501(c)(3) "donations" that aren't
November 6, 2016 2:22 AM   Subscribe

I perform vocal music with a 50-member nonprofit chorale. We are asked to "donate" $200 per year in order to participate...but it really doesn't appear to be an optional fee at all. Is this legal? And how do I notify the org leadership of the extreme problem I'm having with the way they handle this?

I perform vocal music with a local group that is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

September marked the beginning of my second year in the group, or the third season. Multiple times each season, they hit up the membership for "donations". I put that word in quotations because to me, a donation is something that is optional; but all evidence points to this not being optional.

I just received one of this season's donation request emails. As it has in the past, the email instructs us to donate at least $200 per year ($100 per season), and to contact a certain person if we have a "financial hardship" such that we cannot make the $200 donation this year. I find this objectionable. If it's a voluntary donation, I shouldn't need to state that I will be donating less than $200, let alone justify why.

Solicitations are also made in other emails, and during rehearsals, and again, the language that is used makes it pretty clear that it's not a choice.

Late last spring, there was a special email sent to those who had donated less than $200 over the year. I found it creepy that they were keeping track of what everyone had given and trying to pressure a select group of people for more. And I found it deeply offensive that our personal decision was revealed without our knowledge or consent to a group of other people, including organization leaders.

In that email, we were admonished like bad little children. Here's some language from it: "Very few of you are in such dire straits that you really can’t pay $5 or $10. If you really find $100 per semester hard to come by, please pay something and solicit donations or ads from businesses worth at least our suggested donation."

When I grudgingly notified the person who wrote that email that I was not going to be adding to the $100 I donated the first season, because of financial hardship, she started assigning me extra work to make up for the fact that I wasn't donating as much money as they wanted. I objected to this, and divulged personal details of my life in order to persuade her that I did not have time or energy for this extra work she wanted to assign. She dropped the issue, but only after quite a bit of back and forth and me spilling my guts, and I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth. I didn't feel my personal info was any of her business and that I shouldn't have to justify why I wasn't coughing up more money.

This season the emails are being sent by a different organization leader, but it's the same thing all over again. I fully expect that if I stay with the org, I'll receive yet another email at some point personally chiding me for failing to donate as much money as they want.

My questions are twofold:
1. Is it legally acceptable for a nonprofit to call something a "donation" when in fact it appears to be required? Are the strong-arm tactics and expectation that we should reveal personal and financial information acceptable collection methods?

2. IF I want to continue with this org (I am not sure I do at this point), what would be the best way to address this issue? I am so angry that I'm finding it hard to envision speaking with anyone about this without going off on them. I have a rehearsal later today.
posted by mysterious_stranger to Law & Government (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For 2, I think some of the anger will be manageable after deciding to disengage with the org. Decide to quit because they're being horrible about money, and it'll turn into a story where you have the control and power to say no. If you decide for sure you'll quit, I think it'll make it easier to explain the problem in the meeting you'd schedule to talk privately with someone in the org about leaving.
posted by sacchan at 3:25 AM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Although I don't have any experience with performing arts orgs (I have years of it in the visual arts) I have to say that everything you are describing sounds like really pretty standard operating procedure for a nonprofit. What you are describing as strong arm behavior sounds more like typical donation solicitation language. Nonprofits can only stay afloat through donations. Usually, they have software that tracks how much everyone gives - how else would they keep financial records? - and pings them to send out begging letters on an regular basis. It is also not at all uncommon to ask very involved individuals, board members for example, to "buy in" - to purchase higher level memberships or contribute at a higher rate. And if that person can't give financially then, yes, ordinarily they will be asked to contribute extra in some other way.

It may help you to step back and think about your nonprofit as a business. They have to have a certain amount coming in regularly to cover all their expenses and they have to be able to plan that. If they're larger or well organized they might have an annual report you could look at that will lay out how the money is being spent. If not, maybe ask to sit down and discuss the yearly budget with the director. You could ask to look at their letters - I am about 95% sure that almost every email you have received is a form email, by the way, and not something individually written for you - and suggest that they be clearer upfront about exactly what is expected from performers.

So to answer your questions,
1) yes, it is quite typical for nonprofits to refer to all contributions, such as membership fees, as donations even when they are required for participation. This is done for the convenience of the donors: the amount you can write off on your taxes as a charitable donation is the difference between what you would expect to pay for a service and the amount you give. Thus, if you're buying a museum membership for $100, you can deduct say $75 of that, figuring that $25, or whatever the museum says, is for goods and services. Most people just deduct the whole $100 anyway and that's ok.

2) i would either schedule a meeting with the director or send a letter detailing your concerns. Explain that you didn't understand the terms of participation when you signed up. They need to be clearer - it can be very easy for people who have been operating in nonprofit land for a long time to forget that not everyone understands language that is second nature to them. On behalf of nonprofit administrators everywhere, I'm sorry that their language was so opaque and that you felt pressured! That is never okay.
posted by mygothlaundry at 4:26 AM on November 6, 2016 [16 favorites]

It sounds like this chorale could stand to be more transparent to the membership about its finances, since it seems like it is not financially sustainable without the $10,000 per year from members. That's not a large amount in organization terms, and it might help the group climate to let everyone know how near-the-bone the group is. People might feel better about pitching in if they really understood what the money was going for - and I know that nonprofits need to do financial reporting, but that does not have the same effect.

I think assigning you extra work because you face financial hardship is pretty screwed up. That's what I'd complain about - they're running their organization so badly that they can't absorb an extra $100 decline in revenue because you, a perfectly legit member, can't afford to pony up, and it is impacting the work of the organization. Also, punitive extra work is dumb. Saying "we have opportunities for members to volunteer instead of donating" is a healthy way to do that; targeting one person with mandatory volunteer shifts is bad.

IYAM, I think it's a dumb way to run an org - soliciting donations from participants is one thing, but being that dependent on those donations just says to me that their board is crappy. The board are the people who should be bringing in the big bucks, precisely because when you're nickel and diming the participants you screw up morale.

I tend to be careful about engagement with arts nonprofits, because I've known people who have really been screwed over by them...but this one sounds particularly bad in its interactions with participants, and I would quit.
posted by Frowner at 4:51 AM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ugh. I hate that so much unpleasantness has been attached to what I am sure is otherwise a great outlet for you to share your talent and do something you love. You comments about having to divulge personal info to justify yourself resonated especially hard with me because I recently was put on the spot at work in the exact same manner. I am a private person and to be pushed into (what to be felt like) drastic oversharing was awful.

Does your org have board meetings? Are there administrative functions of any sort? Perhaps you can get a few others who share your situation and/or perspective to put together a letter or proposal in which you outline how damaging this is to your morale and outlook.

Any time arts orgs offer "performance opportunities" and "experience" blah blah, but make you pay for the privilege, I get my hackles up. Artist get taken advantage of enough. Call things what they are. I am fine with paying for things that are legit. But this is ridiculous.

It may be legal but to me it's certainly not moral or even ethical. I understand you may be unwilling to quit the group, especially if its a valuable outlet, and viewed as desirable or prestigious in your arts scene. I hate that they seem to be holding you hostage like this.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:05 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like there's a disconnect between what you and the chorus think non-profit and donation mean. It sounds like you expected that because the chorus is a non-profit, participating would be free or mostly free (because the most familiar non-profits provide free services).

I suspect the chorus thinks of itself as a community group that incorporated as a non-profit because that was easiest and because they literally aren't turning a profit most of the time, and that expects to fund itself mostly through membership fees. They should probably call the $200 a performance fee or music license fee or membership dues instead of a donation, but I would bet that's why both sides feel so intractable.

Pretty much every recreational sports league I've played in uses this model. The money usually goes to legitimate expenses like renting facilities and buying equipment, and the org's leadership is usually, as you have noticed, kind of to completely dickish about collecting it. You'll probably have more luck convincing them to start calling the $200 dues or seasonal fees or something, and maybe put a formal waiver process in place, than you will in getting them to stop hounding you for it in obnoxious ways, unfortunately.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:33 AM on November 6, 2016 [24 favorites]

1. Is it legally acceptable for a nonprofit to call something a "donation" when in fact it appears to be required? Are the strong-arm tactics and expectation that we should reveal personal and financial information acceptable collection methods?

The legal issue is if the org is a legitimate 501(c)(3) org (i.e. does it provide a public benefit or private benefits) which is probably a complex legal issue that you don't want to get into. I think you'd need expert advice to figure this out, but that certainly isn't something that will be worth it for you.

2. IF I want to continue with this org (I am not sure I do at this point), what would be the best way to address this issue? I am so angry that I'm finding it hard to envision speaking with anyone about this without going off on them. I have a rehearsal later today.

I think you need to accept the reality that this group essentially charges $200 per year to participate. You can decide on that basis if you want to continue or not and just put the issue of donations entirely out of your mind. They could just call the $200 a fee, but then members wouldn't get the tax benefit of having made a donation (which may or may not be legit donations anyways). They aren't strictly requiring the donation/fee in order to make it seem like a donation and that feels awkward, but you can and should look past that.
posted by ssg at 6:34 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mean, there are a lot of non-profit organizations where membership fees are required to make use of them, but they are considered tax deductible donations. We just joined the local zoo, for example, and got our receipt in the form of a tax deduction form. I don't think this is out of line, generally speaking. But the way they've presented it - "join for free but donate $200/yr or else we'll be dicks about it" - is pretty crappy, versus saying "$200 membership dues, which are a tax-deductible donation to our 501(c)3, are required to join", which I think is pretty fair.
posted by olinerd at 6:46 AM on November 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

If something is mandatory, it is no longer tax deductible. They can still call it a "donation," but you can't write it off on your taxes if it's mandatory, and they can't commingle their earned income with their charitable donations on their 990. But it sounds like it's not actually mandatory, because you didn't pay it last time, and you're still singing. (Note, lots of nonprofits call things that aren't deductible "donations," like raffle tickets - "Make a $20 donation to receive six raffle tickets!" - or ad book purchases - "A $100 donation will get you a business card sized ad in our program book!")

My guess is that there is a fundamental disconnect between your understanding of the cost of being a part of this chorus, and their framing the nonprofit chorus. Just because they're a nonprofit doesn't mean you are the beneficiary as a singer/member. The beneficiary per their 990 is probably the community, not the singers. It's not sketchy at all, it's super normal. Just the way they are going about it sucks and leaves a bad taste in your mouth (and mine).

If you do not want to give more money, or any money, or be voluntold to spend more of your time, you can just say, "That won't be possible." You do not need to justify it and you do not owe them an explanation. If they decide that that is incompatible with their mission, they will say so, and invite you to leave the program. Until then, ignore/delete the emails without a second thought, and wait until someone tells you that you either have to pay up or depart. Be prepared to depart.
posted by juniperesque at 7:08 AM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

1. Yes, it's fine for a non-profit to limit certain benefits to people who donate at a certain level. NPR doesn't send everyone a tote bag, only the people who call in and donate. Trips, participation in activities, etc. can follow the same model.

1a. Tracking who donates is something that every non-profit does. Or else they're very bad at fundraising.

2. If you don't appreciate their style, you can talk to someone who is higher up the hierarchy than the person who asked you for money (the director, or a board member). I'd phrase your concern as "I'd like to donate but it's not possible to donate at that level. Should I still participate? I've been feeling a lot of pressure, and frankly it has actually been a bit unpleasant."

2b. One standard source of anger is unmet expectations. If you adjust your expectations (this isn't a free choir, nonprofits can charge for things), then it might go down a bit, allowing you to focus your comments on the manner of the request. On preview, the suggestion of a fee and a waiver process is a good one.
posted by salvia at 7:52 AM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

As someone who's worked in/with nonprofits for years, I echo the general sentiment here - this is not a legal issue, it's a psychological issue. What you are describing in terms of receiving letters/emails that refer to your giving history is very standard and legal in the nonprofit sector. As mygothlaundy said, nonprofits keep track of your giving history exactly for this reason - they want to know how much you've given in the past so that when you don't give it again, they push you.

The psychology issue here is that they're asking in a really distasteful and not fundraising standard way. As a fundraiser, I was taught never to make a donor feel uncomfortable about what they have given or may want to give; after all, you're trying to get them to make a donation, and that requires that they care about and like your organization and you as a fundraiser. What this organization is doing is really at odds with the spirit of fundraising, and it would make me very uncomfortable and turned off, too. But it's not illegal.

Same thing with the idea of "dues." Many nonprofit organizations have membership "fees" which are actually donations - think of your local zoo, as ssg said. In many cases, they are 100% tax-deductible, but in others they're not. For example, if your "membership" includes a t-shirt or a tote bag, only 90% of your dues may be tax-deductible, because they provided you with a physical good.

My recommendation is that if you do approach this with them, you come at it from the perspective of a concerned (former) donor: "I love and care about this organization, and I've always contributed whatever I can. But I'm feeling really pressured and uncomfortable about how I'm being asked and how you're communicating with me about donating. I want to make sure that other members and donors don't feel that way, too, because I think it could result in us raising less money than we should."
posted by anotheraccount at 7:54 AM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Things cost money - photocopying, hall rentals, snacks, music, conductor fees, it all adds up.

Who exactly did you think would pay for all this?

Withdraw if you want to, but in amateur music and sports, it's really for your benefit. You are all collectively enjoying a hobby, and it's fair for each member to pay their share.

Please do volunteer at least once. It will give you a better idea of all the work and costs that goes on behind the scenes.
posted by metaseeker at 8:06 AM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

Since it's a new person this year, you might give them one more try before deciding to quit. I would say, "It's a financial hardship for me to contribute more than $50 [or whatever you can afford, but more than $0]. Last year I felt that I was grilled about this and forced to divulge details about my personal life that I'd rather not get into, and was also assigned a lot of additional tasks that I'm not able to do." And see what they say, but if it goes back to grilling you, then at that point you can say, "I understand that the organization has financial needs, but I'm not comfortable with this and would rather not participate this year."
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:23 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I perform with a non-profit 70 person orchestra, and our expectations are similar - everyone is supposed to donate $60/concert to cover the cost of space rentals, music acquisitions, concert hall rentals, and other expenses. No one is turned away due to lack of funds.

Many long term members of the group contribute more than the baseline to cover people who can't afford it, and we have a small board of donors and a few fundraisers every year. I've always felt this was reasonable and very similar to groups I played with in high school - some sort of yearly fee with scholarships available for people with talent who couldn't afford the fees, plus some possibly-not-optional fundraising opportunities.

The problem here isn't the donation expectations, it's that they're making you feel bad and sending obnoxious emails. They're treating you more like a donor than a member of the group, and that feels bad. They probably do need the money, so can you suggest some annual fundraiser ideas to earn your keep? You could easily raise a few hundred dollars with some caroling this holiday season. Some of our orchestra members semi-regularly busk to raise funds (and wrote about it here).
posted by asphericalcow at 8:27 AM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I sing with a non-profit chorus and we have $195 dues (which can be waived in case of financial hardship) and we are also asked to make additional contributions (monetary, work/time, or both). There are several fundraising campaigns throughout the year, but they generally do not take a hassling or harassing tone.

Here's the thing: I think there is also often a disconnect with amateur performing arts organizations where, as the performers, we feel like we're already volunteering our time by rehearsing and performing, and now they want us to give money and do other volunteer work too! But in fact the organization mostly exists to provide an experience *for us*, the performers, and there is a lot of additional work that is necessary in order for that to happen, and therefore there is generally a certain expectation (ideally a clearly-voiced, non-passive-aggressive expectation, which sounds like it's maybe not the case with your group) that membership doesn't just mean showing up for rehearsals and concerts, but involves supporting the chorus in other ways.

Our group is generally very good about being transparent about where the money goes and how much we all need to bring in. They're also very accepting that we all have different ways of contributing - if you go out and sell hundreds of dollars worth of program ads every season, or bring 20 paying audience members to every show, or take on tasks that need to be down, those are all good and recognized ways of contributing.

Singing is a relatively inexpensive hobby, but it's not completely cost-free and I think it's important to be aware of the degree to which other members of the group are subsidizing your singing if you are not contributing financially or in volunteer time. I contribute my full dues, make additional contributions, and sell at least a few tickets to every concert but I still probably only bring in 1/3-1/2 of my chorus's operating budget per-capita, so I'm on the subsidized side.
posted by mskyle at 9:03 AM on November 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

They do seem to be treading a fine line, legally.

Consider the $200/year to be like tuition at a private, non-profit school. It's not optional, it's necessary income for the school's operating expenses, and it goes to a non-profit (i.e. an organization with 501(c)(3) status). The school can grant financial aid, but it requires the applicant to jump through some hoops — not just state, unilaterally, "I won't be paying full tuition this year because: reasons."

The tuition is not a tax-deductible donation. It is a non-optional payment for services.

The choir is trying to have it all: collect a $200 payment from each member, and give each member the tax-deductible benefit from donating. This is, despite the way it feels to you, actually fairly generous of them.

Unfortunately for them, they're being generous with someone else's money: the tax-payers'. And since the $200 is not really a donation, they're basically putting their non-profit status at risk. If the IRS gets wind of this, they could get a reprimand, possibly a fine, and — if they don't fix the issue — loss of their non-profit status.

As has been discussed above, you need to consider the $200 to be a cost of participation, and either pay it or go through their requirements to get financial aid.

And you can either tell them that their attempts to give members a tax deduction are illegal and put the organization's tax exempt status at risk, or look the other way understanding that the cost to the tax payers is minimal.

You may be able to get them to change their tactics for collecting the money by acknowledging to the leadership that you recognize that calling the participation fees "donations" is an attempt by the group to be considerate towards its members, and suggest that, in the spirit such consideration, their tactics for collecting should be modified.
posted by Capri at 9:10 AM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Non-profits are free to set minimum contribution levels for certain activities, as noted above by several posters. Churches with tithes, fundraisers with tickets, etc.

Your ability to deduct a contribution on your taxes is a separate issue. In general, those deductions are allowed even when a minimum is set. If you are receiving a specific tangible benefit, that's supposed to be non-deductible (e.g., when you buy a $1,000 ticket for the gala opening at Met, they will attribute $150 of that to the market value of the ticket and $150 to the market value of the dinner and open bar, and you are only supposed to deduct $700). If you are receiving an ongoing service which is relates to a core personal activity, the minimum isn't deductible at all; that's why tuition paid to 501(c)(3) private schools is not deductible. Here, because you're not receiving a benefit of any sort, I see no reason why your minimum contribution would not be deductible.

Finally, non-profits that receive "unrelated business income" are supposed to calculate their net income from that activity and pay corporate tax on it. These rules are pretty liberal, and basically only kick in when you are (arguably) competing with for-profit businesses. To use the example of the Met, the Met isn't subject to UBI on its ticket sales for the opera, but IS subject to UBI tax on the royalties from its recordings and the profits from its cash bars.
posted by MattD at 9:16 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I sing in a choir (non-profit) choir as well and it's just understood that if you want to join, you have to pay a $180 per session membership fee. It's actually quite expensive to run a choir- you need to pay for a weekly rental location, pay any professional musicians you might need to get things going (conductor, orchestra, etc), at times you need to buy the rights to perform certain music, and of course if there's a concert coming up you need to pay for a church rental, promotions and marketing, hiring professional accompanists/orchestras/ soloists. . . etc. So I think it's strange to expect that you can be a part of all this without contributing something.

I don't know anything about the tax status of it, but it just seems like you have a misunderstanding of how much it actually costs to run something like this. If you enjoy it, then pay and stay. . I don't think there's much to gain from asking them to change their ways. . you'll just come out looking stingy and antisocial.
posted by winterportage at 10:04 AM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

It might help if you found out what they were doing with this money. Do they need to pay rent for rehearsal space? Transportation of members? Etc. Once you found out what they do with their $, you might be perfectly okay with it. Or you might not. In which case, bow out.
posted by Neekee at 10:14 AM on November 6, 2016

I don't think there's much to gain from asking them to change their ways. . you'll just come out looking stingy and antisocial.

If you really can't afford it, though, I think it *is* possible to stay and not pay. I wouldn't want anyone to leave my chorus because they can't afford dues and donations. But I would also like them to prioritize it on a level with, say, Hulu or an occasional nice bottle of wine. If you explain to the people who are asking you for donations that you really can't afford it but that you're grateful for the donations others make and the work others are doing to make your participation possible and they're still hassling you over fundraising (beyond maybe checking in once a semester), then it doesn't sound like a good organization.

Likewise if you don't actually feel grateful for the work they do or if you don't think the money is being spent in a worthwhile manner it's probably not the right organization for you.
posted by mskyle at 10:20 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK so can't speak to the legal or tax side of things, but every community choir I've sung in has had subscription fees, many of which were far more than yours. Concerts can be incredibly expensive to put on and it's hard to deal with a bunch of singers who turn up and feel they're contributing by singing, when actually they need to be paying for their experience in the hired venue, with the paid accompanist, the paid conductor, the paid soloists, the paid musicians etc etc.

One of the choirs I sang with kept their subscription fees low by assigning everyone 10 tickets to sell for every concert. If you didn't sell the tickets you had to buy them yourself. As a student living in a town where I knew nobody else, I felt this was an undue hardship and I ended up leaving the choir. Knowing how much I actually had to pay per year was much easier and felt fairer.

One thing you could suggest is having a two-tier donation system. People who are financially less well-off (so automatically this could include students or those who are retired or unemployed, but it could also include people who are in financial trouble for other reasons) pay less. This makes it out in the open and it makes it an expected possibility, so the choir has a system for dealing with it.

Of course the disadvantage of any system where some people pay less is that automatically everyone else has to pay a bit more, and that's the stumbling block for any suggestion you make. It probably depends on the means of the other members and how much of a loss your choir is making on every performance.
posted by kadia_a at 11:41 AM on November 6, 2016

Pretty much every recreational sports league I've played in uses this model.

IIRC, those either aren't c3s or are exempt under their own specific classification for amateur sports.

What OP is describing isn't a donation but a fee. You're getting some benefit (the ability to join the group) in exchange for cash. There's some sketchiness, since the contributions shouldn't be deductible, but it's not clear the org's exemption would be at risk if the fees were properly classified.
posted by jpe at 11:43 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

What OP is describing isn't a donation but a fee. You're getting some benefit (the ability to join the group) in exchange for cash. There's some sketchiness, since the contributions shouldn't be deductible, but it's not clear the org's exemption would be at risk if the fees were properly classified.

The benefit you get from the donation has to have *monetary value* to make it non-tax-deductible, like the opera tickets and school tuition examples mentioned above. A membership in a chorus or a church or a synagogue obviously offers a benefit for the person but it generally isn't considered to have monetary value (I mean, at least in the chorus example, the "benefit" is "we will allow you do difficult, skilled work for no pay!"), and therefore the donation is completely deductible.

Tl;dr: What the OP is describing is common and legal.
posted by mskyle at 1:24 PM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I used to play in a community college orchestra as a non student, and we paid dues, which I imagine paid the conductor, covered music rental fees, the cost of printing programs, etc. One thing I know it covered was the hiring of professional musicians to fill out our ranks at concert time.
posted by cabingirl at 1:46 PM on November 6, 2016

I've decided to quit. I have conveyed that decision to my section leader in writing (because I'm too upset to have an in-person discussion at the moment). A few notes:

I've been in two other choruses as an adult. One of them did not charge anything and the other charged $25 for new sheet music. It is not the case that a $200 "donation" (sic) or higher "is just the way it is done", as a few folks in this thread have claimed. In my past experience, nope.

I wasn't making the assumption that the donation was actually a donation because of the nonprofit status, or because of my own misunderstanding. I was making that assumption because they used the word donation and that has a particular definition. When I look up the word "donation", none of the definitions given are "a required fee that an organization mislabels".

The chorale performs regularly and ticket prices are not cheap. The rehearsal space is inside a church and is free. I had and have no reason to believe that dues are required in order for the organization to exist. I don't know if that is the case or if people are just being dicks on (their idea of) principle. Either way, the collection methods are nasty.

Some people obviously haven't understood the "personally targeted" part of this. It's not the same as a list being generated and letters going out to those who haven't "donated" the full $200. These were emails, sent openly to a certain list of people (so everyone who was on the list could see who else was on the list). There was also an email that went out with a list of names of people who wouldn't be going on X trip because they couldn't afford it. I didn't consent to be on that list and be shamed in front of everyone.

There is quite a bit of financial privilege in evidence on this thread. I cannot afford the $200 right now. Meaning, I CANNOT AFFORD IT. I would have to put it on my already-strained credit card, that I just used for a $290 vet fee that I also can't afford. It has nothing to do with my assessment of the value of the chorale either to me or the community. People talking about bottles of wine and whatever boggle my mind.

The chorale heavily advertises its nonprofit status, and yes people can deduct the "donation" on their taxes.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 2:06 PM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I read through this thinking about a performing arts group I was once tangentially involved with. Participation was totally free; there were no dues of any kind. The organization (and yes, it is a huge amount of work for the people running things behind the scenes, but that's their choice to do so) got money through ticket sales, though ads from local businesses in the programs, and through the odd raffle, and I don't know what else. The rehearsal space was donated. They managed to budget enough to hire professional musicians from time to time.

So -- "every group does this" is not a great excuse here.

The fact that they hustled the sub-$200 donors while making their names public to all and sundry would be enough for me to abandon ship; that's just repugnant. Go find a group people want to see badly enough to support with ticket sales and advertising, or find a small group that sings in somebody's living room or church basement for the fun of it for free, I'd suggest.
posted by kmennie at 2:38 PM on November 6, 2016

I have also been in a number of groups where dues were required. And, honestly, $100 per season does not sound unreasonable or unusual. And, typically, membership dues for these types of organizations have been waived for anyone who expressed financial hardship to the designated board or staff member who handled dues.

However, calling it a donation is tacky; it is membership dues, which can be just as tax deductible as a donation. Also, it sounds like the methods for collecting the dues were unacceptable. (Group emails concerning individual financial issues is never ok.)
posted by hworth at 3:11 PM on November 6, 2016

I cannot afford the $200 right now. Meaning, I CANNOT AFFORD IT. I would have to put it on my already-strained credit card, that I just used for a $290 vet fee that I also can't afford. It has nothing to do with my assessment of the value of the chorale either to me or the community. People talking about bottles of wine and whatever boggle my mind.

Hey, I'm really sorry for the way my comment came off, and I do understand that $200 is a lot of money. I was trying to say that I expect people to budget for the chorus the same way they budget for other nonessentials and was using as an example a luxury I treat myself to once in a while, a $12-15 bottle of wine. If there is no money for nonessentials, I understand that there is no money for the chorus, and I hope that in my chorus we would accept that and you would keep singing with us; I'm sorry things haven't worked out for you with this chorus.
posted by mskyle at 4:15 PM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

There's one reason that hasn't been mentioned why they might be calling it a donation.

If the group is generally affluent, and many members regularly donate more than $200, this approach would generate less paperwork and make a certain sort of sense.

Likely you just inadvertently ended up running with a crowd that is a bit too "rich in the blood" for you. Nothing wrong with that - this happens all the time to everybody! Now you know to watch for the signs and avoid these situations.

In the spirit of "take no offense where no offense is intended," the group emails may not be meant to embarrass. It could just be to say : "hey you are all in the same boat, it would be good that you work with each other." Either that, or the person just wasn't very savvy about emails and the bcc, and was trying to avoid having to send out individual emails.

For what it's worth, in volunteer groups, the person who ends up in these enforcer roles do tend to have a brash and authoritarian personality, both because they don't mind rapping knuckles, and because over time they drive away the easygoing people. On the other hand, they do stick around and do the work that others don't want to do.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience with this group. It sounds like it just wasn't a good fit. I hope you find a choir you like, and make lots of wonderful music.
posted by metaseeker at 7:21 PM on November 6, 2016

It might help if you found out what they were doing with this money.

This is excellent advice, and their 990 and annual report would be useful documents in forming your full opinion of how operating expenses relate to participant contributions. Nothing is free. Space might be, but marketing likely isn't; other expenses that come to mind include, possibly: accompaniment; sheet music rental fees; IP/performance rights; graphic design for posters and web; audio tech support; web design and updating; PR/outreach/marketing; management of costumes/robes including rental, cleaning, and storage; lighting; staging/riser rental/setup/breakdown; piano tuning; paid staff salaries/honoraria' hospitality; operating expenses to run the space (lights, heat, staffing, ushers); etc. And that's really just a bare bones starting budget in terms of event line items. It does take money to put on cultural events, and no, it's not unusual to ask the most active and dedicated participants for their input to make this budget work. Otherwise, no chorus.
posted by Miko at 9:30 PM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can't afford a lot of things either - even things construed as "donations." But that doesn't make it wrong for those things to be donations or be called donations. Some things just aren't in my budget - for instance, fees for Earthwatch trips, travel to volunteer archaeology programs, entry fees for roots music festivals at which I would be performing, etc. or tuition for my kid to participate in a nonprofit arts camp - It's not that they're not donations, and it's not that they're not worthy activities that draw on my time and talents - it's just that the required donation to participate is above my budget. There's nothing legally wrong with that, and nothing in professional nonprofit ethics wrong with it, either.

You can't afford this. You clearly recognize this. That's fine; it's not a bad or wrong thing that you can't. But it's also not necessarily incumbent on the organization to change its participation model. This might just be one of those things you can't afford. There are probably other opportunities to sing in some kind of chorus that you can afford, that have low or no cost. Those are open to you, still. This one, though, isn't - the expectations for participation may simply be above your budget, just as a trip to work on trail maintenance in the Sierras, or to teach health care protocols in El Salvador, or to perform in an old-time group that travels the region is beyond mine. There is no stipulation in nonprofit models that they need to be accessible to everyone - either every potential participant, or every potential beneficiary. The sole requirement is that they are producing some sort of good in which any surplus gained is re-invested in the production of future goods rather than in the distribution of a profit as cash gain. That's it.
posted by Miko at 9:48 PM on November 6, 2016

Bottom line, if you have any questions about legality/ethics regarding a nonprofit charted in your state, your recourse is to contact your state attorney general's office, which is in charge of approving and overseeing nonprofit charters. If something's not legally above-board, they can let you know, point you to the appropriate code, and let you know how to pursue redress.
posted by Miko at 9:54 PM on November 6, 2016

Talk to your AG's office to verify whether there's been any wrongdoing. I'm not comparing apples to oranges, because fees for archaeology programs and the like have nothing to do with travel to get there - they're donations that go toward supporting the experience you get along with the work you contribute once there (equivalent to singing in a choir). What you've described isn't wrongdoing. Poor management, unfortunately, doesn't amount to malfeasance. You have a better argument about their lack of best practices than about illegality or unethical activity.
posted by Miko at 10:05 PM on November 6, 2016

Wow, I can't believe this has reached talk of contracting an AG's office.

I think you are most eloquent when you write "I also believe it is incumbent upon them to treat participants with respect rather than shaming them over their finances" and "I didn't consent to be on that list and be shamed in front of everyone." Based on the makeup of the board, would you consider writing them a letter? Whatever the rules here, it is clear that they aren't communicating them clearly, discreetly, and diplomatically.

I think your argument loses persuasiveness when you start legalizing over the definition of "donation" and what nonprofits can and can't do. As you've seen from others' replies, that makes it sound like you expect it to be free, and that comes across as entitlement -- as feeling entitled to get the experience of participating for less than $200.

I'd focus on the other piece. Best of luck moving on from this upsetting situation.
posted by salvia at 10:41 PM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

[A couple of comments deleted. Mysterious_stranger, do not post Ask Metafilter questions in order to rant and argue with people answering. If you actually want input, it's up to you to sort through what is helpful for you and what isn't and just use the advice that makes sense for you. If you want to have a fight by proxy this isn't the place for it.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:33 PM on November 6, 2016

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