Lately I have been thinking a lot about camouflage. I have been doing this for three reasons. The first reason is an on-going debate that I have had with several folks about the purpose of camouflage. In my mind the purpose of the fabric is not to be seen; it is not designed to be a fashion statement. If you are wearing it to be seen, you fundamentally misunderstand the whole point of the exercise.
|Carlene and her favorite pink coat. (Bob Ferris)|
The third reason for me thinking about camouflage is that for the last 15 years of my career I have engaged in a lot of what is called “opposition research.” And most of that research has been directed at entities that cloak themselves in one message or ethos while aggressively pursuing an entirely different agenda. My gateway project in this arena came right after the Yellowstone wolves were released and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) sued to have the project stopped.
The AFBF billed themselves as the “voice of agriculture,” which was a clever construct that, to some, made them seem like they represented family farmers when in fact their policies where more geared toward production agriculture and agribusiness. They were basically camouflaged by this misconception which was corrected in part by an award winning publication called “Amber Waves of Gain: How the Farm Bureau is Reaping Profits at the Expense of America’s Family Farmers, Taxpayers and the Environment” produced during my Defenders of Wildlife days.
The above expose of the AFBF resulted in a 60 Minutes segment (above and below) that was the single most watched segment in 2000. Moreover, the whole package likely contributed to the departure of Dean Kleckner the sitting president of AFBF when the project started. And ironically it also led to the development of farm programs at Defenders as well as relationships with the National Family Farmers Coalition and other similar groups (for a list see: Rural Crisis).
So I went from not knowing a wit about opposition research to participating in it and seeing it effectively employed. I have used it often in the intervening years.
Oregon Alliance to Protect Hunting and Fishing. This group has sort of sprung up out of nowhere to enter the lead ammunition debate (sorry, traditional ammunition debate). A simple WhoIs search of the domain registration yields an interesting answer: This domain is registered to a politically connected public relations firm—The Wayne Johnson Group—in Sacramento, California. But there are other clues as well that indicate that this entity might be wearing just a little camouflage and is not what it claims to be. So how and where should someone look to find out more?
Opposition research is actually a pretty easy endeavor. And if you want to engage in this activity on your own group, the below should help you engage in some simple opposition research or just find out about a group you might want to support or join, but want to find out more before taking that leap.
All legitimate non-profits should have a robust About Us tab on their website. This section should name names including providing staff biographies and information about board members such as biographies and affiliations. Legitimate organizations use this section to document staff qualifications and the relative stature of their board. If it is scant, evasive, or missing all together the immediate question should be why. (Hint: This is a place for bragging, not being coy.)
When looking at this think about the old fundraising saying that has become a mantra: People give money to people to help people. If an organization is legitimate (i.e., raising money for a non-profit purpose from the general public) their website should be populated with pictures of smiling people. There should be a picture of a CEO and possibly a development director and other staff members. If these are missing you have to ask: Why? Are they a brand new organization? Are they too small to have the resources to properly populate their site? Or are they camouflaging and trying to make you think they are something that they are not?
The Contact Us section of websites is also a wonderful place to get a sense for an organization’s legitimacy. If an organization claims to be grassroots and they have a contact form rather than direct avenues to contact staff, red flags should be raised. Moreover, if this area lacks a mailing address or a phone number you have to ask: Why? Legitimate non-profits desire contact; it is the way they reach donors and raise funds.
State Non-Profit Registries
Most states have corporate and non-profit registries of various forms and are governed by differing regulations. Some like California’s are very strict regulations and others like Washington State are less rigorous. In California, for instance, you cannot solicit funds for a non-profit without being registered on several different fronts including state and federal levels. In Washington, you only have to register with the state after raising a certain level of funding.
GuideStar is a free non-profit search database that only requires registration for access to their services. Members to this website can get basic and also detailed information about organizations. Some of this information includes documents about the finances, governance, mission statements, and programs as well as how external sources view them (see above).
Maintaining a GuideStar profile, in an up-to-date fashion, while not an absolute indicator of legitimacy, does show something about an organization’s attention to detail and the level of their brand stewardship. If the organization is not listed in GuideStar then they generally have not filed a 990 form with the IRS or have not been in existence very long. This information could be telling or not.
The 990s are a gold mine of organizational information. If they exist you know that an organization has gone through the process of getting registered on the federal level with the IRS. Since this is a complicated process and not casually undertaken it indicates some level of commitment and diligence. The filing of a long-form 990 also indicates a certain level of annual support which re-enforces the idea of legitimacy and some level of public support—the last time I looked the level was $35,000 but that could have changed.
The 990s also tell you how much money they receive and often from where as well as how they spend it. Programs are defined and board members are identified too. If you look at multiple years you can also see financial trends and there are sections that show multi-year fundraising trends and how much an organization spends on lobbying.
The 990 also affords you an opportunity to look for inconsistencies. If, for instance, a group identifies itself as “grassroots” but indicates on the first page that they have 10 volunteers, they might have some ‘splaining to do. These forms also allow you to see expenditures on outside consultants and generally what they spend on executive compensation and fundraising.
The above should get anyone started in a basic organization investigation of legitimacy, but beyond this the analysis switches from science to the art of following threads and intuition. In this opposition research is very much of a wash, rinse and repeat sort of activity. You look at the staff and board and keep digging deeper and deeper. Who are they and what are their associations? You look at organizational address to see if this is a location used by multiple groups of a similar type. You look at their finances and where they get their money. And you take the governor off your curiosity and enter a land created by key strokes and Google.