Read Before Signing! (Sep 04)

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Other staff around the Nonprofit Quarterly are always shoving stuff in front of me with a "can you just sign these before you leave?" as I am running out the door. And from what I hear from others, it is probably a pretty universal experience that we do not always read carefully what we sign. Well, I am here to caution you that you may be running an ever-greater risk on behalf of your organization in not scrutinizing the fine print of every agreement you sign. It's getting very hairy out there.

This was brought home to me again last night when I was having a late night phone call with a friend who is the board chair of a local organization. She always calls me late, after her meetings (and as a former member of that board I understand why — those meetings can leave you with a lot of pent up, free floating energy). This time she asked if I had seen the affidavits that the City of Boston was requiring grant recipients to sign as a condition of receiving a small $25,000 capital investment. Apparently executive directors and board presidents are being asked to affirm a number of things about their board members including whether or not any member of the board has been late in paying real estate taxes. What?

"How is this any of their business?" She asked, "What will it do to our ability to recruit board members to have to screen them in such ways? Is it something to do with the Patriot Act? How are we supposed to respond?" For my friend who has been involved in community work her whole adult life — this request was a significant shift.

Rick Cohen of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has been banging this drum for the last three months. "I think a lot of people don't really look carefully at what they sign . . . but they better start!" NCRP with a lot of other organizations is protesting a requirement of the Combined Federal Campaign that participants agree that they will not "knowingly" employ people whose names appeared on a government anti-terrorism list. Rick writes "Although there are hosts of government lists to check, the Office of Personnel Management had promised that only three would be required, and despite the lists' mercurial inconsistencies from day to day, also promised that it would give advance warning of changes in the list contents." One of the required lists is 143 pages long with thousands of names and aliases to check.

The ACLU first signed the agreement and then withdrew entirely from the campaign and is now considering its next steps, but many other leaders of organizations also signed the agreement without really thinking about what they were agreeing to. Some of them, embarrassingly, are also outspoken advocates against such government abrogations of civil liberties.

Cohen asks, "Is it that nonprofits have to sign and certify so god-awful much that they assume that no one in government or elsewhere could possibly be concerned, much less motivated to check on whether groups are actually doing as they are told? That could be a fairly dangerous position."

In any case, I have attached a few articles from our upcoming issue on the changing relationship between government and nonprofits that address this and related topics.

I also have a special request for you – our readers! Please write back to us and let us know if and how these kinds of new requirements are showing up for your organization. This will allow us to let our readers know what to watch out for. (And to see some of the many excellent response we received to our last enewsletter on the new regulations being considered for nonprofits see the fall edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly which will be reaching you in a few weeks).