Reading is Fundamental: A Profile

Mom and young girl reading together

Reading is Fundamental provides support and books for children who might otherwise not have access to them.
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It’s no secret that many children, especially those from lower income families, have trouble keeping up at school, especially with reading. That’s why organizations like Reading is Fundamental (RIF) exist—to promote literacy and provide access to books and fun, educational programming that supports and encourages reading.

RIF is the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the United States. Their programs assist children and their families by providing access to books and literacy programming. The organization uses more than 400,000 volunteers to meet with children in schools, homeless shelters, and community centers and encouraging reading. They do this with several programming areas that run throughout the year:

Providing access to books

Two-thirds of American children live in poverty without direct access to books at home. Studies have shown that kids who don’t read at home are vulnerable on a variety of fronts, including academics and future job prospects. RIF was founded specifically to provide access to books for these kids so that they don’t have to grow up without being able to enjoy reading. The Books for Ownership program allows children to choose from dozens of books and take their choice home.

Early childhood reading readiness

Many studies have shown how important it is for children to be read aloud to at a young age, particularly for developing critical thinking. In 2007, RIF launched their Leading to Reading website to provide resources for parents and teachers wanting to encourage reading.

Combatting the achievement gap

The US Department of Education has noted the difference in academic performance of children from African American, Hispanic, and American Indian homes versus their white peers. By fourth grade, the former group is usually about three academic years behind the latter group. To combat this, RIF created its Multicultural Literacy Campaign to specifically support multicultural literacy.

Reading motivation

Not all kids are motivated to read for fun, which is even unfortunate both because they miss out on the fun and because studies show children who read for fun have higher reading proficiency scores. RIF’s programs work to encourage a love for reading in kids who might not otherwise get that support.

Preventing the summer reading slide

The “summer reading slide” is what happens to many children when they’re out of school for the summer. If they get no support for reading during the summer, they can fall more than two years behind their classmates. To prevent this from happening, RIF provides resources for parents and teachers to keep kids engaged with reading throughout the summer.

Substance Abuse Programs for NYC Youth Likely to Lose Funding

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Substance abuse programs for youth in NYC are facing a huge loss of funding.
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Due to changes in a New York state agency’s process for awarding grants to programs dealing with substance abuse prevention, many youth organizations are set to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

The New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, or OASAS, has developed a new set of guidelines that many are calling cumbersome and confusing. Roughly a dozen long-standing organizations did not make the cut based on this new criteria, determined by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

According to the new guidelines, the programs must provide evidence-based curricula approved by OASAS. Part of the problem is that many of these organizations are working from what OASAS spokeswoman Susan Craig called “kind of legacy contracts,” seeking funding for programs that are arguably not directly addressing substance abuse.

Some of the affected organizations include Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, which has counseled teenagers in the Bronx and Manhattan for 30 years; Our Children’s Foundation, which provides tutoring, dance classes, and other activities to children in Harlem; and Project Reach in Chinatown, which has worked to keep kids off the streets since 1971.

The loss of this source of funding could cause these programs to close. Mount Sinai, for instance, was receiving more than $700,000 annually—a difficult sum to raise from other sources.

Financing from OASAS was set to end on June 30, but it has been extended through the end of December to allow affected programs time to “phase down.”

According to OASAS, more than 200,400 young people will be served under new four-year contracts arranged through the new system, compared to the 55,800 served under the old contracts. More than $15.7 million will be shared between 27 providers if the recommendations are officially approved by the state comptroller’s office.

Nonprofits likely to lose their funding are concerned that the new system penalizes organizations not tied directly to schools. So far, grants have been awarded to the city’s Education Department and the education departments of the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn. But many young people with drug problems are not actively attending school, making it difficult for traditional education-based programs to serve everyone who would benefit from the programs.

Girl Scouts Return Transphobic Donation, Raise 3x as Much Money in a Week

Girl Scout sash with badges and pins

The Girl Scouts of Western Washington returned a donation that came with transphobic strings attached…and earned 3 times as much back.
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In May of 2015, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington received a $100,000 donation, an amount of money that could have sent around 500 Girl Scouts to summer camps. Their elation did not last long, though, as the donor sent along a note shortly afterward, stating that the money was not to be used to support transgender Girl Scouts, and if that couldn’t be guaranteed, the donor wanted the money back.

According to Council CEO Megan Ferland, it wasn’t a difficult decision, and she returned the donation with a note stating why the money wouldn’t be accepted. Following their return of the donation, the Girl Scouts started an IndieGoGo campaign to replace the money and raised $103,000 in 24 hours. As of July 6, a full week into the campaign, they’d raised over $320,000 dollars.

Ferland maintains that the Girl Scouts are for every girl, and that’s a mantra held up by the national leadership as well. The Girl Scouts of America (GSA) has been accepting transgender girls on a case-by-case basis since 2011, and just this year, when faced with tens of thousands of signatures demanding that rescind their acceptance of trans girls, the organization reaffirmed their stance.

And that acceptance has literally paid off, at least for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington. The group didn’t just set up an IndieGoGo to help girls get to camp, something that would have made a lot of sense in the first place. They made sure to point out, in very clear terms, why they returned that donation, and why they feel that supporting transgendered girls is important. The result was an overwhelming amount of support from people who realize that trans girls are girls, too, and that all girls can benefit from their experiences as Girl Scouts.

Ab and Nancy Nicholas Donate $50 Million to UW-Madison

Bascon Hall, UW-Madison

UW-Madison’s business school is set to receive a large donation from the Nicholas family. Image: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

Businessman Albert “Ab” Nicholas and his wife Nancy Nicholas have donated $50 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for student scholarships. The $50 million donation is the largest student-aimed gift from individual donors in the school’s history.

“By a wide margin [it’s] the largest scholarship ever—and there’s not a close second,” said UW Foundation President and CEO Michael Knetter. “This means a lot for our ability to attract the best students, and it means a lot to students and their families who will be able to attend college with a little more financial support.”

Mr. Nicholas has previously donated money to UW-Madison, specifically supporting the Schools of Business and Human Ecology. The school of business has produced many successful alumni, including John Oros of J.C. Flowers & Co. and Dave Lesar of Halliburton. The school hopes to match the $50 million donation with the help of other donors to create a $100 million endowment that will support roughly 400 new scholarships, according to Knetter.

Ab Nicholas has very close ties to the University of Wisconsin. He attended UW-Madison as an undergraduate student studying economics on an athletic scholarship. Nicholas played basketball and actually graduated as the highest-scoring guard in school history at the time.

“The University of Wisconsin holds a special place for Nancy and me,” Ab Nicholas said in the release. “It’s where we met and where our three children and six of our grandchildren have gone to university….We are blessed to join with other donors to help deserving students and families have their own Wisconsin experience.”

Nancy Nicholas also has close ties to the school. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1955, and Nancy Nicholas Hall, which opened in 2012, was the first exclusively academic facility on campus to be named in honor of a woman. She and her husband have been strong supporters of the institution for decades.

The Nicholases also established the Ab Nicholas Scholarship Foundation in 2013, dedicated to providing scholarships to Wisconsin high school basketballers who go on to attend university at any UW System school—providing better opportunities for students in the situation that Nicholas once was.

It goes without saying, really, that the Nicholases and their generous support have created an impressive number of opportunities for students attending UW-Madison.

Canadian Charity to Challenge Government Audits in Geneva

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Canada Without Poverty is challenging a law that restricts nonprofits’ involvement with politics.
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The Canada Revenue Agency, that country’s equivalent of the IRS, has a rule that limits charitable organizations from spending more than 10% of their resources on “political activity.” One group, Canada Without Poverty, is headed for Geneva to argue before the United Nations Human Rights Committee that this rule is unfair and is essentially a gag order against charities.

Canada Without Poverty (CWP) is arguing that the rule is vague, as “political activity” is not well defined, and that the agency uses the rule to go after groups that oppose government policy. The rule is especially tough for CWP, which is an advocacy group that focuses on keeping the Canadian government on track with their efforts to curb poverty. CWP doesn’t run soup kitchens and other activities generally associated with anti-poverty charities, but it is essentially a non-partisan political watchdog. They are especially concerned with making sure that Canada maintains its international promises, which is part of why they’re going to the UN over this.

For groups that are focused on advocacy, spending only 10% of their resources on political activity seems harsh, because depending on how one defines “political activity,” they might not be spending the vast majority of their resources to achieve their goals, making much of that money a waste. Non-profits in the United States are sometimes focused solely on political aims, and the minimal government oversight for charitable organizations in the US can lead to problems, but Canada may have gone too far in the other direction on this front.

The Canada Revenue Agency maintains that the rule, which has only been in place since 2012, is clear about what political activity means. They also maintain that they work independently of the government proper and do not use their rules to silence anyone. Violation of the rule can come with stiff penalties, which can have the effect of reducing an organization’s revenues and thus how much they can spend on political activity.

Property Tax Exemption Stripped from New Jersey Hospital

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A New Jersey medical center is struggling with the proper tax codes for a hospital that works both for profit and not for profit.
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Morristown Medical Center, a New Jersey hospital that has mixed non- and for-profit work, was recently stripped of its property tax exemption by a tax court judge in that state. The issue first came to court in 2006 and has only recently been settled.

The issue, according to the judge, is that the hospital, and perhaps others like it, has mixed its non- and for-profit actions and revenues so much that, from a financial point of view, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. The judge defended his decision as an issue of fairness, specifically toward for-profit hospitals, arguing that doing for profit work while sheltered under non-profit tax exemptions creates an unfair advantage for Morristown and possibly other hospitals.

The mayor of Morristown and others have shown their support for the hospital and are hoping to find a way to preserve the tax exemption for that hospital and others. Non-profit hospitals stripped of property tax exemptions could end up owing as much as $2.5 to 3 million dollars a year.

There are rumblings in the state legislature that such hospitals need some kind of state law to protect them, and hospitals that mix non- and for-profit activates in other states should be concerned, too. Although the ruling is currently only applicable to Morristown Medical Center, it could become precedent across the state, and then across the county, which is why so many people are concerned about acting on it quickly.

The hospital is reviewing appeal options, but turning to the state legislature might be the safest bet. An Illinois hospital faced similar problems recently, and that state moved to ensure its property tax exemptions despite its dabbling in for-profit work. Legislators in New Jersey have pointed to Illinois as a possible model, which, if they adopted something similar, could result in a precedent for the rest of the country.

Myelin Repair Foundation to Close in August

Tablet and stethoscope

The Myelin Repair Foundation will be closing at the end of August.
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The Myelin Repair Foundation, a Bay Area nonprofit that has made incredible breakthroughs in supporting multiple sclerosis treatments, announced Monday that it will be closing its doors on August 31 due to lack of funding.

Founded in 2003 by Scott Johnson, himself a sufferer of MS, the MRF operates on a comparatively small budget—about $5 million a year—to develop and research new drugs and treatment options. In particular, MRF has focused on research looking into ways to restore myelin, a substance that protects nerve cells and is attacked by MS.

Their work has been largely successful so far: in 2013, the MRF licensed one model to biotech firm Biogen Inc. They also went beyond just partnering with industry members and not only funded academic research, but also set up its own labs to accelerate research into the degradation of myelin.

The MRF’s biggest success occurred this past April, when presented a long-forgotten high blood pressure drug to the NationaL Institutes of Health as a way to stop—or even repair—the damage MS does to the myelin sheaths that protect nerve cells.

“Ironically, even with tremendous success on the research side, we have struggled with raising enough money to keep up with our extraordinarily low research costs,” Johnson wrote in a letter to supporters.

This is likely due in large part to the fact that 56 donors provided 92% of the MRF’s revenue. Over the life of the organization, $55 million was raised from individuals and foundations in 29 countries. But this is small potatoes compared to other nonprofits: The National Multiple Sclerosis Society raised $250 million just last year.

Looking ahead, Johnson still believes a myelin-repair drug could be on the market within as few as ten years. He’s also proud of what the MRF has done, even though its time has been cut short.

“What we have accomplished will live on through the people we have worked with and the discoveries we have made,” he said.

 

Study Ranks Quality of Charity Markets Across Country

Colorful charity collection tins

A new study ranks cities in terms of how their charities are organized and run.
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A lot of factors go into charity work, and a lot of factors go into evaluating charities. A recent study of the 30 largest charity markets–that is, the cities that have the largest philanthropic effect–has some interesting information to share. The 30 markets, which were reviewed by charity watchdog Charity Navigator, account for 65% of the total revenue and 66% of spending out of the charities that the website monitors. That means that this survey covered about two-thirds of American charities.

The survey looked at several categories. Market size is based on how many charities there are in that market. Not surprisingly, New York City came in first with 932 charities, while Colorado Springs and Indianapolis have only 49 each. That’s not to say that all those NYC charities are equal. They have to compete for the same people, though NYC is a city that spends on lot on charity, with donations topping $4.6 million. Miami’s donors are more generous, though, topping $5 million.

Of the markets reviewed, Indianapolis charities spend the least on actual programs–only 79% of their budget–while Detroit charities spend the most, coming in at 85%. Unfortunately, Detroit charities also have some of the slowest growth in the country. Accountability and transparency are buzzwords of late in the philanthropic world, and Charity Navigator has long been concerned with these factors. Hipster haven Portland is among the most transparent markets in the country, while its northern neighbor Seattle, home to numerous security-conscious tech firms, is among the least transparent markets.

There’s a lot of useful information in the study. In general, the success of a given charity is partly environmental: the more in line a given organization is with the attitudes and concerns of its home town, the more likely it is to succeed there, and to branch out into other locations.

State of California in Legal Battle Over Identifying Donors

Logo for the CCP

The CCP doesn’t want California charities to have to reveal the names of donors.
Image: Campaignfreedom.org

The Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) has filed an injunction to stop California from enacting state laws that would require them to identify donors who gave more than $5,000 dollars. The State of California requires unredacted Schedule B forms, which would identify such donors, in order to pursue anti-fraud investigations, should they occur. By requiring this information up front, it saves them time when such investigations do occur, as they would otherwise have to wait for warrants and give potentially fraudulent charities or donors time to hide information. This is especially relevant following the recent discovery that four cancer charities in the US defrauded donors of millions of dollars.

The CCP claims that having to declare their donors is a violation of the First Amendment rights of those donors, though the court maintains that there is no significant burden on those donors because of this action.

The issue is part of an ongoing conversation about the transparency and accountability of non-profits and charities, not all of which are created equal. Several other states have similar laws, and several more are considering them, waiting for California to resolve this issue and set a precedent. The CCP is concerned that such attitudes could spread and continue to “violate” free speech, something that they’re very concerned about.

The CCP’s biggest concern seems to be that, if they identify their donors, those donors might not be able to use CCP to dodge paying taxes. Other non-profits that have challenged similar laws include Citizens United, the group that managed to get the federal government to treat corporations as people, and the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, the Koch brothers-backed group trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. These groups are specifically political, and tax-deductible donations to them are essentially campaign donations for conservative politicians. That flies in the face of the logic of tax-deductible donations, which are supposed to do more good for society faster than paying taxes would.

Human Rights Campaign Not as Equality Focused as Advertised

Diverse headshots

A recent survey shows that the Human Rights Campaign has some work to do when it comes to diversity.
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The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy and lobbying group in the United States. Chances are you’ve seen their equal sign stickers on cars before. They built their name by pushing for the legalization of gay marriage, a worthy cause to be sure, but their internal operations don’t quite live up to their message of equality.

A recent report by The Pipeline Project surveyed a number of HRC employees, and the results weren’t all that favorable. They found that there is a definite feeling that the HRC is a “white gay men’s club,” with leadership positions being held almost exclusively by gay white men. Employees claim that advancement is significantly easier if you fall into that group, and that everyone else is held back. Women, gay or straight, have faced sexism from their male colleagues, and trans staff members frequently feel tokenized. And at this point, there’s been no real effort to move toward diversity–the voices of concerned staffers are often silenced, even by the HR department, who urge them to keep their mouths shut and let more conservative people handle it.

HRC leadership has, of course, claimed that they are working to address the problems, but it seems painfully ironic that such problems exist in the first place. Diversity is important to any organization, non-profits included. Diverse employees and especially leadership gives an organization a wellspring of ideas and motivations to keep them working on problems that existing solutions cannot solve.

But more so, as a group that purports to fight for equality, HRC hasn’t been putting their money where their mouth is. Problems like this are part of why there needs to be more oversight of non-profits and charities in the US. If the HRC were more accountable, it’s possible that these issues would have come to light and been solved sooner. In the meantime, hopefully they learn from this report and start embracing the diversity and equality that they claim to fight for.

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