Tag Archives: nonprofits


Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

How to check out a nonprofit, part two

In yesterday’s post, “How to Check Out a Nonprofit”, I showed how to find out who’s calling the shots. The board of directors makes the strategic plan, which must be in line with the funders’ wishes. Why? Because a nonprofit lives or dies by its funders. I’ll go through this one more time, adding a couple other details.First a caveat: know when to stop. There is so much information out there that you could spend an infinite amount of time investigating a nonprofit or looking at the various connections between the nonprofit sector, billionaire foundations, and corporations. Don’t do that.

Let’s look at the National PTA today. They partnered with the nonprofit DQC to put out a white paper called “What Every Parent Should Be Asking about Education Data and Privacy.” It was extremely reassuring and evaded the real questions, like “what exactly do the federal privacy laws allow, and what don’t they?” It turned out that DQC is funded and directed by corporate interests who stand to make a profit off student data.

Why would the National PTA partner with them?

The National PTA does a lot of good. It’s a powerful voice for children. It’s mission has maybe changed a little recently, though. Their new motto, “Every Child, One Voice,” is a little concerning. Aren’t there a whole lot of voices with conflicting ideas about what constitutes a good education? In particular, there’s the question over whether our schools should be privatized. Some parents think yes, some think no.

Who funds it?

The National PTA is funded partly by its members and partly by its sponsors. It’s accountable to both its members and its sponsors. By and large, the sponsors support privatization, and that’s enough to tip the balance. The sponsors are:

  • AXA Equitable
  • Jamba Juice
  • Lifetouch
  • Promethean
  • Target

Two jump out. Promethean is “a leading education company committed to developing interactive learning technologies that inspire teachers and engage students.” They have a business interest in big data.

And then there’s Target. I shop there sometimes. I see the big sign that says it gives back 5 percent of its income to local communities. It doesn’t say that it gets power and influence by doing so. Now, didn’t we see Target somewhere before? Oh yes, they are also a funder of DQC, which coincidentally authored the white paper with the PTA.

Who’s on the board of directors?

Looking at the board of directors, I see a lot of people doing a lot of good. Big shout-out to Laura Bay, who as head of the Washington PTA supported the “Simple Majority” initiative, which made it easier for local communities to pass school levies.

The president, elected just this year, is a little unusual. Usually you see people with a background in education.  But President Otha Thornton has a military background. From his bio:

He is a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel and his last two assignments were with the White House Communications Agency and United States Forces-Iraq in Baghdad. Thornton earned the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional performance in combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2009-2010.

The military hasn’t got an interest in the PTA, has it?

He is also currently a senior operations analyst with General Dynamics in Fort Stewart, Georgia. Well, what do they do? Oh, they’re a defense contractor. They have an Information Systems and Technology group, which works with “defense, intelligence, homeland security, civilian government and commercial sectors.” Oh.

I don’t have any time to look into this further. My kids need breakfast. Remember what I said earlier? Know when to stop.

But I promised to show to more ways to investigate nonprofits: their annual report and their IRS tax form (Form 990). Sometimes these are hard to find or unavailable online. New nonprofits aren’t required to file Form 990 for three years. But it’s worth taking a look. Sometimes you find out that a small nonprofit suddenly got a big influx of cash, and its mission changed.

The National PTA has a page for annual reports and financials. It links directly to their 990 form and their annual report.
You can also find the 990 form really easily by going to the Foundation Center’s “990 Finder”  page and typing in the official name of the organization. In this case it isn’t “National PTA,” it’s the “National Congress of Parents and Teachers”. Type that into the “Organization Name” box and there you go!

They did have a jump in income between 2009 and 2010, from 16.7 million to 24.3 million dollars in total assets. Somebody started giving them cash.

Checking their 2009 and 2010 annual reports, I see a big change. In 2010, for the first year, their annual reports got glossy and colorful. The annual reports don’t show the jump in income, so I can’t tell right off the bat where it came from. If I had more time, I could figure it out.

But it’s time for breakfast!

One positive sign: it looks like they take in more cash from members from sponsors. That means that in theory they are more accountable to the members. But that depends on people keeping a really close eye on them. And this is how to do it.

So that’s how to check out a nonprofit.

Also see:


How to check out a nonprofit

In yesterday’s post I asked the question “Are Nonprofits our Frenemies?” That is to say, are there any social benefit nonprofits that are also working behind our backs — for example, to close our neighborhood schools? And I explained how to find out. To recap:

1. Look at their board of directors.

2. Look at their funders.

Now let’s look at another example. I’ve been investigating problems with student data privacy, and I’ve learned that federal privacy laws were recently weakened and that very detailed, personally identifiable data, is being given out to a wide range of researchers. The national PTA has been looking into it as well, and they’ve very considerately put out a press release and guide on questions parents should be asking about data privacy. Strangely, though, it’s missing some of the key questions that parents really ought to be asking, and instead it has vague reassurances that “federal laws protect privacy” and what might just be an outright lie, that the vendors who get student information “can’t sell the data or let anyone else access it.”

Why might that be?

Well, the PTA didn’t put this out alone. They paired up with a nonprofit to write this guide: the Data Quality Campaign. The DQC is pushing for state and federal legislation that set up longitudinal (long term) databases. It also creates “public demand and discourse” for better education data. That is, it does PR.

So let’s check out the DQC.

Who are their funders?

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
  • The Alliance for Early Success
  • AT&T
  • Target

Not too surprising, that a lot of foundations related to technology would want lots and lots of data collection. Companies like Microsoft, Dell, and AT&T will benefit financially from selling all those IT systems to the public schools. I don’t know what Target is doing there, but folks, when you shop at Target and they say they’re giving money to education, you don’t suppose it’s for stuff like this, do you?

Anyway, because nonprofits live or die by their funders, everything this nonprofit does is because its funders want it.

Who’s on their Board of Directors?

Okay, so I could find out, but I don’t feel like it today. I’m more interested in the Partners page.

Who are their partners?

They have a bunch of partners. I definitely don’t have time to look at all of them, especially since some are nonprofits. But I see some familiar faces. Specifically:

  • National Council on Teacher Quality – they advocate against National Board Certification for teachers and were infamous in Seattle for horning in on Seattle’s contract negotiations a couple years back. They also put out a biased rating survey of schools of education.
  • Northwest Evaluation Association – they make the MAP test, which has been quite controversial in Seattle
  • Schools Interoperability Framework Association – this is a not-for-profit corporation that oversees an industry initiative to make student data sharing easier
  • Oh dear, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. They’re a think tank and PR organization focused on privatization.

That’s enough for one day. This nonprofit is run by, and partners with, corporate interests who want to privatize schools and collect and share large amounts of data on our students. They’re not really the people we should trust to tell us whether our children’s data is safe.

Curious that the National PTA would partner with them.

Next up: How to check out a nonprofit, part two

Also see: What are our students’ privacy rights, really?

Are nonprofits our frenemies?

In yesterday’s post, Mysterious timing for Chicago school closures, I talked about how the Teach for America Board of Directors sat down at a planning table and projected that they would be staffing 50 new charter schools in Chicago . . . several months before 50 public school closures were announced. The question is, did they help cause the closures?

I say yes, absolutely. Privatization of public schools is in their mission statement. Their board of directors is responsible for planning and strategy. They benefit financially from the conversion of public schools to charter schools, because they staff charter schools far more often than they staff public schools. And they have the means to influence public policy, through financial and personal ties between TFA, charter school organizations, and public officials. These ties are well documented here, here, here, and here.

However, “TFA is evil” is not the lesson we need to take away from all this. The lesson to take away is that 501c3 nonprofits make good frenemies. They can have a beautiful awe-inspiring mission statement. They can have lovely documentaries on PBS and Univision. And they can still be acting against you.


It’s because of what 501c3 nonprofits are. They’re organizations that claim to have a social benefit, and maybe they do or maybe they don’t. They’re tax-exempt because of that supposed benefit. Donations made to them are tax-deductible, making them a playground for the ultra-rich with their charitable foundations. And they live or die by their funders. That means their funders have to like the work they do in some way, shape, or fashion. The board of directors is responsible for making sure that a nonprofit follows its mission statement, and even more importantly, pleases the funders.

Maybe it pleases the funders and has a social benefit too. Yay. Except not exactly. Unlike the public sector, which is accountable to the public, the nonprofit sector has no accountability to the public or to the people it is “helping.” What’s lost here is the power of self-determination.

So to know what a nonprofit is really doing, you need to look at the funders and the board of directors. This is easy to do. Google “Teach for America donors” and “Teach for America board of directors” and there you have it. You can learn some interesting things that way. Well, here’s what I learned, starting from the Lines of Influence diagram made by Dora Taylor and Sue Peters, and going from there. I’ll start with a diagram and then explain a few of the highlights.


The first thing to notice is that TFA’s big funders include the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (owners of WalMart). Those three philanthropies hold enormous amounts of money — tax-free. They get the tax exemption because of their supposed social benefit. And they get to advance their aims, which in this case involves the privatization of public schools and teachers.

The second thing to notice is that these three funders donate both to Teach for America and to charter schools. In practical terms, that means that they have the power to use any of the organizations to advance the aims of any of the other organizations. And they do.

The third thing to notice is that charter schools and TFA have a symbiotic relationship. Charter schools provide opportunities for the TFA teaching corps, whereas TFA provides low-cost, inexperienced teachers to charter schools. So they have a natural tendency to help each other out.

The fourth thing to notice, Paul Finnegan, was just a sideline for me. It’s the kind of thing you find out when you go peeking into boards of directors and seeing what their members do. I have to be careful not to do too much of this, but since I looked at him, I might as well explain the connections.

I have to pause here and say I have not found a smoking gun or anything earthshattering or anything like this. This is just the normal way a nonprofit does business. The members of its board of directors often come from leadership positions in the private sector, because managing a nonprofit is a whole lot like managing a for-profit. And the members of its board of directors often come from funders, because after all, what happens if you say no to a funder who wants to sit on your board of directors?

Okay, so Paul Finnegan. He is the regional chair for Chicago. So of course, he makes strategic decisions for Chicago. I imagine he must have sat in on that board of directors meeting in January where they discussed the plan for 50 new charter schools.

When you look at his name on the TFA Board of Directors web page, you see the words “co-chair, Madison Dearborn Partners”. Well, what’s that? Bless you, Google and Wikipedia, for magically providing an answer:

Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP) is a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts of privately held or publicly traded companies, or divisions of larger companies; recapitalizations of family-owned or closely held companies; balance sheet restructurings; acquisition financings; and growth capital investments in mature companies.”

I have to admit, a lot of this is gobbeldygook to me. But you know what isn’t?

“Total assets: 14 billion”

Holy cow! This guy is the co-CEO of a company with 14 billions of dollars worth of assets. That means he controls 14 billions of dollars worth of assets, as well as all the subdivisions and acquired companies and so forth.

I’m sort of starting to understand why a person like that wouldn’t care about the closure of the 50 public schools or the impact it will have on the communities, children, and displaced teachers. He just plain lives in a different world, that’s all. I just wish he would stay there and quit messing with things he doesn’t understand.

That was the big reveal there. 14 billion dollars. But it’s worth digging a little deeper. Madison Dearborn Partners own at least two interesting things:

  • Univision, a Spanish American TV company. Free PR for whatever nonprofit he wants to support! Yay!
  • CDW. Who-what? Wikipedia to the rescue again. “CDW Corporation, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois, is a provider of technology products and services for business, government and education.” That’s profiting off another kind of privatization, outsourcing, but really beyond the scope of this post.

And they donate to something interesting as well: Chicago International Charter School (CICS). Haven’t I seen that somewhere before? Oh yeah, I have.

It was in this spreadsheet of charter schools that are expected to open. Six new schools, serving 3500 students, and providing a whole lot of jobs to TFA.

That’s convenient.

To recap: a 501c3 nonprofit, whatever its social benefit, is ultimately accountable only to its funders and its board of directors. And to understand what a nonprofit is up to, you don’t have to look any farther than that. Friend or frenemy? Check them out.

Next up: How to check out a nonprofit and How to check out a nonprofit, part two

Mysterious timing for Chicago school closures


This spring, thousands of Chicagoans gathered to protest school closures. 54 schools were closed, against the wishes of the impacted communities. If you’ve missed this story, you can follow it back all the way to 2011 on the Huffington Post.

The official story behind the closures was that they were underutilized and that Chicago Public Schools just didn’t have the money to run them. But at the very same time, the school district is requesting applications from charter school companies.

They’re closing neighborhood public schools, against the wishes of the communities impacted, and replacing them with privatized charter schools.

In which kinds of neighborhoods? In Chicago, as in New York and Philadelphia, these school closures are happening mostly in communities of color. Here are the numbers:


But I digress. I was talking about the mysterious timing. What I’m talking about here is Teach for America, the nonprofit that was originally supposed to staff schools where teachers were hard to find. I remember learning about it many years ago from a PBS special. It showed a bright-eyed, passionate teacher going into a difficult classroom and excelling. Great, right?

Not so much, as it turns out.

In January, months before the school closures were announced, the Teach For America Board of Directors by some strange coincidence projected that the number of charter schools in Chicago would double, or in other words, increase by 52.

The same number as the public schools that closed.

Was Teach for America involved in the school closures? It sure looks that way. Blogger Ed Shyster, who broke the news about TFA’s charter school projections, argues that these projections  represent “backwards planning” in which those in power decide on the result they want (52 new charter schools) and then design the plan. He further points out that there are close ties between TFA, charter school companies, and charter school authorizers (who help decide which charter schools can open).

The Washington Post Answer Sheet reprinted his blog post in the article “How Big Can TFA Get?” Check it out.

Why would TFA do this? If the mission is to help poor communities, why would TFA override their express wishes to keep their neighborhood schools?

I think the easiest way to answer this is to look at an article from the right-wing blog Education Next. TFA leaders go on to become “educational entrepreneurs” — which is to say people who are starting charter school organizations or otherwise privatizing education.

And, as it turns out, this is a core part of TFA’s mission. Read between the lines on their “Lifelong Leaders” web page. It says:

“As an alum, you will join a network of like-minded people who support each other personally and professionally in endeavors that further our mission – such as opening and staffing schools, partnering on social entrepreneurship initiatives, and sharing additional opportunities to advocate for students.”

Just to be clear, “opening schools” means opening charter schools. And “social entrepreneurship initiatives” means privatization.

And why would TFA want to privatize education? This part is really really important. It isn’t because TFA is somehow “evil” or whatever. It’s because the people who run it, who have loads and loads of money and power, think that privatizing our schools is the best way to “help” our communities.

But look back at the original photograph here. These people didn’t want to be “helped” by having their schools closed.

Next up: Are nonprofits our frenemies?