My Rockville company—Westat—is divided into work groups. During the holidays—right around the corner, individual groups have their own holiday party. In recent years, my group decided our annual holiday party ought to be about giving to others. We still have a wonderful time—drink, eat, and socialize, but the focus now is on raising a few dollars and then donating the money to a Montgomery County charity.
Last year, our very small silent auction raised $1,200 and we donated the cash to Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg. Plans for this year’s December party are underway and it looks like we will make another cash gift to Manna. Click here for their website.
Last year, when my colleagues were deciding what charity should receive our cash, Bethesda Magazine published a timely guide to local charities. The guide profiled 61 Montgomery County-based charities.
We used the guide as a conversation starter. But being good social science researchers, we took the list and went further by digging up whatever we could find on the charities’ financials. Surprisingly, only a handful of the 61 charities posted to their public websites their financials.
Manna—one of the 61 charities—ended up being our hands-down selection because it was the only county charity that met our high standards for transparency. On its public website one will find annual reports, audits, and IRS 990s across multiple years.
Personally, I found Manna’s transparency so refreshing that I recently contacted them to quiz them further about why they take the public approach and share so much information with donors. I quizzed Manna’s Development Manager Allison Krumsiek Anderson. My questions and her answers (gathered via email) appear below.
Question: Before getting to my transparency questions, would you mind saying a little about the growing need in this county to provide food relief to residents?
Answer: When you look around Montgomery County you wouldn’t think hunger and poverty. Montgomery County is one of the top 10 richest counties in the U.S., yet one in four residents struggle with food insecurity. One in every three Montgomery County Public School students are eligible for free and reduced price meals, which means their families are also struggling at home. It speaks to the fact that this is a really expensive place to raise a family, and a lot of families are barely making ends meet. Since 2007, Manna has seen a 74 percent increase in the number of residents requesting assistance. We expected that number to level off last year, but our fiscal year 2012 saw a 7 percent rise in clients, and this year is no different. We expect to see more families than ever.
Question: Last year, when we researched county charities, and made contacts with some, it was very difficult to find any who matched your commitment to transparency. We even found a few charities that refused requests for financials. We found none with your level of openness. Why is openness for Manna such a high priority?
Answer: In order to be a good steward of donor dollars, and a good partner to the community, we realize it’s important to be transparent. Community groups are like a publicly traded company—everyone buys into the mission, and then you have to be honest with your sponsors about what you’re doing with their money. We work incredibly hard to make sure we are using our funds efficiently and everyone is focused on doing the best job they can. Why not be proud of that hard work? We want donors to be able to ask questions and see that their money really does go to feeding their neighbors.
Question: I don’t expect you to speak for other county charities—nor to criticize them, but why do you think it is such a difficult task for charities to be transparent (e.g., post on their public website copies of annual audits)?
Answer: I think sometimes there is a worry about being seen as irresponsible or inefficient with donors funds. Sometimes smaller nonprofits or those in their first few years will have higher administrative costs or overhead, and donors have been told that any overhead is bad. It’s not bad though; you need people to run these programs and those people need computers and chairs and the lights on. If nonprofits can be honest about what it really takes to fulfill their missions, I think donors would understand the need for administrative costs and keep supporting you.
Question: If you were in a room full of directors or presidents of other county charities and nonprofits, what simple advice would you give them with regards to being more open and transparent with current or potential donors?
Answer: Don’t be afraid to share your information. If anything, it can inspire a conversation with a potential donor where you can better explain the costs associated with fulfilling your mission and gain an advocate for your organization. The more informed and comfortable a donor feels with your work, the more likely they are to become a valuable member of your organization by giving more time, funds, and speaking up for you. Also, be available for those conversations. We all have so much to do, and in a nonprofit you tend to do more jobs than just what’s in your job description, but you have to take time out to make personal connections. Running a nonprofit takes a whole community and we have to make sure we don’t get stuck in the mindset that we can do it all alone at our desks. At Manna, we rely on over 52,000 hours of volunteer time a year. That couldn’t happen if we didn’t have those conversations with community members and inspire people to get involved.