Annoyed readers harsh, thoughtful in defending fund-raising by public agencies

NONPROFITS INC.

May 24, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

It ain't easy being a columnist these days. No sooner had a recent column on my opinion of fund-raising by public agencies -- my opinion was negative -- hit the streets, than I received a barrage of phone calls and several letters.

After listening to and reading the responses, I'd like to devote this column to the opposing views of three of them. I will try to avoid editorializing on them. I've apparently said enough on the topic already.

The most vociferous response was from a man who called and said that I was the biggest jerk he'd ever read in any paper.

Actually, the word he used to describe me paired a biblical beast of burden with the results of applying spade to soil. Fortunately, his was the shortest of the conversations I've had on the topic to date, albeit quite humbling.

I then received a call and a thoughtful letter from Carl Hyman, who is the director of the Office of Project and Grant Management for Baltimore's Department of Education. Mr. Hyman makes some excellent points in his letter.

First, according to Mr. Hyman, "any nonprofit that considers a public agency as competition has lost sight of its mission." Mr. Hyman says, quite correctly, that the bottom line "is to serve clients in need." To that end, Mr. Hyman says, both public and private agencies need to raise funds, or do whatever is necessary, to help those clients.

Mr. Hyman goes on to say that my writing "assumes that government agencies don't [or shouldn't] have their own goals or agendas for serving people they know best. The fact is that most public agencies do have detailed, albeit unfunded plans. Your statement . . . implies that nonprofits are the sole owners and gatekeepers of issues affecting society, when, in fact, they are supposed to serve as a support system in the change process and not necessarily the change agent itself.

"In this context, it is very logical that fund-raising is seen by many of us in government services as a creative solution to serving the unmet needs of our customers. And many of us are seeking creative ways to raise funds that will not adversely affect the resource development efforts of the nonprofit community."

Actually, I do believe that government agencies have their own goals and agendas, very often developed by good people doing good things.

That aside, Mr. Hyman raises some issues worthy of debate. Does a client-centered approach make the ends justify the means? Are there limits to an agency's means, whether public or private?

Should noble ends foster greater collaboration between public and private agencies, or approaches in which each agency tries to "do it all" themselves?

Similarly, Sheldon Caplis, vice president for institutional advancement at the University of Baltimore Educational Foundation, believes I was "off the mark."

Mr. Caplis' comments, however, took me to task from another perspective -- that of the competitive marketplace, the efficacy of which I tend to espouse now and then.

"If we really believe in competition," Mr. Caplis writes, "should not the marketplace be allowed to decide the merits of our cause?"

Mr. Caplis backs his point by stating that his requests for support, like most public schools, are rejected by funding sources most of the time.

Next, Mr. Caplis attacks my position against fund-raising by public agencies, on the grounds that public agencies also have capable solutions to social issues.

"Do we really want to deny creativity that might need private sources of capital simply because the provider of the service is government?" A good question indeed.

Finally, Mr. Caplis practices some intellectual ju-jitsu and questions whether I believe that public funds should support private institutions, as they presently do.

Would I also eliminate third-party payment from government to nonprofits, he asks? My answers are yes and no, but I won't explain my position here. Today the pulpit belongs to my critics.

"All fund-raising done by government agencies may not be appropriate," Mr. Caplis says in ending his letter. "But your blanket statement to the contrary is an unfair assessment of the situation."

Fair enough.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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