THE BLOG

Albany Fallout: Non-Profits

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You have no doubt been following the meltdown in Albany; the Republicans claiming they successfully pulled off a coup on June 8th capturing power in the State Senate by luring Democrat defectors to their side, while the Democrats are crying foul and refusing to play ball.

Meanwhile, nothing has been accomplished for more than a month.

To get the senators to come into session Gov. David Patterson is threatening to hold back their "member items" - (and now their paychecks for that matter). For the uninitiated, "member items" are cash grants that the legislators give to many nonprofits in their communities.

Without member items senators would be seen as, to use a favorite phrase of George W. Bush's (remember him?), "neglecting their base." Each senator gets a certain allocation of these discretionary funds. The amount of member item money each Senator has increases with his/her tenure, committee chairmanships, and clout, which, in turn, is dependent on which party's in charge. For example, powerful veteran Democrat Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Assembly since 1994, has over $3 million in member items at his disposal. There are a lot of nonprofits in the Lower East Side for whom that is very good news. Someone suggested that member item spending has become an "incumbency protection plan." In fact, it was the displeasures of one Democratic senator, Pedro Espada, at having his member item wish list denied that sparked his defection and caused this whole mess to begin with.

As the leader of a hard working nonprofit, I've got to say all member-item spending is neither bad nor underhanded. Hundreds of good, honorable nonprofits apply for and benefit from member item largesse. It can be the $5,000 difference that allows an inner city day camp to take its kids camping in the fresh air of the country instead of restricting them to a stifling cement schoolyard. Other times, the money is used to buy a soup kitchen a sturdy refrigerator, or to fund an after school program that makes it possible for working single moms to stay at work.

Ok, so once in a while a member item might be an $187,000 grant to a recently minted nonprofit that happens to be run by the elected official's wife, but trust me folks, that is not the norm. Member items are nevertheless tricky. We nonprofits can get a bad reputation just for taking funding from a not-so-forthright politico.

Consider a New York Times investigation on Larry Seabrook. The Bronx City Councilor set up the Bronx Unity Day Parade a decade ago, but the NY Times reports, it never even had a parade. What it has done is sublease its office space, which it received member item funding to originally pay for, to other nonprofits at hugely increased rates. According to the Times, in a three year period the Bronx Unity Day Parade charged $100,000 more than what it paid in rent for its Bronx offices. These days, nonprofits have to look everywhere for money. But as the Seabrook controversy shows, nonprofits must tread lightly when accepting help from some possibly ethically challenged elected because they might come with a string or two attached.

So those of you who work in, or are on the board of, or even have friends who are connected to a nonprofit, let me offer you a few tips to nonprofits seeking member item funding:

If you go to talk to a state senator, assembly person or city councilor about a new youth program you are starting and they express a lot of interest, but introduce you to their uncle's unemployed daughter on the way out, proceed carefully.

If they tell you they can't help because of funding limitations, but introduce you to their friend, Pedro Espada in the State Senate, who they say might be able to get something done, run.

If they tell you it's such a good idea they want you to blow it out, create something that will service every single family in their district, and then say they can come up with only $3,000, no need to run, but you should definitely leave because you have just left the land of self dealing for the land of exploitation.

If they say they can help, but remind you that it is "petitioning time" and they need all the volunteers they can get, smile knowingly and just tell them you fully understand that problem. Then go directly to the Lawyer's Alliance (www.lawyersalliance.org) or to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo' s office, to get the right words to explain to the apparently confused pol that nonprofits do not participate in partisan politics.

And of course, if they say they know of a nice building where you can rent a good space....

I realize that nonprofits have enough on their plate without having to worry about this stuff. This is supposed to be a democracy and these folks are your elected representatives who are looking out for your best interests. And truthfully, most of them are honest allies for nonprofits. The other day when I was having trouble with a computer glitch regarding a federal grant application, staff members from both Congressman Jerry Nadler and Senator Chuck Schumer's offices were nothing less than amazing. (FYI, if you are a nonprofit, Schumer has someone on staff who actually understands grants.gov if you can believe that). But how do you know the good girls from the bad guys. It's like everything else, you have to do your homework. Gather information, you have a strong community network, use it. Ask people in-the-know in the community. Check out attendance and voting records through Internet services like votesmart.org. If the elected is a part owner in solar energy company and votes consistently for legislation that requires replacing every roof in New York with solar panels, you have learned more than something about solar energy.

Another thing -- don't start out by asking the elected for money. Try to involve them in your good causes first. But if all is said and done, and you do find yourself in a questionably iffy situation, contact Charities Bureau Charities.Fundraising@oag.state.ny.us. or maybe your board chair, -- unless of course s/he is the chief of staff for the politician in question....

In any event, corrupt or honest, well-intentioned or self-serving, helping hand or just plain hand out, these folks in Albany have to get back to work. Because the only thing worse than dealing with the occasional seedy pol trying to dip into the money he's providing to legitimate, hard-working nonprofits, is those nonprofits going without that desperately needed funding because of a stalemated power struggle in our state's capitol.