‘Bowling for Bums: My Life as a Charity Whore’ — an excerpt, redux

This post originally appeared on December 27, 2013 after I sought permission from the author to run an excerpt here. The entire book is available to be checked out at Boulder Public Library, and I highly recommend it. BTW, the Longmont, CO nonprofit profiled below is actually the OUR Center.

(Copied from Chapter Nine, “At Least People in Prison Have Some Place to Sleep”)

By A. Price

There is a Poor House in Longmont. Except unlike its counterparts in 19th century London, you aren’t allowed to sleep there overnight. No matter how poor you may be, unlike a real 19th century Poor House, in Longmont you are tossed out on your ass at 4 pm — no matter the weather.

The Poor House actually used to let homeless adults sleep inside if it was snowing or the temperature dropped below 20 degrees, but once they launched their four million dollar capital campaign to purchase a bigger building, they kicked the homeless out the door.

Apparently homeless people sleeping on cots in a snow storm makes a bad impression to major donors being enticed to support a nonprofit agency whose mission is assistance and self-sufficiency services for the poor. What? Say that again?

After I started doing time at the Poor House myself as a paid staff member, something strange began to happen. I started to think about what I was doing and began to wonder how the money I raised was spent.

I also caught myself putting on a little too much lipstick and digging out those little short skirts hiding in my closet.

Special Events are one of the nonprofit industry’s dirty little secrets. Take the Poor House Gala: It took three weeks for the volunteer gala committee to decide between the white cloth or the gold cloth napkins for the annual fundraising event. I was voting for the white. They came with the ballroom. The gold would cost $400 more to rent and honestly felt scratchy on my lips. The committee went with the gold and I had to add that to my bottom line.

After all I was working for the Poor House and the Poor House was supposed to be Longmont’s ticket to self-sufficiency. Perhaps the gold napkins would make a difference after all.

It’s a given that nonprofit marketing claim that all “proceeds” of a charity event go directly to benefiting the population they serve. At best, the national average is about 50% of every donated dollar raised through special events go directly to support programming.

That formula doesn’t take into account the paid staff time to organize the event. The 50% formula just accounts for direct costs like the ballroom rental, caterer, entertainment, etc. The hidden costs eat up much more of the proceeds than what appears on the spreadsheets.

Too often the cost of putting on the event, renting the space, catering the food, etc. eats up all the proceeds. And that’s still not counting staff time.

Sometimes the event doesn’t even clear its costs and nonprofits must spend money from the general fund to cover the tab. So not only doesn’t that charity benefit ticket actually help orphans or puppies, but it may require the use of other donated funds just to pay for a party.

Knowing what I know didn’t stop me from diving right in planning all those parties.

My first day on the job, one of the case workers was fired. Later I heard through the grape vine that she had reported the Poor House to the Colorado Department of Labor.

The Executive Director had been forcing staff to put in unpaid overtime under the guise of volunteer time. “Volunteer Time” primarily meant setting up and tearing down expensive fundraising events. She had been doing it for years.

There was a score card of staff “volunteer time.” If you didn’t clock in your required “volunteer hours” you would face the consequences. A couple weeks after the caseworker was fired the staff got a convoluted email saying that we were not now and had never been forced to volunteer, but that if we loved our jobs, if we loved poor people and if we didn’t want to become poor ourselves, then volunteering would always be appreciated.

“Let them eat Cake,” the queen said before she chopped off more heads.

A couple weeks after the Great Colorado Flood the headlines of the local paper proclaimed, “Local Nonprofits Fight for Flood Relief Dollars.” Well-meaning individuals and businesses are still raising flood donation dollars and giving the money, not to the people directly affected by the flood, but to the nonprofit middle man, or woman. The nonprofits aren’t providing any special support for flood victims. If the flood has cost you your job, ruined your home and destroyed your car, now you can get in line with all the other poor people who also need a hand. The Poor House is laughing all the way to the bank (emphasis is mine — MRW).

Recently there was a photo in the local paper of a Poor House employee standing in a room with donated clothing piled 15 feet high. He knows that most of those donations are cast offs that even a Dickensian rag and bone man wouldn’t take. It’s his job to take most of that stuff directly to the dumpsters after dark. He also knows that a photo of a humble janitor surrounded by others’ cast off generosity is bound to lead to more generosity in the form of real cash money.

The Great Colorado Flood will lift the sinking ship that the Poor House has become. While the mistress of the Poor House is seen as the queen of compassion, Mother Theresa of the high plains, turned wet lands, what she really is a scoundrel that would play well in almost any Dickens novel.

How did things work around the Poor House?

Every week day, while the employees hurry in the back door, a long line of low income or no income people form at the front door.

Even before the flood, people turned to the Poor House for free food boxes, eviction prevention, emergency utility shut off, social security appeal letters, and the other daily crises that defines what it means to be poor. People living in substandard housing or worse, homeless, came in daily to sign up for the waiting list of the waiting list to get on the official waiting list for housing vouchers.

You read that right: Two waiting lists before a person could get on the master waiting list. As it stands right now, it takes about five years from when you first get on a list until your case comes up for review. Some of the people who put their name on the lists manage to find someplace to live on their own. Some die before their name is called. Some age out of the original list, and now have to wait on a different list for low income senior housing, yet to be built, before they die too (emphasis is mine — MRW).

The first hurdle at the Poor House was proving that a) You are poor enough to receive assistance, b) You live in Longmont, c) You aren’t too poor to be beyond help, because if you were too poor you wouldn’t fit well in the self-sufficiency matrix.

If you are too poor the Poor House will probably give you a one-time only bag of emergency food, but won’t want to assign you a case number and add you to the client list.

The Poor House prides itself on being able to move people from vulnerability to self-sufficiency. Case workers don’t want to start with lost causes because it looks bad for their statistics.

So, despite all of the fundraising, the galas with the scratchy over budget napkins, the donor appeal letters, and the community food drives, if you were poor and needed help, the first hurdle was to prove to the gate keeper that you were just the right amount of poor to get in the door.

We promise donors that your donation will save lives and change the world one donation at a time. We don’t tell you that only some poor people qualify. We don’t tell you that most of what we say is a lie.

There were also other groups trying to get in through The Poor House Door: criminals and welfare recipients.

In Colorado and many other states, people convicted of anything from shoplifting to aggravated assault could often reduce their prison sentences and fines by volunteering at nonprofits willing to let them “work” off their time. The Poor House wouldn’t take child molesters or pot smokers. Everybody else pretty much got in.

It was the same thing with the Colorado Work Force or Welfare Recipients. In order to qualify for financial assistance or Food Stamps in Colorado, most adults have to put in as much as 35 hours a week “Volunteering” for a nonprofit organization. These individuals are also supposed to spend 20 or 30 hours per week looking for jobs or engaged in job training activities.

Both the Community Service criminal volunteers and the Welfare volunteers were funneled into the food warehouse and the federally funded soup kitchen. They were assigned hard time regardless of their age or ability. Sixty year old women with bad hips would work alongside 20 year old punks doing community service “Time” for rolling a bum or driving 80 miles an hour, drunk, in a school zone. No mercy. Do your time or your “time sheet” wouldn’t get signed.

And if that sixty year old woman, trying to survive on food stamps, wanted some help signing up for heat assistance or eviction prevention, she’d have to get in the back of that long line that formed at 8 am and ran until 4 pm.

The one perk of this “volunteer” assignment was people were allowed to eat either breakfast or lunch at the soup kitchen free of charge. The food, also prepared by volunteers, was usually pretty good and met the caloric thresholds outlined by the federal government. The “volunteers” forced to work for free to avoid jail time or an empty refrigerator, cleaned toilets, stocked the food pantry, cooked the meals and handed out food to people who are lucky enough to make it past the scrutiny at the front door.

Usually this is what the volunteers gave to the people who had food vouchers: two cans of soup, two cans of vegetables, one can of fruit, half dozen eggs, when available, and one loaf of day old bread. This was the standard issue for a family of four for one week. If they were still poor the following week, they could get back in line and start the whole process again (emphasis is mine — MRW).

If the family had young children, they could also qualify for extra fruit and a jar of peanut butter once in a while. And once a month each household received a can of USDA protein, which meant anything from a can of spam to a can of of spaghettios in meat sauce.

Throughout the year the Poor House is inundated by literally tons of donated food. Both large scale farmers and backyard gardeners bring in hundreds of pounds of fresh produce. A small amount of that produce was set out on trays for clients to take home. The rest was used to make the meals served in the soup kitchen.

Thanks to the conscripted labor of the court and state mandated volunteers, the Poor House got hundreds of hours of free labor each week, saving the organization thousands of dollars in payroll.

However, if you read the marketing and PR materials, the constantly growing demand for services led to higher staffing costs to try to meet the growing need. But in fact in 2013, four caseworkers left or were let go by the Poor House. These four caseworkers were replaced by only two new staff people and the workload for all of them increased exponentially.

And also in 2013, the Development Department increased from one full-time and one part-time staff member to now four full-time workers. Staffing decisions can be a great indicator of a nonprofit’s priorities. Offering less assistance to the poor, increasing the caseload of a shrinking direct services staff while increasing the budget to hire more fundraisers, says a lot about a nonprofit organization.

And that’s what the Poor House did.

Executive Director Edwina Salazar (R) accepts another donation.

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