1 favorable impact, not even considering the value of enhanced employment for the individual participants and their families, and not to mention the additional financial benefits produced by a better qualified workforce for employers and the community at large.

How might this translate into programs related to issues currently presenting critical challenges to our communities?

The Trust for Health recently reported that spending just a few dollars per person each year on prevention strategies could reduce the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases and save all of us and our health care system thousands of dollars per person, not to mention the human suffering of chronic illness and lowered life expectancy. As the data show on our Twin Cities Compass web site, obesity trends stand out as some of the most serious, yet largely preventable, health challenges that we face. A dollar spent on prevention can save many, many dollars spent on cure.

Leonard Pitts Jr., in a column this week, challenged all of us to “consider the math.” For some children, a $3,500 investment at age 8 can produce a $60,000 savings 10 years later.

We enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with a network of others from around the nation and the world who seek to bring return-on-investment research into focus, to assist public officials, philanthropists and others who allocate resources to make better decisions – not to mention assisting all of us who volunteer, vote, pay taxes, and make other contributions which we hope will produce as significant a long-term return as possible. We all have limits on our time and our money; it can reassure us to know that we can direct those resources based on the best possible evidence of effectiveness and cost effectiveness.

In a future blog, I’ll say a bit more about some of the key things we learned at last week’s Wilder Research seminar on ROI. If you have thoughts or questions in the meanwhile, please let me know.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Taxes for Nonprofits?

In New York City, in the turbulent sixties, “hippies” and other anti-establishment folks sometimes wore buttons proclaiming “Tax the Churches.” Today, a new generation, less flamboyant and less hirsute, asserts we should tax all nonprofit organizations.

Should nonprofit organizations pay taxes? You might say no, but what if you knew that the National Football League is a nonprofit organization, or that some nonprofit CEOs earn more than many local business executives? A recent, front page article in the New York Times, citing a new Minnesota court ruling, described the increasing number of challenges across the nation regarding the tax exempt status of nonprofits, and it raised the issue of how to define “nonprofit”.

Currently, nonprofit status is given to organizations that range from health care and educational institutions with billion dollar budgets to small mom and pop operations, with no paid staff, operated out of the living rooms of their volunteer executive directors.

Unlike for-profit businesses, most “tax-exempt”, nonprofit organizations do not pay property taxes, Federal income taxes, or sales taxes– as long as the income of the nonprofit relates to its mission. The rationale for this exemption includes: the desire to provide an incentive for organizations to do charitable work; the fact that nonprofits pick up much of the work that government cannot do; and separation of church and state (in the case of religious organizations). Note that employees of nonprofits do pay income taxes; nonprofits do pay the employer’s share of Social Security tax for their employees.

So, why does the National Football League qualify as a nonprofit? Why does the NCAA have nonprofit status? These organizations do not receive all the tax breaks that charitable nonprofits receive, but they do receive some. Reasonable people have begun to ask why. These kinds of organizations do not match the image that many of us have of nonprofits – offering free or reduced-cost service to needy individuals and families, provided by volunteers or modestly paid staff.

In the Minnesota case cited in the Times, a child care organization in Red Wing offered its services at the same price to all parents, regardless of their income and ability to pay. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the organization “had to pay property taxes because, in essence, it gave nothing away.” The Times reported, “The court concluded that because the center charged all families the same amount, regardless of their ability to pay, and because its rates were not lower than those of its competitors, it was not an institution of “purely public charity” under the law and thus was subject to thousands of dollars in property taxes — $16,000 in 2006 and in 2007.” Nationwide, the article says, the tax-exempt status of charities costs local governments $8 billion to $13 billion annually, according to various rough estimates.

Some good arguments exist for taxing nonprofits – not necessarily at the same level as for-profits, but at some scale based on a specific nonprofit’s ability to pay.

Nonprofits benefit from the services of government. Their clients travel to them using roads paved and maintained by government, for example; the organizations themselves receive police and fire protection; and their employees can take advantage of some government services and amenities. Nonprofit organizations enjoy many other protections of the law.

Some nonprofits have millions or billions of dollars in their endowments. The Boston Globe reported in January that Harvard’s endowment had topped $34 billion and that 76 universities have endowments of more than $1 billion. Many nonprofits, especially large ones, pay their top staff salaries equaling or exceeding what for-profit and government organizations pay. None of these organizations would suffer from paying a small amount of tax.

But strong arguments also exist for retaining tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations. Here, briefly, are four.

Notably, many nonprofit organizations provide services which no other organization will. How many for-profit soup kitchens and homeless shelters have you seen? Nonprofit organizations deal with issues that the private sector and government avoid; they tackle problems and meet needs that families, neighborhoods, and communities are unwilling or unable to address.

Nonprofit organizations have demonstrated new approaches to critical social and community issues. The first schools were nonprofit endeavors; health care came to many communities in the United States under nonprofit auspices; initiatives to stimulate business development in aging cities and rural areas have begun as nonprofit enterprises; preservation of history and art has occurred largely because of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits do creative, pioneering work.

Taxation would drive some nonprofit organizations out of business. Many of these organizations operate on a shoe string, made up of volunteer staff working at their kitchen tables. These organizations could not sustain a tax payment, even if someone could figure out how to compute such a tax. Taxation would cause even some larger nonprofit organizations to reduce in size or go out of business. This would lessen the innovation, intellectual and ideological diversity, and compassion that these organizations bring to our communities.

Finally, many nonprofit organizations – serving individuals or entire communities – rely heavily on government sources. What sense does it make to put a tax on government support?

The Council on Foundations sums up these and other reasons: “generous exemptions recognize the important principle that organizations that act voluntarily to further the public good should be freed from the obligation to support government through payment of taxes. Exemption maximizes the ability of charities to help others.”

Nonprofit organizations contribute greatly to the economy. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reports that the nonprofit sector in Minnesota employs more than a quarter of a million people. The 2008 Nonprofit Almanac, published by the Urban Institute Press, reports that, for the United States as a whole, “nonprofits employed 12.9 million people in 2005, or about one in 10 U.S. jobs, and paid wages totaling $489.4 billion, accounting for 8.1 percent of all wages in the U.S.”

You may feel that many of these organizations can and should pay taxes; you may feel that some nonprofit organizations should pay some taxes, even if at a reduced rate; you may feel that nonprofit organizations should remain tax exempt. I can respect any opinion, if you form it on the basis of an objective understanding of what nonprofits do and how they contribute to our society. Just don’t be swayed by the rhetoric either pro or con. Look at the facts, and I think you will conclude that nonprofit organizations with a truly charitable mission create a return on investment that is worthy of support.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ah, to build, to build!

"Ah, to build, to build!
That is the noblest art of all the arts."

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wilder Research recently moved to the new Wilder Center, along with many others from the Wilder Foundation. If you have not had the opportunity to visit us, I hope you can make it to our Open House on May 28. Our founders, the Wilder Family, wanted us to exist “in perpetuity”; one of the Foundation’s mottos is “Here for good”. In that spirit, our new building is intended to last for the rest of this century, and it incorporates many features of sustainable design (in fact, enough for us to earn a Gold LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – rating for meeting the highest measures for space, maximization of light, efficiency of heat, conservation of water, and building features).

"We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us."
- Winston Churchill

Embracing the best environmental practices reflects our desire to embrace best practices in our programming and research, and our new facility provides new opportunities to do so. For me, our large new convening space is one of the most exciting. It allows us to bring people together to share and learn about the best ways we can make a difference in our communities and improve the lives of everyone, especially vulnerable populations. Having sound knowledge and understanding, through research, enables everyone to recognize significant social and economic trends, understand what programs and policies best realize our vision for a region with a high quality of life, and take steps to make this region even better.

Since moving in, Wilder Research has already held a conference on early childhood; and a region-wide seminar on disparities and their implications. In July, we have a cutting-edge seminar on the return on investment of human services. In addition, our new space has been used for large community functions including our Community Open House, a Governor’s forum and the St. Paul Mayor’s State of the City address. I spent many hours chairing a committee of Wilder staff who planned our conference and meeting space. It was more than just the planning of construction. It was architectural design in the best sense – careful consideration of how space, walls, technology, with flexible configurations, can facilitate social interaction and creativity. It’s very gratifying to see the dreams of this committee already beginning to become reality.

We can't know all the future holds. The World Wide Web is, of course, a powerful force. I am amazed at what it has afforded us – our ability to post our findings for anyone from around the world to quickly download; the ability to provide data in a format that allows viewers to easily slice and dice it in a variety of ways as we have on Twin Cities Compass project (; and even the ability for you to comment on this column. Nonetheless, face-to-face interaction has a special importance, which our building can foster. In the seminars I mentioned above, I’ve already begun to dig more deeply into issues with colleagues from throughout the region who are concerned about education, early childhood, health, and our economy.

"When one has finished building one's house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way - before one began.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Yes. It's a learning experience. But all that we do in life is part of the search for doing things better. That's the value of the sound practical research we do at Wilder Research, intended to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities. I hope you join us, at Wilder Center, and elsewhere, in our quest for better understanding and a better life for all.

And, I look forward to seeing you at our open house.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Is Iraq ahead of children in the war on priorities?

Dr. Richard Chase, who has led much of Wilder’s early childhood research, has mentioned that preschool children are among the people most likely to live in poverty and to lack health care in the United States.

Yet, ensuring all children have health care and/or supporting their early learning would cost less than the $340 million that we spend each day on the Iraq war. I challenge us to consider how we collectively establish priorities and to try to understand why war is apparently more important than the well-being of our children.

At Wilder Research, we have focused a lot of attention on early childhood issues, early education, and child care for preschool children. We know that children who lag behind their first five years stay behind.

Demographically, many of the children on whom our nation’s future depends come from racially and ethnically diverse families; many live in low income, urban neighborhoods. Research shows these children are most at risk for failing. Improving the early learning experiences of these children Dr. Chase stresses, requires the development of approaches that are “targeted, tailored, and comprehensive.”

“Targeting” our approaches means that we must direct greater attention to children and communities where needs are highest, and less attention to children and communities where needs are lowest.

“Tailoring” means that whatever we do should fit the cultural preferences of children and their families. We should take steps to eliminate obstacles that can arise from language, literacy, and other aspects of children’s lives.

“Comprehensive” means that we must take steps to improve the social and economic conditions of children and their families, not just the ways that we care for children. Larger conditions, if negative, can often undo the positive effects of quality care provided by either families or formal caregivers.

Implicit in the recommendations of Dr. Chase is the need for collaboration and “co-creation” of the specific activities employed to improve the quality of life of children, their families, and their communities. We may need to establish some universal policies, standards, and mandates. However, as long as local communities can work within them, respectful of the basic rights of children, they can shape their own activities to best align with their cultural expectations.

That brings us to policy questions; it returns me to the question in the title.

Set aside your feelings about the war for a moment. Whether we should have started it, whether we should continue the war or pull out of Iraq - these are topics for another discussion, another blog. My point is that Democrats (including one of the leading Presidential candidates) and Republicans joined together to vote to invade Iraq, remove its leader, and attempt to establish a democratic government and improve the well-being of Iraqis.

The fact is that we did enter the war. Someone somewhere decided that we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars per day on this effort. Our legislators (that same “someone”) have decided that they cannot join forces across parties to ensure that all of our children in the United States have health care and that they all receive the preparation they need to succeed in school.

How does that happen?

According to February 2008 data from the Congressional Research Service, the Iraq War costs us at least $340 million dollars per day; that’s about $124 billion, yes billion, dollars per year. You can add to that a recent estimate from a RAND Corporation study that we will spend $6.2 billion dollars in costs related to veterans who return from this war with post traumatic stress syndrome during the first two years after they return.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a good estimate of the total cost of providing health care to all children under 18 would be approximately $88 billion dollars per year. The cost of health care only for children under 5 might be $25 billion. Note that this is the cost. It is not necessarily what government (the taxpayers) would pay; funding for much of this could come via sliding fees, if for example, we want employed parents to contribute toward the cost of their children’s health care. In the case of war, on the other hand, the taxpayers pay the full bill.

The Committee for Economic Development is an independent research and policy organization of some 250 business leaders and educators. CED is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical. Its purpose is “to propose policies that bring about steady economic growth at high employment and reasonably stable prices, increased productivity and living standards, greater and more equal opportunity for every citizen, and an improved quality of life for all.” These business leaders, who include board chairs and CEOs of major U.S. corporations, estimate that preschool for all of our children might cost $33 to $41 billion each year.

So, $124 billion per year for war in Iraq (not including other billions for Afghanistan, other military operations, etc.); $88 billion or less, for children’s health care; $41 billion for preschool education.

Whether intentional or not, we have established priorities which put spending for Iraq ahead of spending for our children. A bipartisan decision was made that invading Iraq had higher priority than providing health care to all children in the United States or providing high quality preschool education to all children in the United States.

To me, the continuation of democracy depends on having skilled, educated members of our society who will lead our communities, work in our businesses, raise healthy children, and do everything else that's necessary to maintain the strength of a nation.

Lack of school readiness imperils our freedom, in the long run, probably more than any danger in Iraq. Loss of competitiveness weakens our businesses; it can make us losers in the global marketplace; it will threaten our well-being more than Sadam Hussein ever had the faintest chance of doing.

A recent article in The New York Times noted Bill Gates’ statement that he is “terrified for our work force of tomorrow”. Although his fears stem primarily from the condition of our high schools which in his words “cannot teach all our students what they need to know today”, critical determinants of academic performance exist in the earliest years of life and must be addressed long before high school.

Again, we can separately debate the pros and cons of invading Iraq. I just wonder why such an invasion, followed by many years of military action in that country, has higher priority than health care and education in our own country and local communities. If you have thoughts, I welcome them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Progress as a Unified Community

Our partners, the Itasca Project, a coalition of business leaders, and Twin Cities Public Television, will air a series in April based on findings from Itasca's Mind the Gap project. Those findings point to disparities between Whites and Persons of Color with respect to education, housing, health and income. On May 8, following the broadcast of the series, Twin Cities Compass will hold a seminar to discuss the implications of these disparities for the future of our region.

To understand those implications, consider three things.

First, the baby boom generation is aging; Boomers will leave the workforce and leave positions of community influence in large numbers over the coming 15 years. Second, Persons of Color increasingly make up the younger population - those who will replace the baby boomers and the generation following the baby boom as the community leaders, managers, workers, parents of the future. Third, the data (which you can see on the Twin Cities Compass web site) show that this growing part of our population is:

More likely to live in poverty
Less likely to graduate from high school
Less likely to own their own home
More likely to suffer from chronic illness

The future for all of us requires that the younger generations in our communities have the skills, knowledge, and resources to maintain high levels of economic productivity and community well-being. Current trends suggest that they will not have such skills, knowledge, and resources to the extent that they deserve and need them.

I encourage you to assess the information and to form your opinion on what should be done. Watch the television series premiering April 6 on channel 2 at 6:00p.m. to learn more about the widening gaps and hear from some of those most affected; look at the facts in Twin Cities Compass; participate in various forums for discussion, come to our seminar on May 8 (find information on the Twin Cities Compass web site.) I think you will conclude that this is a pressing issue for us locally, nationally, and globally.

But let's not just think about it and discuss it. We can't change history, but we can act as a united community to include all of us - young, old, different colors and cultures - in creating the future. We won't just eliminate disparities; we will enrich, improve, and elevate the lives of all of us.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Twin Cities Compass

Has our region become better or worse? What direction are we headed? What can we do to improve? We ask questions like these when we consider volunteering or donating, when we try to vote for the best political candidate, or when we form an opinion about where our tax dollars should go. In fact, we all ask these questions whenever we wonder about what we can do to produce the highest quality of life for the residents of our communities.

To make the region as good as it can be for all of us, we must "KNOW" and "DO". That is, we must first understand who the residents of our region are, and what the major trends are. Then, we must commit to action.

Last month, Wilder Research launched Twin Cities Compass - a new, non-partisan initiative that measures the 7-county Twin Cities region’s well-being with respect to civic engagement, early childhood, economy and workforce, education, health, housing, public safety and transportation. If you go to the web site,, you will find easy-to-access information on these topics, that will enable you to understand (to "know") the major trends affecting the region. Several hundred volunteers, whose names are listed, assisted us to identify the most important measures for understanding trends. You can see those trends displayed for the region, over many years if possible, and for counties and large cities. You can also see comparisons - how our region compares to other regions of the U.S. - in order to develop better understanding of how we are doing in the larger context of our nation and our world.

In addition, the web site contains links to resources, so you can learn how business, government, and nonprofit organizations have attempted to improve their communities; you can learn what seems to work locally and elsewhere.

That's the "KNOW". There is also the "DO".

The group of funders who support and govern this project want the information to be used. Our goal in the next phase of our work is to inspire people from all sectors--government, business, nonprofit and concerned individuals--to get involved in coordinated efforts to address needs. Some organizations have told us that they would like to take the lead on topics like housing, early childhood, and civic engagement. We'll report on their progress in future blogs and newsletters. We hope that as many people as possible use Twin Cities Compass, in large and small ways, to strenghten their efforts to improve education, health care, the economy, our transportation system, and all the aspects of our life that are so important, now and in the future.

If you have suggestions or comments regarding the web site, we welcome them. Feel free to use the "Contact Twin Cities Compass" feature on the web site.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Super Tuesday and My Vote

As a voter, I have been extremely nonpartisan ever since I first became eligible to vote. I proudly vote for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in whatever combination makes sense - based on (a) an examination of where candidates stand on issues and (b) my level of confidence in their ability to do what they say they want to do.

We now have a choice among four candidates: Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; John McCain; and Mitt Romney.

I will compare them on perhaps 15 to 20 criteria. Some of these criteria appear below, in case you might find them helpful as you make your choice about the next U.S. President.

Consensus-building. Which candidate can most effectively bring people together - internationally, to address worldwide issues affecting humanity - nationally, to form multi-partisan strategies to achieve our goals - locally, to facilitate collaboration among increasingly diverse communities across the United States?

Pork/Earmarks. Which candidate has the courage to stand up against favoritism and against irrational systems of allocating our national resources? Who is willing to pioneer better ways to address issues and make our government more efficient and effective by taking action to eliminate earmarks and to transform the government bureaucracy?

Environment. We all live in the environment. The environment affects everything we do - locally, nationally, and internationally. We can't replace it with anything else. We can only care for it. Which candidate offers the soundest approach to addressing global warming, energy use, water and air resources, in cooperation with our fellow inhabitants of this earth in other nations? Which candidate will promote wise use of land to save energy and improve air and water quality?

Health Care Coverage for All. Everyone deserves adequate health care. After living in Europe for a year, I realized how shameful it is that we, in the United States, have such a large portion of our population who lacks access to health care. Which candidate can achieve the health care coverage we need in this country? (Although I'm not my sharing ratings of any specific candidates, I will say that none of them has so far proposed a plan for health care that seems both effective and feasible. However, I could be wrong and will continue to analyze this.)

Education Gap. We have two gaps - internal and external. Within this country, Persons of Color constitute our fastest growing populations. They will make up many of the leaders of the future, the workers of the future, the parents of the future. Sadly, our systems have not brought their level of educational achievement up to the level of the White population. Which candidate will best promote school readiness (of both the students and the schools)? Which candidate will best elevate our educational systems? Which candidate will lead the way to ensure that all children graduate from high school, ready for post-secondary education? Externally, some evidence exists that other nations' educational systems out-perform ours. Which candidate can change this, so that we remain on a par with other countries?

The Vulnerable. Our compassion and care for the vulnerable within our communities make up one defining element of our culture. Which candidate offers the clearest vision, and the most feasible approaches, for building the capacity of vulnerable people and enabling them to live with dignity? Whether social spending increases, remains level, or decreases, money is not the answer; creativity, energy, and commitment are what we need.

Housing. A last item I'll mention is housing. Which candidate offers the best strategy for our housing markets and systems to create an adequate supply of housing, accessible to people at all income levels?

Well, as you participate in primaries or caucuses, and as you make your decisions as a voter, I hope you apply these and other criteria, to take a thorough look at who can best provide the leadership we need.