Nonprofit Confusion and BatchGeo

With Ken Reardon, Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Planning and Community Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Boston    Running around Boston the last several days I’ve met great professors and students at Boston University School of Social Work, the Heller School at Brandeis, and the Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  It’s fascinating to hear what people are thinking when they begin asking questions after I tell them about ACORN, our history, our work around the world, and our current projects in the United States and abroad.

There are some surprises.  I still think of the election and the events of 2008 as evergreen in the political consciousness of generations given the seminal experience of seeing Barack Obama elected.  Undergraduate classes and some masters programs are composed largely of young people who did not vote in 2008, once you think about it.  In several classes I asked who had ever watched Fox News, knew who Glenn Beck might have been, recognized Andrew Brietbart, and the hands are few and far between.  The sting on ACORN by James O’Keefe?  Huh?  And, really, why should they know.  They are busy with their own lives and weren’t caught in the maelstrom of those times, even though they still feel like yesterday to me.

When it gets to nuts and bolts, talking about ACORN and my book, also named Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, students of all kinds have been most fascinated at hearing the heresy that ACORN was not a tax exempt, 501c3 organization as classified by the Internal Revenue Source.  Notes are taken carefully when I rant about the transfer of responsibility from foundations, churches, and donors from policing their own grants to protect their wealth, by offloading the fiscal responsibility on their organizational grantees by convincing them to become tax exempt and curtail their activity in politics and advocacy.  They are shocked to find that the so-called expenditure limits by tax exempt organizations have never been established clearly by the IRS in hearings or regulations, but are just presumed by lawyers and others and passed on wholesale to active organizations, thereby changing their mission and practice.  They get an understanding that being nonprofit is more than enough and gives them flexibility and force.  I leave feeling like the excessive space I devoted in a chapter called, “Structure Matters,” was well spent, rather than distracting.

The other small takeaway that has resonated when I talk about the ACORN Home Savers Campaign is the growing membership in the BatchGeo fan club I’m organizing  When I explain the time saved that used to go into map work and 3×5 cards for literally hours before doing home visits in neighborhoods versus the pleasure of seeing lists downloaded into BatchGeo, a free app on your smartphone, that then shows a flashing blue dot, indicating your car, and the distance to the next house on your list, notes are taken and thanks are given.

Students like the stories, are inspired by the documentary, are curious about the philosophy and campaigns, but they are hungry for real skills and tools they can use that might make them successful or at least prevent mistakes.   And, I’m happy to see that nuts and bolts still matter!