What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Information, Information, Information ! ! !

I just had an outstanding meeting with NYCON, the New York Council of Non-Profits.  It so nice to get solid advice from people with good experience doing what I am trying to do.  Now of course "figuring it all out" is part of the project we've undertaken, but NYCON just made doing that a bit easier.  As an organization they are fairly similar to the Small Business Development Centers that governments provide.  The only difference - and quite indicative of our socio-economic system - is that the for-profit assistance is free, but if you want to start a non-profit, the assistance is fee-for-service!!  Something seems backwards about that!?!  Luckily for me though they are nice people and the first meeting is free!!  :)

So what did I go there to do?  Obviously I want advice on what it is that we are trying to do.  We are looking at doing two things, one is a trip to Sierra Leone in an effort to experience the country/identify opportunities, and the second is to implement those projects through a non-profit organization that we are trying to set up.  It is amazing at how wide a delineation there becomes between the two as you sit down and people begin asking good questions.

This project started as a chronicled walk for charity through Sierra Leone, it then expanded to include the initiation and implementation of a Non-Profit I'd been thinking about as well.  So this delineation is of course very important in our planning.  The meeting today raised this specific question.  Why does it have to be one in the same at this point?  The logistics of incorporating make it fairly difficult to do without a very definite description of the organization in its articles of incorporation.  The whole point of going to Sierra Leone (from the organization's point of view) is specifically to get on the ground and figure out the best things to do and ways to deliver them.  So how do you say that explanation in a way that allows for the governmental reviewers here in the US to identify what the organizations does and how they do it?  Ms. Lockwood (whom I had the meeting with), was discussing the process of approval and how given increased restrictions, especially since Sept 11th, 2001, that the government is going to want specifics - "what you are going to be doing and where".  They are not simply going to want to hear that we are going to focus on post/conflict areas all throughout the world using a synergy of  cooperative and individual socio-economic developmental ideas.  Now obviously our aims are much more focused than that, but we don't want to limit the organization to Sierra Leone or West Africa, or agriculture.  I see this expanding and becoming much bigger than this one project, so the articles must be broad yet still focused enough to get approval as a non-profit.  And the question I had been thinking about and she was getting at is how do you focus, before you have found your focus?

Another discussion point was fiscal sponsorship.  It has been my goal with this project to bring together a team of individuals that were interested and experienced, and try to motivate them enough to do it ourselves and learn things in the most rewarding way (i.e. the hard way), and maintain autonomy (see ideology posting).  I have read a decent amount of information - and have been recommended by a lot of people - to look into working with/under another organization's non-profit status.  This meeting shed a bit more light on how this type of cooperation specifically works.  It is just like a small business incubator.  You basically incorporate as a non-profit, but then file your IRS and accounting information through the fiscal sponsor as if you were a part of their organization.  They provide you with back-end support for the organization, filing paperwork, accounting, general administrative support, etc.  You get on with what it is that you really want to do, the projects, and then they help you with the admin part until you get things up to speed.

It does sound quite enticing, however, at what cost?  How much autonomy must you give up?  What are the specifics?  As with any scenario like this, you obviously always must realize who is telling you what, and what is their position in the process.  Ms. Lockwood's organization is certainly a fee-for-service organization, so whether it is because she truly believes fiscal sponsorship is a great option, or if she is trying to increase the organization's clients, this information should certainly be taken with a grain of salt and an eye for the other side.  (I will say though that she seemed to be more of the former.) It is an option very much worth looking into as it really would help things in the very beginning.  Still though, putting together a team and learning as we go is part of the experience - why take the easiest road when you can take the one that is far more challenging and thus rewarding?  ;)

The issue that must be weighted right now is when to incorporate and how - on our own or through someone else, and before or after the trip.  How has been discussed, but what of when?  The initial thought process on that is really about weighing the difficulties that could arise (as mentioned above), and our original rational.  Firstly, donations.  It is obviously very important to be able to offer people tax exemption for any donations given to the organization.  She did say though that there may be a one year lag that a donation could still count - not sure how that would work though.  The second, and probably more important is whether I travel through the country as a lonely traveler or affiliated with an actually legal entity.  An organization would seemingly carry much more clout than an individual traveler.  This authority could be tough to overcome.  She said it may be possible to reserve a name for a company, but upon further thought I was thinking that it wouldn't seem 'right' to represent an organization that does not yet technically exist.  Which is better then, to be an independent traveller giving the impression of not having an agenda and as a result collecting 'innocent' data, or a representative of an aid organization?  Would the two be treated differently?  Would people try to cozy up to the organization?  Would they not really think much of a mere traveler?            

Anyway, there was a lot of other information that came out of the meeting.  The concept of a Managed Services Organization - kind of a holding company for non-profits from what it sounds like - must be looked into.  There is NYCON's Innovative Charitable Initiative (ICI), the Foundation Center Cooperating Collection in the Mid-Hudson library system.  The New York Department of State's and the Attorney General's websites, IRS form information, the Dutchess and Ulster Community Foundations, and Guidestar.org all made it into my notes.  So in all, Ms. Lockwood was incredibly helpful and gave me a lot to think about and research.  I'm not sure how much of it we will implement or if we would use them specifically, but they certainly gave a good representation of the industry and how they could help make our soon-to-be organization better.  Thanks NYCON...  ;)

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