Sonoma and the Profitable Non-Profit

Given the choice, most days I’d rather write an obituary than a “mission statement.”

Never will one find a more studiously vague, broadly inclusive, stab at presupposing purpose than that slim paragraph that follows the words “Our Mission.” I’ve written a few as a hired gun and shot through others as a reporter. Nasty business either way. In our town, where everyone seems to run, chair or benefit by a nonprofit, mission statements are de rigueur. After wine and tourism, profitably non-profiting has proven smart business. In fact, there has been speculation that “Sonoma” is the Miwok term for “501(c)(3).”

Those guys are gone now but they’d be proud to know that most of these organizations do tremendous good for our community. It could be argued that many provide the fabric from which our community is woven. Others, perhaps, make wonderful tax shelters and provide a means to launder filthy lucre into outsized salaries for a crafty few. There’s a six-figure salary awaiting the brilliant mind with enough nerve to create a local nonprofit watchdog group and milk it all the way to a non-extradition country before the audit kicks in. Check out the filings online sometime, it’s a hoot.

Remember the good old days when “501” was preceded by “Levi’s.” For some Sonomans, to paraphrase Brooke Shields, nothing comes between them and their 501s. Glad they still fit. Now, that tax time is looming, like many, I too have been looking for a fit, namely any write-off within the IRS’s narrow (in my opinion) definition of a tax-deductible donation.

I have it on good authority from my CPA that bar tabs don’t apply (the amount of “meals and entertainment” deductions make my business seem much more fun than I recall). Of the few hundred nonprofits in town, doesn’t one run a pub? I know many a donor ready to give generously to the “Raise a Pint Foundation.” Some may give so much that they develop “donating problems,” which will lead another nonprofit to print bumper-stickers that read “Friends don’t let friends donate drunk.”

Donating drunk, of course, is a Sonoma tradition. If you’ve ever given at a fundraising event, a glass or more of wine likely preceded your act of munificence. Not that you’ve been taken advantage of. Chances are that the market value of the gallons of wine we’ve imbibed at these functions far exceeds the cash most of us have given.

But don’t fret – the virtuous circle is completed by the fact that the wine was donated too. Moreover, you’re doing the organizers a favor by drinking all the booze, otherwise some hapless volunteer has to lug it all back to HQ where it will be systematically drained over the next few months by interns.

And trust me, there’s nothing more dangerous to an organization than a drunk intern, especially when they start yapping to the media about how their boss is a con-man and how they’re going to start their own nonprofit “scam” when they graduate.

If I was on the clock maybe I’d care, but I need the write-off, kiddo, so have another glass and jot down that Tax ID number.

While you’re at, perhaps you should amend your organization’s mission statement. Grab the nearest newspaper, pick an obituary at random and steal the last paragraph. That’s where the money is. Frequently these days, they encourage mourners to forgo flowers and instead make a charitable donation in the deceased’s name (yeah, florists hate that part).

Now, post your improvements on the NPO’s Web site. Granted, the talk of flowers and death won’t jibe with the cliches about “community” or “outreach” or whatnot, but at least the intentions will read honestly.

Then perhaps, intern, you might actually buy the wine from which the truth spills.

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