July 5, 2012

New Form 990, Same Old Behavior

In 2009, a wave of low-grade anxiety swept across the association community about the Internal Revenue Service's revisions to the Form 990. For the first time, nonprofits were asked to disclose whether they had policies in place regarding (among other things) conflicts of interest on boards, whistleblowers, and document retention. In an Acronym post at the time, Larry Sloan summed up the general feeling that the IRS was delivering a strong hint about what would happen if associations didn't establish those polices: "associations should answer affirmatively [to those questions] to minimize the chance of the dreaded IRS audit," he wrote.

The ASAE Foundation has been collecting data from the Form 990 for the past few years, and it's now clear that, however anxious those questions made associations at the time, they haven't produced any substantive overall behavioral change in the industry. I could plot all the data in a pretty chart, but that'd be a lot of effort to show you what would essentially be three horizontal lines. Here's what we know:

  • Between the tax years of 2008 and 2010, the percentage of associations* with a written conflict of interest policy increased slightly, from 54 to 57 percent.
  • The percentage of associations with a written whistleblower policy nudged up from 34 to 38 percent.
  • The percentage of associations with a written document-retention policy ticked up from 43 to 45 percent.

What to make of this? I'm eager to read your thoughts in the comments (or in my inbox for a potential future story), but a few interpretations seem safe to make. A polite nudge about best practices from the IRS clearly isn't enough to move the needle---there's nothing illegal about lacking those policies, so associations may just be waiting to see if anybody actually does get audited as a result of ticking "no" on those boxes. Moreover, there may be some anxiety about what these policies should look like. It's one thing to get in hot water over how you filled out a tax form, yet another to get in hot water over some ancillary materials around which no firm best practices exist. You can't screw up the contents of a document you never wrote in the first place.

But I wonder if these horizontal lines also reflect something deeper about the culture of associations---a resistance to say more about themselves, financially speaking, than they absolutely need to. That may be reasonable advice from an accountant's perspective, but is it in the overall best interest of your association? In a roundtable on legal issues that ran last fall in Associations Now, Jerald A. Jacobs argued that associations should think of the 990 as an opportunity for self-promotion. "The next wave is considering and using the Form 990 as a marketing tool for the organization in your legislative and advocacy or regulatory goals, in selling memberships or sponsorships or exhibit booths or the public on what your organization does. It's a wonderful opportunity to tell your story... Within a relatively short time I'm going to be able to sit across a lunch table from you with my PDA, and if you're an association executive I'm going to know if you have an employer-paid cellphone. That's how detailed the information is going to be, and that's how easy it's going to be to access."

If this is the information people will want to instantly access in the coming years, why not get ahead of the curve?

* For the purposes of its 990 analysis, the ASAE Foundation defines an association as a nonprofit organization reporting a minimum of $200 in membership dues and at least one paid employee.


March 14, 2012

Who Owns an Idea?

I had an idea yesterday. Came up with it all by myself!

I confess it's not a brilliant idea---I was just thinking I should rake the leaves that have piled up in my backyard over the winter, now that it's warmer out. Well, I guess it's not really my idea, come to think of it; recent visitors to my untidy, leaf-strewn backyard have shot me looks suggesting to me that, yes, raking the lawn would be a very good idea indeed. And isn't it arrogant of me to think that this whole raking-leaves business is something I came up with? I can't really claim the ingeniousness required to invent a device instilled with so much domestic utility and obvious slapstick hilarity.

What I mean to say is, identifying who came up with an idea can get messy. Not crediting that person can get messier.

I have all this in mind after reading about the Curators Code, a supremely well-intentioned and surely doomed proposal to get people to behave better when it comes to citing sources online. The idea, co-created by Maria Popova (whose Brain Pickings website I couldn't recommend more highly), is largely motivated by the rise of ruthless aggregators that have a habit of taking other sites' content, summarizing it, and, placing the link to the original source somewhere in the web equivalent of deepest Antarctica.

"Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor," Popova told an audience at the South by Southwest Interactive conference last week. "When we don't honor discovery, we are robbing somebody's time and labor. The Curator's Code is an attempt to solve some of that." Right here, according to the Curator's Code, I am obliged to place a sideways "s" to show that I pulled this quote from a New York Times article, and that I was not actually in Austin at South by Southwest myself, scribbling notes. It its allegedly easy to insert this sideways "s," but I'm still not going to do it. I have my old-fashioned way of crediting---linking and stating the source---and I'm sticking with it.

That said, the announcement of the Curator's Code provides an opportunity to think about how we credit people for their ideas, online or off. We've all been burned on this front, I suspect: The proposal made in a meeting that somehow became a superior's genius move six months later; the casual thought related at a cocktail party that somebody ran with and made a bundle on; the blog post that got all but thieved by an aggregator, which in turn inspired clunky new crediting system that gets dismissed and mocked. Uncredited ideas fill courts with cases and cubicles with fuming employees.

There is no correct system for crediting people with the ideas they have. But there is an incorrect one, which is not crediting people at all. To his, well, credit, Simon Dumenco noted that his idea to launch a Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation, also announced at South by Southwest, was inspired by guidelines promoted by the American Society of Magazine Editors. (Please read Maggie McGary's smart take on this, asking why the initiative didn't come from ASME itself.) So what works when it comes to crediting members and staffers with ideas---and, perhaps more important, how do you mend fences when somebody feels their ideas were poached?


February 13, 2010

Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events

In anticipation of the next weeks’ of avid TV watching of the Winter Olympics in Canada, I visited the official website in search of potential tools, ideas, and takeaways for association event and meeting planners.

I’m pleased to find that groups involved in sporting events and fundraisers (think golf tournaments, walk- and bike-a-thons, team-building field days, etc.) can download a free Sustainable Sport and Event Toolkit ( created by the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) in partnership with the Switzerland-based International Academy of Sports Science and Technology. Topics covered include community and supply chain involvement, transportation, and venue management.

The nine-piece how-to toolkit—aimed at organizers/sponsors of both large and small events--is one of the many social legacy projects completed or underway by organizers and attendees of this month’s Olympics, which kicked off in grand style February 12.

Organizers have spent seven years developing and executing actions and policies aimed at lightening the event’s wide environmental footprint, ensuring an ethical and inclusive competition, and leaving behind a positive social legacy. You’ll find highlights at

However, a summary of 12 of their major initiatives ( provides association meeting planners and

Continue reading "Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events " »

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January 20, 2010

The price of sharing that war story with a colleague

Here's a post contributed for our Governance Month from Jeffrey Cufaude. Not sure how you've missed him if you have, but read through most thoughtful posts here on Acronym, and Jeffrey is usually adding an interesting comment or two -- and keep up with his own writings on his Idea Architects blog.

“You think your board’s bad, you wouldn’t believe what mine did at our last meeting.”

It’s a common bonding moment at gatherings of association staff members as individuals take turns sharing the latest tale of woe about some misstep involving volunteer leaders. We commiserate, we laugh, and we engage in the time-tested ritual of all professions: telling war stories.

But is it an “exemplary standard of professional conduct?” Because that is the first item listed in ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s Standards of Conduct, the code all ASAE members agree to uphold upon becoming a member.

Give me a break, Cufaude. This is harmless. Everybody does it at some time or another. It’s just a way of letting off a little steam with colleagues who can understand.

Yep, it is. But again, is it an exemplary standard of professional conduct? It may be normal or common, but is it exemplary? One of the common tests in ethical dilemmas is to consider whether or not you would want your conduct detailed in a prominent publication. I’m fairly sure some of the stories I’ve heard association professionals tell over the years are ones they would prefer not to see splashed across any page in the Washington Post or any other newspaper.

Get off your moral high horse Cufaude. Geez. Everyone needs to cut loose once in awhile.

Yep, we do, but at what potential cost? At the expense of our board members or other volunteers who donate their time and talents to our organizations? Do they really deserve us speaking of them in somewhat derogatory tones to people they don’t even know in forums where they can’t respond?

The tone of these remarks rarely suggests we are trying to solve the problem, one of the many we as association professionals are hired to address: strengthening the governing capacity of our association. It’s not, “hey my board is really getting into the weeds and I could use some advice on how to help them focus on the big picture.”

The tone is gossipy and sometimes mocking of the people we describe. It’s conversational one-upmanship. It engenders a good laugh and then people go about their business … which is … working with the leaders they just criticized … aka, their bosses.

Beating up on the boss is too easy. And more importantly? It doesn’t change anything.

So let’s commit more of our capability to the really hard work: having respectful and honest conversations with the volunteers involved in governance about the shortcomings we see and the opportunities to strengthen their contributions and more effectively lead our organizations. Let’s dial down the war stories and make peace with the fact that we have work to do. And let’s exemplify the highest standards of professional conduct as we go about doing it.

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Being pressured to disregard your ethical boundaries

Meet John Saunders, executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. In the video below, John tells an early-career story where a board member pressured him to hire a particular consultant who was the board member's friend.

There's not much dilemma in this ethical dilemma, at least not until you consider he was a new hire and had just moved his family to a new location and was just beginning to get settled—all of a sudden, he's wondering if he made a big mistake.


July 21, 2009

Ethics: Worthy Debate or Spectator Sport?

Consultant and longtime association insider Joan Eisenstodt writes a compelling article in the June 22 issue of that is sure to make many meeting planners and exhibitors squirm. Essentially, she’s calling on everyone to re-commit to a higher sense of ethics, one worthy of a profession critical to our entire sector. Then she lists some cringe-worthy examples of shoddy behavior witnessed by others within our community.

Clearly, ethics is a hot topic, what with the 150-year jail sentence given to Bernard Madoff for swindling, sometimes destroying, dozens of charities and far more individuals out of staggering millions. And yet it always seems to be “the other guy” or organization who is engaging in distasteful (although likely not Madoff-level) behavior.

It’s kind of like that dumb question, “Are you a good communicator?” Yes, answers everyone. I mean, who doesn’t think they’re great at communicating? And who doesn’t think they’re ethical—at least 99% of the time? So why have ethics discussions at all if people don’t feel the conversation really applies to them?

And yet, of course we have to talk about it. Drill it in, frankly. But does the back and forth result in positive impact? Maybe. Maybe not.

You can engage more in this discussion here or via another of Joan’s commentaries, this one a short blog post about MPI’s Principles of Professionalism on the Meeting Professionals International site. Even better, catch what’s sure to be a provocative conversation during her August 17 education session, “Industry Ethics: Right, Wrong or Gray,” at 3:15 p.m. during the ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto.


July 2, 2009

When Codes of Conduct Clash with Legal Fears

I had an interesting conversation about marketing new professional codes of conduct or professional principles Wednesday with Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, a New York-based nonprofit that protects children from sex tourism. It was one more time in which I felt that America’s propensity to sue everyone in sight – or live in fear of that—was holding back good-minded organizations from doing the right and obvious thing.

In this case, I’m talking about ECPAT’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. This is a concisely written code with six anti-“sexploitation” criteria and more than 1,000 signatories from 30 countries to date.

How many of those 1,000 signatory organizations—ranging from hotel chains to hospitality and travel associations--are U.S.-based? Four.

Why so shockingly low? Lawyers, grimaces Carol. Apparently, although this view “is not generally shared” outside of the States, many lawyers here believe that displaying support for the code would put a company/association at greater risk should a sexually exploited child decide to hire a lawyer and target, not so much the individual committing the heinous crime, but the facility in which it occurred because “it is likely more profitable.”

Fortunately, not everyone in America agrees. The American Society of Travel Agents is to be commended for adding its considerable clout to the effort to stem sex trade of minors, as is longtime hospitality industry leader Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who immediately signed up her powerful Carlson Companies in 2004 despite internal advice to the contrary. Today, she remains an ardent champion for the code and cause.

Carol, too, remains committed, although she now focuses on marketing the code primarily beyond American borders, where interest and support are much higher. In Mexico and Belize, for instance, the code has firm backing from a variety of travel associations, which also help get EPCAT supporters and staff into the door of local hotels. There, Carol finds that facility managers are often eager to sign the code, despite hesitations from corporate headquarters.

To help bolster these potential grassroots supporters, her organization is trying something new: on-the-street surveys asking whether people would prefer to stay in a place supportive of responsible tourism-related policies. Although early yet, to date around 60% of several hundred surveyed in New York City say yes.

But it’s a bit of a shame both that this is the question EPCAT has chosen to ask first, and that its initial query is to the general public. To me, it’s asking the wrong people. I’d rather target travel and hospitality professionals, owners, managers, promoters and maybe even their lawyers with the question, “How would you feel about staying in a place that does not support responsible tourism practices and policies?”

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April 14, 2009

Need a corporate partner? Try one of the world’s most ethical companies

With so many associations seeking to expand their corporate partnerships or to embrace more for-profit stakeholders in their coalitions, the Ethisphere Institute’s 2009 list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies may be a great place to trawl for possibilities.

The list, which contains 99 honorees and cuts across 35 industries, recognizes “organizations that promote ethical business standards and practices by going beyond legal minimums, introducing innovative ideas benefiting the public, and forcing their competitors to follow suit.”

“Operating as an ethical leader requires a significant commitment from companies that goes beyond lip service and demands real action and change,” says Ethisphere Institute Executive Director Alex Brigham, adding that the companies “have demonstrated an understanding that ethical practices are not only necessary but can support a stronger and more solid business overall.”

Honorees, chosen from a record number of applications, include 22 newcomers such as Dell and Best Buy, as well as three-time winners such as Starbucks, IDEA, American Express, and PepsiCo. Special congratulations go to Marriott International (a longtime partner and the major sponsor of ASAE & The Center’s Social Responsibility Initiative) and to Stoneyfield Farm, whose “CE-Yo” Gary Hirshberg is speaking this Thursday, April 16, at ASAE & The Center’s Springtime expo.

The institute settles on an “Ethics Quotient” (EQ) for each applicant after its analysts evaluate the company on seven categories. The process involved reviewing “over 10,000 companies’ codes of ethics, litigation and regulatory infraction histories; investment in innovation and sustainable business practices; activities designed to improve corporate citizenship; nominations from senior executives, industry peers, suppliers, and customers; and feedback from consumer action groups.”


March 28, 2009

A Mentor Remembered

One of my longtime mentors and former nonprofit bosses, Jack Lorenz, will be buried In 12 hours, dead at the too-young age of 69. He was executive director of the conservation organization Izaak Walton League of America for 18 years before retiring, and he hired me as a magazine editor and media manager way back in the late 1980s after I moved to Washington, DC. I stayed there for more than six years, learning and erring as all overworked young professionals do in this sector.

Jack was not organized or formal when it came to mentoring staff. As the "Ikes'" former magazine editor himself, he did a remarkable job of not micromanaging me in his old role. Like IWLA's members, he was of salt-of-the-earth stock, rarely losing his temper and always operating with an open-door, excuse-the-mess style. He wasn't perfect, and he let me be the same. I appreciated that--not many mentors are comfortable acknowledging their own weaknesses. He tried to be gentle when he pointed out mine.

Together we would attend the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, an extremely male-dominated event at the time. It was intimidating for any woman, especially one in her 20s. Everyone always thought I was someone's daughter along for the ride. At my first conference, I almost went home after the first night. The level of sexism and, at times, blatant harassment was quite unnerving.

Jack, though, would get his back up about it, and he was determined that I succeed despite the good-old-boy atmosphere. Because of him, I finally agreed to run for OWAA's national board, which I didn't make the first time. The second run was a ringer, though, and I still count that board experience and its painful challenges among my best professional learning experiences. I never would have taken the risk if he hadn't told me that he believed I could and should go for it.

I'm thinking of Jack tonight, and it's still hard to believe I won't ever see him again. Although I have not gotten together with Jack for many years, I have still felt connected through his crazy e-mailed jokes and the hilarious fishing stories that I'd sometimes run into in outdoor publications.

I'm so happy that he accomplished his lifelong personal goal of fishing every U.S. state and territory, and all of Canada's provinces. And I'm so grateful that Jack lived his professional goal of serving as a strong role model when it came to professional ethics, self-sacrifice, tireless optimism, true passion for mission, and generosity of spirit.

Most mentors never know how fundamentally they touch those they coach--so often their teachings aren't drawn from until a relevant situation arises much later. Maybe that's why good mentors seem in short supply--they just don't realize they're change makers.

I know you're up there watching me type right now, Jack, so I thank you again, and I wish you the best bass fishing Heaven has to offer.

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December 29, 2008

Cheap, Easy, Effective: A Different Kind of Education Tool

The Ethics Resource Center has a cool twist on the usual e-update to stakeholders: a regular series of e-mailed PowerPoint charts or graphics on specific topics titled EthicsStat.

This week’s subject is on “Global Reporting” and shares data in an easy-to-absorb color chart on reported employee misconduct in various countries, urging leaders to “keep their fingers on the global pulses of their organizations.”

Considering that many people learn best through visual representations of data rather than straight narrative, this appears to be a smart, unique approach that would work well for many organizations that regularly share research or trends info with stakeholders.

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October 27, 2008

The integrity we should have

fat%20man.jpgAt the recommendation of a friend I'm reading Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics, the autobiography of Jack W. Germond, best know for his seat on the McLaughlin Group.

Early in his reporting career, he relates this story of one of his small daily newspaper editors:

JS Gray...was totally professional and so was his newspaper, not in the sense that it was a polished and sophisticated product but in the sense that it understood its place in the community. It was there to print the news, no more no less. ...JS backed his reporters to the hilt. When a city commissioner who owned a department store threatened to withhold his advertising because of a story I was writing, JS told him the advertising would not be accepted until he had apologized for the threat. ...The sky, it turned out, did not fall. It never does."

It's not surprising that this passage appeals to my editorial nature, but I think it reaches much further than that. As a manager, that's what you want your employees to think about you. As a leader, that's the type of integrity you need to inspire those around you.

Obviously it applies to the business partner communities that are interested in being in front of your membership—don't compromise your organization. Your organization will be stronger and the companies you do partner with will be better served as a result.

But could it also apply to members? Or certain members? You know the ones I'm talking about. For many it's a mantra to not speak ill of a member, any member, and I respect that. But I think truth be told, there are some people that are just pains in the, um, backside. It's time not to jump when those wheels squeak. Rather, tell them that kind of input is not helpful and that you'll be glad to listen to future input from them only after they've apologized.

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October 11, 2007


I just finished reading a shattering novel for young adults called Sold (Hyperion, 2006) about a Nepalese girl who is sold into prostitution. While attending the recent National Book Festival in Washington, DC, I was compelled to buy the story after hearing its best-selling author--investigative journalist Patricia McCormick--share her emotional experiences from a month spent researching the child sex trade in Nepal and India. Bear with me while I explain the relevance to associations and their business partners.

During the Q&A, I asked McCormick both if she still communicated with the girls and women who described their horrific existences to her, and if she had been moved to activism by her findings. She affirmed both, noting that part of her earnings go to nonprofits that fight child trafficking.

More important than money, though, has been the simple fact that, despite post-trip trauma, she managed to write the book at all. Further, it just won the prestigious Quill Award for Best Teen/Young Adult Book, which will raise the visibility of this under-publicized social atrocity even more.

Association executives may not feel particularly connected to child trafficking as a business issue. But some of our sector’s largest industries—such as tourism organizations concerned that this crime is often conducted in hotels--are among the leaders working to stop the abuse. In addition, since associations hold events in many cities and nations that have become major centers for child trafficking—India, Korea, Thailand, San Diego, London, Sydney and New York, for instance—the problem has grown more relevant.

McCormick’s story of Lakshmi, the 13-year-old main character from an impoverished family, depicts a tale similar to that of millions of children ages 10-18 who are trafficked for sex annually in what has become a multi-billion-dollar business. Brazil alone is home to 500,000 child prostitutes ages 10-17, with some as young as six, according to UNICEF.

The author’s Web site links to some association efforts, including an international Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism” project by the World Tourism Organization and nonprofit End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).

Created in 1998, the code outlines six conduct criteria based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. It also helpfully includes model language that associations can add to contracts with global suppliers of everything from accommodations to tours.

Members of the Code Steering Committee include the International Hotel and Restaurant Association, Federation of International Youth Travel Organizations and Tour Operators’ Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development, among others. In August 2007, the group helped gather support for 21 congressional leaders who sent letters to CEOs of the four largest U.S. hotel chains, urging them to sign the code. To date, two of them—Choice Hotels and Starwood—have responded with interest in the code, and Hilton Hotels noted that its soon-to-be-issued Global Code of Conduct “will specifically address issues of child exploitation.” Regent International Hotels and Radisson are among the 50 companies that have already signed.

Here’s hoping that other associations and industry partners “get” Sold.

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