How do I explain this in simple terms?
June 22, 2012 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Please help me either articulate why a certain position is unethical - or help me understand how I am wrong. Is it right to charge someone more for a service based on their success in monetizing that service?

I run (Executive Director) a charitable organization that hosts events. For the sake of anonymity I'm just going to label it a "Community Center." We have lots of big rooms and many community groups meet at our community center.

One of the groups is a bridge club.

When the bridge club first approached our community center, they offered to handle set up, tear down, and room maintenance entirely on their own. They meet in an otherwise unused room, at a time when the building is unlocked and "open for business." They have a spotless track record as a guest of our community center (set up on time, tear down on time, the room is totally spotless.) They are a model community organization and since they have basically no footprint in our community center I decided not to charge them anything. I feel that it's good for our community center for the bridge-playing-community-members to feel welcome here. This has been the status quo for 12 months now. All is calm and quiet. Bridge club is wildly popular, fifty or so of them gather weekly. They make a nominal donation to the community center - $100 a year.

Until about two weeks ago, when the members of the board of directors for our community center discovered that the director of the bridge club was collecting a $5 donation from each player, each week. The money is used to underwrite various bridge-related outings, field trips, that sort of thing. (It is not a for-profit, private enterprise.)

At our recent board of directors meeting, a few of the board members demanded that we beginning charging the bridge club rent. When I asked why, they said that it's because they're "earning" $1000 a month so "they can afford it."

I said "no" to that and there was a small spat. "They're raising $1000 a month using our facility! It's not like it would hurt their business. We need the money. We can't just go giving space away."
I again said "no" and when pressed as to why I just said that "it's not right to just start charging someone because you know their finances."

I feel it is unethical to charge somebody the use of a community good simply because you've learned that they can afford to pay for it. I can't quite figure out how to articulate this in a very simple, straightforward way. The bridge club - who has no reason to expect us to change the rules on them - is rapidly being made into a nefarious, capitalist bugaboo.

In my opinion, the bridge club shouldn't be financially punished just because they found a good way to raise some funds for their organization. We wouldn't do that to the girlscouts if they had a bumper year on cookie sales.

Is there a simple way to explain this sort of thing? I think it is related to avarice. How can I explain to my board of directors that it isn't fair or just to start charging rent (even though we technically could) based on another organization's success or failure?

(Perhaps, however, I am totally wrong and we should raise the rent from basically $100/year to something more substantial since the bridge club can actually afford it.)
posted by Tennyson D'San to Work & Money (37 answers total)
I think it depends on what the current regulations of groups using your facility's space is. If there's something about "use is free for groups that do not charge service fees," that would give you some leverage to introduce a sliding scale. Service related non-profits do this sort of thing--adjust what they charge based on the ability of clients to pay--in fact, it's really important that non-profits have some kind of non-donation revenue stream in order to remain sustainable. All of this should be answered by revisiting your organization's mission statement to see if introducing fee-based services is in violation. Do some research and see how organizations with similar facilities and missions handle this.
posted by smirkette at 1:47 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, if the bridge club stopped collecting dues and thus, stopped having other events (that don't use your space, don't contribute to the wear and tear on your facility) and membership decreased--then giving them a free space would be okay?

I think that the good will resulting from your friendly deal far outweighs the rent increase Mr./Ms Outrage is demanding.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:48 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that $100 a year is not enough, when they are collecting that much from their group. If they went anywhere else they would have to pay way more.
posted by kenaldo at 1:49 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think we have enough info to really determine whether or not charging is a good idea, but from a strictly ethical perspective, I don't think their ability to afford it is the relevant factor here. I can see two separate issues:

First, is it ethical for you to charge anyone for the use of the Community Center?

Second, is it ethical for you to change the rules of the game (free rent) at this point?

I'd argue "yes" to both, unless there's some extant contract or understanding of length of term. I'd say it'd be very sporting of you to give them a few months notice before the rent starts, but I can't really think of a strong argument that it is unethical to charge a group to use space that you control.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:50 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the telling point in the argument you mentioned is someone saying "We can't just go giving space away". You say the bridge club has been active for 12 months rent-free, which is 12 months for anyone who had an opinion to speak up. It would not be fair to the bridge club because from their perspective, the fee would come out of nowhere. The only thing that changed was the board members' realization that there was money to be made.

Suddenly imposing a fee is just going to make the bridge club leave and go somewhere else, and I'd wager that for a charitable organization it would be quite damaging to have negative word of mouth from such a large group. Still, if they press the issue and won't flex, approach the club apologetically, explain the situation, and ask if you can negotiate something to help out the center.

If possible, maybe you could make it clear that they can also give nothing and keep going on, like a "suggested donation" admission box at a museum? I bet if given the option, they would throw in a little bit at least.
posted by PipeRifle at 1:52 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are other groups paying?
posted by empath at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Since you host a lot of different groups - there really should be a standardized policy for how much a room should cost, various possible discounts (such as for nonprofits, for groups that do their own setup, etc), which groups if any qualify to use rooms for free, &etc.
posted by kickingtheground at 1:59 PM on June 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

What is your policy about charging organizations to use space?

I think this is the crux of the issue. If someone wanted to run a Dojo out of the Community Center, would you charge them? (My sister did this for a Tai Kwan do class, she taught kids for a nominal fee, which they used for equipment. Would you charge AA to hold meetings? Would you charge a LaLeche Leauge to hold a meeting? What is the criteria for who gets charged and who does not?

Are you in the business of renting space, or are you a place in the community where space is available for the asking?

What is the mission statement of the community center? How do you typically get funds?

These should guide you. If funding can be supplemented by renting out space, then you should get into that business.

As much as you'd like things to be altruistic and not capitalistic, that's not really how the world works.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:00 PM on June 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

We have lots of big rooms and many community groups meet at our community center.

As empath asks, are the other groups paying? If so, you should treat them all in the same way, although certainly you can make adjustments based on ability to pay. Why can't you just go giving space away? You're a charitable organization. Doing something charitable is kind of your raison d'etre.

I feel it is unethical to charge somebody the use of a community good simply because you've learned that they can afford to pay for it.

You're right, in the sense that if you were happy to allow them to use the space because it's a nice thing to do, and you then learn they could potentially afford to pay a little bit of rent, trying to extract that rent from them (when otherwise you wouldn't have needed it) makes you greedy.
posted by axiom at 2:03 PM on June 22, 2012

Why don't you ask them to have a charity bridge night for you to help the center out? An extra meeting for them, maybe get some music or something, a raffle, and you guys collect the $5 plus the raffle earnings and any other donations that come in that night. Make it an annual thing?
posted by Garm at 2:04 PM on June 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

You need a policy here, if you want to be fair. It's not right to set fees based on whims or what you feel the user can pay; that opens you up to all kinds of nastiness, like discrimination. In this case, the particulars (past behavior) are making it hard to judge reasonableness, so you have to take the specific bridge club out of the equation and think about what would be reasonable for an abstract user. Can you all agree on a reasonable set of conditions upon which you should charge rent for the hall, and how much? (It won't be easy, but it will be easier than agreeing how much to charge the bridge club.) If you come up with some example events, can you agree that the conditions you've come up with lead to a fair and reasonable outcome? If so, you can approach the bridge club to say that a new policy has been put in place.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:05 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you have a written policy on hosting events? Because the way it is worded it sounds like you personally decide who gets free rooms and who pays. What is your own source of funding (for the building, hydro and salaries?). Are there stipulations in your funding how the resources should be allocated to the community. And lastly, is the bridge group organised with a board of directors and a treasurer? Because them making $12,000 a year with no real expenses seems to indicate ~something~ funny going on and you don't want to be caught in the middle of that either (what if the group splits in two, one free, one $5, and BOTH want the same room at the same time?). You need to formalise your relationship together. As a datapoint, I work in a public library and our community rooms (just the room, no staff or resources beyond tables and chairs they set up/break down themselves) are $25 an hour for non-profits/religious groups/birthday parties and $50 an hour for groups or companies that charge for attendance (yoga class/business presentations/etc).
posted by saucysault at 2:07 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

A group that I'm a part of has almost the same identical issue, though, we're starting fresh (no history of groups using the space before).

What we've figured out is that we'll allot a certain number of slots for events that do not charge an entrance fee, and those slots are free. We do educate the users on our expense of the space and say something to the effect of "if you like this space and what we're doing, support us by donating". The free users still get value regardless of donation since we promote their cause (all non-profit or community groups) to are very expansive and responsive user base.

For events that do need to charge an entrance fee of some sort, we do a sliding scale based on entry price. We've also negotiated the same sort of deal for groups that collect dues. We've never had an issue, since we're a well equipped venue and have one of the least expensive rental rates in town. We actually do better on the non-profit/community groups dollar-wise; most see the value of what we're offering and want it to continue for their own benefit.

I would approach the club and outline your expenses for the room, and try to meet somewhere in the middle.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 2:08 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work for a non-profit as well, and as part of our mission we offer low- or no-cost classes to both individuals and organizations. But we only offer those to people who demonstrate need, and the selection process for organizations has been fairly opaque and arbitrary in the past.

The solution we've come up with is to give organizations an application form if they ask for a discount, with a standard set of questions about who they are, what they do, and basically enough so we can at least start to generate some standards, and if there's ever a question we can refer back to the form and say "OK, they're this big, have this much income, and this is their mission" so discussions like these are fact-based.

It sounds like you're in a similar place, and I'd strongly suggest adopting a similar method, if only to cover your ass with the board. You could definitely say to the bridge club "Hey, new policy! Everyone who receives a discounted rate needs to fill out one of these" and then at least you'll have some ammunition.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:09 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think going back to your mission is a good first step. When you first welcomed them, I imagine it was "a few of us need a place to play bridge"... And now it's 50 people a week and $12,000/yr.

It likely costs more than $100/yr to heat and light the space the bridge club uses. If you're really a community centre, then providing space for this activity to occur is probably part of your mission. But like kickingtheground suggests, it's not uncommon for community facilities to charge different user fees for different types of activities. However, I agree that just changing the contract based on what you know of their budget isn't really "fair"

Also, I disagree that charging more than $2 per week would chase the bridge group out... This is the sort of activity that doesnt have a lot of space options.

It seems to me you need a policy, and consulting with the bridge club organizer in creating that policy would be the way to go.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 2:12 PM on June 22, 2012

Think "sliding scale", and consider talking with them, bringing up the worthy missions of other organizations that use the center (needy kids, struggling theater groups, etc.), the fact that the valuable resource you bring to the community involves many costs that don't change.

Think discussing rather than demanding. Think "we're friends" rather than "they're getting away with something". Think discovering, together, how their group and your organization can help assure each other's success. You each are working hard to do something good and you can each help each other.

So, I agree with with restless_nomad's approach, but also keep in mind not to approach it as "They're ripping us off, lay down the law".
posted by amtho at 2:12 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

...At our recent board of directors meeting, a few of the board members demanded that we beginning charging the bridge club rent...I said "no" to that and there was a small spat...I again said "no" and when pressed as to why I just said that "it's not right to just start charging someone because you know their finances."

As Executive Director you should be aware the Board of Directors exists to tell you what to do within your established policies (or designs those policies if they are absent). This is to protect the organisation from an Executive Director that may treat the non-profit as a personal fiefdom and dispense the organisation's resources as favours to friends. You should work on your relationship with your Board (which should have the power to fire you) and be able to justify ALL your decisions with Board-approved policies.
posted by saucysault at 2:23 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You and your board members are wrong that they are not paying. They are not paying in cash, true dat. But, by setting up, cleaning up, breaking down and leaving it spotless, they are paying with their labor. If you start charging them, what services such as custodial help will you start incurring?

I think you need to work with your board to establish clear policies about use of facilities including set up, breakdown, etc and give existing groups some time (3 months?) to prepare for implementation if what they are doing now differs from what your new policy is.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:29 PM on June 22, 2012

Wow there is a lot of great feedback here.

We have a policy about "building rental" that we use for weddings, banquets, professional events, one-off type things. We also have a list of approved organizations who use the building. Most of them have a "footprint" - they require the use of our custodial staff or they are using the building at a time when it is not normally in service. We charge them the cost of the staff-time and a service fee for opening and closing the building.

The bridge group sort of dodges all of these costs and introduces our community center to folks who would be otherwise unfamiliar with us. (Which is why I sort of gave them carte blanch, which I now regret).

I am going to meet with the folks from the bridge club and see if we can find a way to increase their financial contributions to the community center. I'm thinking, specifically, that we could install some sort of vending service in the room they use that would earn us some money and provide them with affordable snacks. Perhaps we could also "pass a hat" on a quarterly basis to support the general mission of the community center. That would probably make the board happy.

The bulk of our income comes from individual donors, not groups who make use of our facility. Part of the mission of the organization is specifically to provide a safe space for community groups to gather - for the enhancement of our neighborhood.
posted by Tennyson D'San at 2:31 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The intent of your Community Center is providing a space for groups that need it but can't rent an office or a room, right? If so, can this bridge club afford to rent out a room that's useful to them? It is fair to charge someone just because you know their finances -- that is precisely the inverse of what you're doing, after all. You don't charge groups based on your belief that they don't have the money to rent a room at full freight somewhere else. If your local car dealer came by and asked for a room to host a sales event, you wouldn't provide it, right?

The key here is not to burn any bridges with your Board or the bridge club. It only takes one pissed-off person with nothing better to do to ruin your community center. Approach the club and say, "Hey, we found out that you're monetizing our free service. Care to kick a few more bucks to these other fine programs that we run?" If they refuse, then maybe ask them politely to find somewhere else. They may soon realize that $1,000 a year is a pretty good rate, especially if you give them a lot of visible credit for contributing to the center.
posted by Etrigan at 2:32 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

One way to think of it is that ethics aren't morals; ethics are a set of guidelines you follow to avoid common moral lapses. The reason you're having this problem is that you don't have any guidelines in place, leaving your organization vulnerable to lapses (it's harder to figure out whether it's right or wrong to charge an organization more for space when the dollar signs are actually flashing in front of your eyes.)

So I'd argue that the actual ethical problem here is the lack of a written policy. It's not unethical to allow them to use the space for free, it's not unethical to charge them -- but it *is* unethical to be making these decisions ad hoc.

And it does make you vulnerable to, say, unintentionally committing discrimination -- e.g., you might be more likely to want to charge teenagers playing D&D than retirees playing bingo, even if the retirees actually had more ability to pay. Or the other way around!
posted by endless_forms at 2:33 PM on June 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

What you're talking about here isn't the bridge club, it's the organization's policy for using/renting the space. I think taking a step back as a board will help alleviate some of the tension you describe. In fact, after discussing your ideas internally, I'd reach out to all of your tenants and invite them to join the conversation. Your Community Center sounds like it's growing and it's time to revisit your standards. The good news is: you're the Executive Director, and you can get the ball rolling.
posted by juliplease at 2:33 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah. Realistically, it's nearly impossible to have a hard and fast 'rental' policy that can apply to everyone equally. As Ruthless Bunny pointed out above - we do have various AA groups who use the space and we don't charge them. We have a couple of support groups from the hospital who also don't pay. But that line of reasoning kind of falls apart with the bridge group because bridge isn't exactly saving lives.

The two positive things the bridge group has going for it is that, principally - they are using space that was previously unused in a very unobtrusive fashion. Secondly - they are bringing new people into our facility.
But those two qualities probably shouldn't qualify them for free rent.

I feel bad, though, because they haven't broken any rules or policies. It felt avaricious to just arbitrarily say, "Ah, I see you've got some money. Based on that observation we're changing the rules." This is the reason I eliminated the separate fee schedule for weddings. It seems unethical to charge more for a wedding rather than, say, a family reunion, simply because folks budget more for a wedding. Our room fees for event rentals is now the same across the board.

Y'all have given me a lot to think about.
posted by Tennyson D'San at 2:43 PM on June 22, 2012

it's nearly impossible

I'm not trying to harp on this, because I think you're asking great questions. But I really don't think it's impossible for you as an organization to look at your needs and your services and draw some real lines. Those real lines are what will keep this from feeling like an arbitrary decision.

Even a standard as short as "groups that are not raising money do not have to pay rent" is a sufficient place to start a discussion, I think. And it'll all be easier if you give the groups a chance to give you feedback on implementing a policy: you'll have better data to make a decision with, and you might get their buy-in if they don't feel like you thrust a big surprise on them. You can even have a process that allows groups to ask for exceptions.

It will be a lot smoother for the community you serve if you make these kinds of things explicit instead of deciding them on a case-by-case basis. And if you do the work now, you won't keep facing these decisions in the future.
posted by juliplease at 2:54 PM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I suspect that the easiest thing to do would be to tell everyone that you're about to review your guidelines, go ahead and do a full review of your policies and plan an overhaul of whatever you think needs to be addressed. Then, with some lead time, implement these new policies and make the chances.

I say easy when it's not, really - you'll have to sit down and do a lot of boring revisions - but it will mean that you're not singling out one group and you'll have the policies in place to handle any other in-between situations that may come up in the future.
posted by PussKillian at 3:05 PM on June 22, 2012

You are only wrong in thinking that "ethical" is an objective thing ("either they are behaving unethically, or I'm wrong, right?"). It's not a matter of "right" or "wrong" it's a matter of two different ethical codes.

The closest thing to making ethics objective is, as others have mentioned, equality and fairness, bounded by concrete, documented, and transparent rules.

Instead of trying to convince others you are right, or accepting you are wrong, I would suggest one of the following

1. Compare this with the rules for other groups using the center during open time. Are they charged? Do any of them pay dues? Do you know that? If you set the precedent for groups paying dues, is the board willing to assess the finances of other groups being allowed to go in for free? If other groups are paying fees, then it would be a bit unfair to give the bridge club a free pass.

2. Encourage the leader of the bridge club to stop collecting weekly fees. If they have a trip coming up, ask the leader to have members to contribute - offsite - money directly to that trip, so it's less a $1,000/month deal and $5000 for a trip to X. Suggest people "pay dues" directly themselves - instead of four people paying $5 each, they can chip in for a chair and bring it to the site. I know it seems weird, but physical object contributions are handled by institutions in an entirely different way than monetary.

3. If other groups pay to use the space, but that includes set up and cleaning, you could offer the bridge club a set percent discount for their own maintenance of the room, but still collect a small fee for electricity, heating, cooling, wear, etc. However you should record this percentage, and allow other groups to take advantage of the same discount if they want to.

I do think you need to keep a couple things in mind as well:

- They are using electricity and causing wear. $100 is unlikely enough to cover a month of electricity, temp control, and wear, nevermind a year. If they have money, they would be able to afford another place and, quite honestly I feel they may be taking advantage.

- Changing prices after offering a service for free is not considered by many to be unethical (which again, is a loose concept), unless a contract ensuring terms has been written up. A spa I go to used to charge $60 for a massage and now they went up to $70, without warning. My rent is increasing 4% next year. It's annoying, but not unethical. But again, this is where your contract comes into play.

- charging different prices dependent on whether someone else will be making money is also not unusual, so I don't think your board is that out of line. There are different versions of software for personal vs. commercial use, and commercial costs more. Subscriptions to some journals will have different levels of pricing, depending on whether it is for personal, non-profit, or commercial use/reading.

...honestly, I don't think your board is behaving unethically at all (unless they're demanding huge sums of money). If this group is making $12,000 a year and only giving $100 back to the space that provides them a place to play every week, they're being stingy. You're not "wrong" for wanting to keep the group at the same rate you originally proposed to them or wanting to balance that with the good they give to the community, but I think the board wants you, as the Executive Director, to make sure the place is maintained in the long run, and getting when the getting's good is part of that.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:14 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Schools and community centers here have different fee schedules for:

-- Events run by non-profit organizations and community groups that do not charge fees for entry. (Bridge club if it didn't have a mandatory fee, support groups, etc)
-- Events run by non-profits and community groups that do charge fees (exercise classes for Seniors run by volunteers but with small fees to cover costs, bridge club that does have a mandatory fee, community theater performances)
-- Events run by for profit groups (dance classes that make the instructors money)

You can create these schedules.

Or, you could create a community group fee schedule, so that you are explicitly charging fees for set-up, take-down, clean-up and off-hours charges, and since these people use none of those, you won't need to charge them at all.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:25 PM on June 22, 2012

Our room fees for event rentals is now the same across the board.

I posted the above before you responded. I, too, find it strange that you have different prices listed for different events.

Imo - and I apologize for the unsolicited opinion - I would try to implement a flat rate for each room. A room fits 50 people? $X/hr. Fits 100 people? $Y/hr. Other benefits, like in-hall bathrooms, etc. could be added onto the price, etc. I think it would be unfair for a bridge club to use a hall for three hours completely for free and then I have that same hall for three hours for a wedding and I get charged - unless the reasoning was transparent and objective, not "their club does more for the community than your wedding" (50 players in my community would not even be "a lot" so I'd actually be insulted by that).

Then you can implement deductions/additions on whether the room is being used for commercial, personal, or non-profit but dues collecting group use, or free-for all non-profit group use.

It might take a lot of worry off your plate.

Also, you can give all the groups some grace periods to find another place if they want to - don't say, "fees next month!"
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:28 PM on June 22, 2012

(oops, I meant *had* different prices for events, not *have*)
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:29 PM on June 22, 2012

I think it would be unfair for a bridge club to use a hall for three hours completely for free and then I have that same hall for three hours for a wedding and I get charged - unless the reasoning was transparent and objective, not "their club does more for the community than your wedding"

I disagree on this point. Many community centers have different rates for facilities based on type of use. It's pretty common to see space given for free/nominal cost for small and local community events where pretty much no money is involved (the aforementioned AA meetings, support groups, senior citizens' groups, etc...), a moderate fee for non-profits that can afford it/have more resources, an even larger rate for private personal events like weddings and such, and a highest rate tier for corporate parties. I wouldn't think it was unfair to charge me more for my wedding when the bridge club and the AA group pay little or nothing.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with charging people based on their ability to pay as long as it's done in a reasonable fashion. If the bridge club was truly a group with minimal amounts of money involved like the AA meeting, then I'd have no problem with you handing them the space for free or $100/year. But the bridge club is paying you guys less than 1% of their annual revenues, and that's not really a fair situation for anyone.
posted by zachlipton at 4:37 PM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should probably be charging them at least the amount it costs for electricity/heat/wear and tear. That's totally reasonable, and I have a hard time imagining any group objecting to that.
posted by zug at 4:45 PM on June 22, 2012

I feel bad, though, because they haven't broken any rules or policies. It felt avaricious to just arbitrarily say, "Ah, I see you've got some money. Based on that observation we're changing the rules." This is the reason I eliminated the separate fee schedule for weddings. It seems unethical to charge more for a wedding rather than, say, a family reunion, simply because folks budget more for a wedding. Our room fees for event rentals is now the same across the board.

As someone who's planning a wedding right now, may I just say that I love you, and wish more people were like you? It is absolutely heartbreaking right now to find that people are charging more in their quotes just because it's a wedding, than they would if any other group were to use their venue - even if those other groups weren't doing anything of any more service or value to the community.

I would personally be enormously offended if a community center suddenly started charging based on "We hear you can afford to pay more." It would really give me a bad taste in my mouth about that community center, and I would stop recommending them to my friends and contacts.

The other thing is that you really don't know what their actual cashflow is. They're taking in 12,000 a year - but they're organizing excursions out of that money. That might actually eat up a good bit of funds, particularly if it's a large group and they're arranging for food and transportation to these outings. You just don't know.

100 dollars is low, and I agree with other posters that you should at least have them paying for their electrical output and such. I think it would be quite reasonable to approach them and say, "Hey, we've actually been going over our bills, and this is winding up costing us money. Do you think you could kick in some more towards the space?"
posted by corb at 5:17 PM on June 22, 2012

I think it's a little weird to just raise this group's rent/fees based on what you learned about them.

It would be preferable to have a policy, i.e. "groups which raise $400/month or more will pay $50/month fee to use the space," announce that the policy is being created and will go into effect in three months, don't target the bridge players specifically (maybe AA will fall under this policy too -- they usually pass the hat at the end of a meeting), and then enforce the policy across the boards.

You could also have "sliding scale" use of the facility. I've been to places, mostly individual wellness places, which asked me to pay according to my income (for acupuncture and other health treatments). They had a sheet telling you if you made $X-$Y/month then the service cost $Z, and you'd just go up to the counter and say that you were going to pay $Z for your treatment. In this model, a group which fundraised less would pay less and a group which fundraised more would pay more (within reason).

I personally -- both as a manager and a client at a facility like yours -- would much prefer a clear, universal policy to a casual "hey what if you kicked in a little more, we've heard you have deep pockets."
posted by feets at 8:16 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two thoughts: first, the community members who benefit the most from a resource have the most obligation to help fund it. Second, the price you should be charging should depend on how much demand there is for your space. Together these are fairly libertarian I suppose, but non-profit isn't the same as non-funded. My advice is to find a way to renegotiate the terms of your event space with the bridge club.

On the first point, part of your charitable mission likely involves offering resources to those in need, and that shortfall needs to be covered somehow (currently by private donors). And if someone else's project is successful based on your generosity, it seems reasonable for them to recognize that and return the favor. I mean, you're more than a tax deductible conference hall, yes?

Everything is re-negotiable, and negotiations are based on information. When people find out they're being paid less than their coworkers, isn't that information about what their employer is willing to pay for the work? Just remember this goes in both directions. If you have a lot of event space free, remind your board asking for too much money will likely result in more wasted conference room time and that the bridge club has options if the price you ask for is too high. Knowing that the bridge club has money to fork over is different from them having no other options. You need to temper your "ask" to market conditions.

The best solution to this I've seen uses three components:
1. A community-at-large rate for groups like the bridge club that "can afford it", perhaps adjusted to keep the community center popular with clients, rather than a punitive rate. If you want to capture the professional conferences and weddings dollars, perhaps offer one rate for recurring meetings and another for the one-offs.
2. a fee-waiver application that gets reviewed (by you or the board). It might be worth waiving X percentage of the fee such that the remainder amounts a trivial amount like 5 or 10 dollars a month, just to keep them on notice that money matters to your non-profit.
3. a target percentage of event space usage "for-the-mission" vs community-at-large.

As for the bridge club itself, the psychological "endowment effect" is going to be an uphill battle. Rationally, they should be happy to be given the option to rent space free for a year before going into an at-cost arrangement. Instead they're likely to be angry that free-for-life is going away. Instituting fair rules makes this a little more persuasive: "Look, it's kinda ridiculous that we're charging the charity rate for a well-to-do group like yours." "The rate we're asking for is below three other similar spaces we quoted!" and so on, laced with profuse apologies, because words are cheap ;)
posted by pwnguin at 10:45 PM on June 22, 2012

The bulk of our income comes from individual donors... It felt avaricious to just arbitrarily say "Ah, I see you've got some money. Based on that observation we're changing the rules."

I agree with you that being arbitrary and springing new policies on groups with zero warning would damage relationships with community groups that you want to preserve. You "feel" those relationships more than the board members, I imagine, and it is good that you are seeking to articulate this to them. You want to avoid a possible negative impact that could occur if you implemented their suggestions in an incautious way. You want to preserve the relationship with the bridge club, which requires being fair, not arbitrary, and predictable, not capricious.

But I'm wondering who does your fundraising, and how much of that responsibility falls on the board. If they bear the bulk of that responsibility, they may "feel" that more intensely than you do, and if so, it makes sense that they'd be seeking to articulate to you the organization's need to raise funds.

As someone with a decade of nonprofit staff experience who is also on another organization's board, I found the word "avaricious" a bit surprising. I would have imagined you'd be both comfortable and experienced asking, motivating, and inspiring people to contribute to the good works of the community center at the highest level they feel they can. Avaricious makes it sound negative, when really, donating money can let you feel part of something bigger than yourself and generally feel quite meaningful.

At minimum, all that extra toilet paper and flushing must cost something, right? :) Is it responsible to ask private donors to cover that expense? Would it be avaricious to ask the bridge club to pay their own way? I don't mean to make assumptions about your role in fundraising, but if your board is being asked to make major donations or do significant fundraising, they may resent having to, in effect, make up for your unwillingness to ask others to share the costs, particularly parties who benefit from the center and have resources.

My point is that, while others see this as being fundamentally about your need to review the fee schedule, I wonder if this isn't an indication of an even broader issue, that the board feels a need for new revenue streams and would like your active participation in that. Your idea of passing the hat on a quarterly basis is a good one. You could give a presentation about all the deserving groups who meet there and the great benefits you have for the community. You may even discover new major donors this way. Someone else suggested asking the bridge club to host an annual fundraiser for you. That's a great idea. If each one of those 50 people brought two friends, and everyone donated a little bit, the cost of the community center could be shared a bit more widely across the community and make it feel even more like a place they have a stake in.
posted by slidell at 12:59 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

From my seat, there's nothing wrong with charging those who can afford it more.

But there are some pretty serious caveats: You don't actually know that they can afford it (for $5 a person per week to add up to $1000, that's 200 people. That's $60 per person per year in activities, which isn't a lot at all). Unilaterally raising it on them is flawed, reactive thinking, and doing it with no notice would be worse.

So: Figure out what your itemized costs are (generally) for a room. Set consistent pricing based on that, and set up a set of discounts that apply to activities that don't incur some of those itemized costs. Also create a mechanism for subsidizing all or most costs for groups that can't afford the fees. Remember to include a margin in what you charge in order to make up for the subsidizing that you do for other activities — that way, corporate events help out AA, etc.

Finally, announce this as an upcoming policy starting on X date in the future (ideally 90 days or so) so that organizations have time to make other plans if they need to.

Then boom, you've got an ethical, consistent system that meets your needs and provides support for your mission.
posted by klangklangston at 7:14 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't actually know that they can afford it (for $5 a person per week to add up to $1000, that's 200 people

It's 1000 a month. 50*5 = 250 dollars a week, times an average of 4 weeks a month = 1000. Not that it changes anything.
posted by pwnguin at 9:50 PM on June 23, 2012

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