Monday, September 24, 2007

start me up! (part 1)

This post may have to be done in a couple of installments, as I find myself torn in a dozen different directions these days, by the buzzards of economic neccessity, to name but one force competing for pieces of my flesh. (Now, there's a catchy opening line, if a bit, shall we say, overwrought).
The big thing I'm in the middle of, the reason for this blog, is setting up as a functioning entity to carry out the work we've begun in New Orleans. This requires patience, a little money and a bunch of people behind you who keep saying, "Yeah, this is a good thing to do, Rick, so keep up the good work." For those of you who might be considering doing something similar, I'll detail the steps we've taken so far, for what it's worth.

First of all, never mind the fact that a bunch of us have been working on this idea, committing our time and money to trips to the Lower Ninth Ward, for months. That was all unofficial, just a group of do-gooders doing good things, in a fairly organized, but unfocused way. To make things official, the first step you have to take is becoming a corporation recognized to do business by the state in which you incorporate. This is fairly easy, as it turns out, you file some paperwork with the state and they either accept or reject your application. But, be warned, the paperwork includes things like a mission statement, by-laws, names of directors, and a few other things they asked for along the way, which I forget now. So, get your directors on board before you try and incorporate, get the mission statement written and fantasize a budget, two years worth, even though you have not a nickel to your corporate (you hope) name.

For the next step, all I can say is, hire a lawyer, if you can afford it, because after incorporating you need to file your application with the IRS to get non-profit, tax-exempt status. This application is many, many pages long, and if all the little spaces aren't filled out to the IRS's satisfaction, you'll be supplying them with supplemental information until the cows come home. A lawyer who has experience filing these applications can save you time by letting you know up front just what kinds of additional documentation you should provide, and time in this case means money, because you can't start hitting people up for tax-exempt donations until you get your approval letter. Also, the IRS changes the rules every couple of years, and a good lawyer should know what the current requirements are.

While you're in that in-between stage - you have your incorporation, but not your 501(c)(3) - you should start talking up your newly-formed organization with everyone you know, in the hopes that you can raise enough scratch to start putting infrastructure in place to get the program off the ground, even if only in a modest way. Explain to potential donors that you don't have tax-exempt status yet (very important! if the IRS thinks you have misrepresented yourself to donors, you'll never get approved and may go to jail), but ask them if they're willing to make a small donation to help you get the thing going. If you're lucky, you'll know someone, or meet someone, who has enough money and doesn't need the tax write-off, who can make a substantial donation. But, at any rate, ask everyone you know for money, without exception. An interesting little-known fact about non-profit giving is this: 85% of all charitable donations come from households or individuals who make less than $50,000 per year. This percentage has remained constant (with the income level adjusted to reflect current wages/prices) as far back as figures on charitable giving have been tracked, which, I believe started in the 1930s. So, ask everybody!

In part two of this post (see, I told you I'd have to run off somewhere and do something) I'll talk more specifically about where is today in terms of what we've managed to raise so far, and how we're going to get it all to New Orleans, so stay tuned!

Monday, September 10, 2007

bitten by something...weird

I came back from my most recent trip to New Orleans last week, having suffered through the traffic tie-ups caused by the president's photo-op in the Lower Nine, surer than ever that the rest of the country doesn't know what's really going on in southeast Louisiana. Sure, it's great to get lots of politicians, from the president on down to the least-likely would-be presidential contender, in town for the big anniversary events, but when it all gets boiled down to sound bites, I wonder if people listen anymore. President Bush threw around a lot of talk about the billions that have been "spent" on the rebuilding effort, and people hear big numbers and either think "Well, that's a lot of money, surely things will get better soon." or "Look at that place! It's still a mess! You see, throwing money at a problem just doesn't work!" Less than half of the money set aside for rebuilding has even been released to the Gulf Coast states, due to their inability to meet the government's requirement that the states provide substantial matching funds to secure federal help. In Louisiana, the economy and tax-base have been so affected that coming up with matching funds is all but impossible, never mind the fact that the matching fund requirement has been waived in almost every other large-scale disaster that has occured in America in the last fifty years. No waivers for you poor folks in the Lower Nine, sorry, but let me have my picture taken standing outside the only school in the neighborhood that has re-opened two years after the levees broke...

But, that's not what I wanted to talk about, as is usually the case with me. If you just can't get to the thoughts you really want to share - and what man can - start with a political diatribe and see what happens.

Okay, my trip last week was designed to accomplish a few goals, and I think it went alright. As we are still in the start-up phase of getting off the ground as a free-standing entity, we're still beating the bushes for members of our board of directors, so I had arranged to meet an old school friend of my wife's who is a public interest attorney in the city. and, despite her busy schedule, she has agreed to join us in this great adventure! so, as it stand now, we have a retired business executive who is heavily involved in progressive causes; a non-profit consultant who has been involved in relief and recovery projects in New Orleans for the last year-and-a-half; an instructor in the business department at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, also a retired businessman; a Lower Ninth Ward resident who knows what we're involved in from the inside, as it were; a professor of social work; a professor of psychology and former state mental health director; and, now, a socially-conscious and well-connected attorney. Having been involved in non-profit boards and management for the past few years, I feel like this is the best group I've ever been associated with, I'm starting to think of them as a group of superheroes, each with his or her own special powers and abilities. Four of them are New Orleans residents, either by birth or by inclination, and I'm glad to have them backing me up.

One of the other major objectives of this trip was to begin negotiating for the purchase of a house in the Lower Nine which we can use for headquarters, because what's the use of having a group of superheroes if you don't have a secret lair from which to sally forth to join battle with the forces of darkness? That task was accomplished and it looks like we will take possession sometime in October, if all goes according to plan.

Every trip I make to this ravaged city reinforces the feeling that what we're undertaking here is not only good, but right, and the feeling grows stronger every day. It's a feeling I can't shake, a madness, almost, as if I've been bitten by something...

Weird. That was my first thought when I awakened sometime around 2 a.m., feeling like my right armpit was burning. I got up, looked at my armpit, didn't see anything obviously wrong, but felt like I needed to do something to alleviate the pain. I searched through my shaving kit and found nothing of a salve-like nature, but did come across a tube of Burt's Bees lip balm which I didn't know I had (not being much of a fan of bees or lip balm). So, I did what seemed right at the time, and covered my armpit with lip balm, which actually helped quite a bit, so somebody should notify the Burt's Bees people that maybe they could repackage the stuff in bigger tubes.

The next morning, in the humid light of day, I discovered a big group of bites on my right pectoral area. Another on the inside of my right bicep, and an even bigger bunch on the outside. Being a southerner and no stranger to poisonous insect bites, I figured I must have been attacked by some kind of spider whose toxin affected the lymph glands, as my armpit by then was not only sore, but swollen. I had been out the night before with my friend Bill Robertson, listening to brass band music and drinking, and I remembered that at some point after coming home, while sitting on the porch having the last beer of the evening, I had felt something inside my shirt. Nothing painful, it was small enough that I imagined I had a string dangling inside my sleeve, just a brush against the skin, nothing more.

And, I'm not sure what the moral of the story is, except that maybe it's smart to pay attention to the little things, even if they seem inconsequential at the time. Or something like that.

Stay tuned...