While the rest of the country slogs along at an average of 8% unemployment, business is booming at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nearly every month a new “help wanted” ad hits the ether, usually for a high-end public relations or fundraising position (redundant, I know, I know).
Although it is heartwarming to see that at least somebody is hiring these days, this flurry of growth flies in the face of a promise made by SPLC founder Morris Dees more than 20 years ago.
In 1974, Dees began setting aside SPLC cash resources “to plan for the day when nonprofits like the SPLC can no longer afford to solicit support through the mail because of rising postage and printing costs.”
A noble effort and the noble result became the SPLC’s “Endowment Fund”
In 2000, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine observed in his landmark article, “The Church of Morris Dees,” that Dees had definite goals for the Endowment Fund from the outset, however, like many noble undertakings, this too succumbed to “mission creep.”
“Back in 1978, when the Center had less than $10 million, Dees promised that his organization would quit fund-raising and live off interest as soon as its endowment hit $55 million. But as it approached that figure, the SPLC upped the bar to $100 million, a sum that, one 1989 newsletter promised, would allow the Center “to cease the costly and often unreliable task of fund raising. ”
That was 1989 and this is now.
The Endowment Fund reached the $100 million mark in 2002, but the fundraising failed to cease.
The Endowment Fund reached the $200 million mark in 2007, but the fundraising failed to cease.
The Endowment Fund was created so that the SPLC could cease fundraising and “live off the interest,” and for much of the past decade the amount of interest generated by the fund each year has surpassed the annual operating costs, minus the 19% in annual fundraising costs, which the fund was designed to eliminate.
These surpluses, or “non-profits,” if you will, have run from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million, even in the depths of the Great Recession. In short, the Endowment Fund could pay all of the bills and still have cash left over, just as it was designed to do.
The Endowment Fund is working as advertised.
Despite Mr. Dees’ promise in 1989 to cease all fundraising when the fund hit $100 million, the SPLC has actually been ramping up its fundraising machinery.
On August 3, 2011, Dees advertised for a “Regional Advancement Director,” (RAD):
“We seek a Regional Advancement Director (RAD) to join our growing major gifts team. Based in Montgomery, the RAD will travel to targeted regions of the US identifying, cultivating, soliciting and closing individual major gifts.”
Identifying, cultivating, soliciting and closing. Join our growing major gifts team. Promises, promises.
This past week the call went out for an On-Line Fundraising Coordinator:
“A successful candidate in this new position will join a team of enthusiastic fundraising and communications professionals to establish and advance SPLC’s online giving efforts.”
This makes perfect sense if the goal of the Endowment Fund was actually designed to plan for the day when postage and printing costs made fundraising unaffordable. The advent of e-mail and online donation platforms have lowered the postage and printing costs of fundraising dramatically. One e-mail can reach tens of millions of donors at the speed of light for a cost measured in pocket change.
The problem is that the Endowment Fund was designed to eliminate fundraising, not support it.
Far from using his bloated Endowment Fund to “live off the interest,” Mr. Dees’ interest seems to be to fatten his quarter-billion-dollar tax-free cash cow for every dime he can get.
One has to wonder what the actual mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center truly is.
If you can’t trust a lawyer to keep his word… who can you trust?