In the forums I visit online, Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent article on the finances of Open Stories Foundation has launched several discussions about donor’s understandings (and sometimes misunderstandings) of what their donations were being used for.
But first, a side note: I am tied between wanting to say “Damn you, Sam Brunson” and “Bless you, Sam Brunson” for always scooping the niche intersection of tax and Mormonism. I am so glad he wrote his latest post: “Does Open Stories Foundation Qualify as Tax-Exempt?“…but also a little upset that I didn’t think to write something like that first, since I too have been interested in similar questions for the past few weeks (but as a lowly tax accountant who doesn’t specialize in non-profits, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable to write that post). Let’s go with: Damn you, you magnificent blog person. But to all of you, I will also say this: hie thee over to By Common Consent and read that post (I’ll be back here when you’ve done that. EDIT: For a look by the numbers, also check out this compensation analysis)
And actually, the people who seem to be surprised or upset by Peggy’s article don’t necessarily care about private benefit or inurement, so what is the deal there? The issue I’ve seen is similar, but still distinct: transparency and disclosure. Specifically, when has an organization (like Open Stories Foundation) provided sufficient transparency, given that people engaging with that organization are always coming to that organization with different perspectives, at different times, for different purposes?
In Sam’s post, the discussion of transparency was explicitly bracketed off. From his post:
Also, yes, I know OSF discloses its finances and the church doesn’t, but, for the sake of this post, I don’t care. The tax law requires most tax-exempt organizations to disclose (and thus, OSF is complying with the tax law), but it doesn’t require churches to (and thus, the church is complying with the tax law).
For this post, I am not so concerned about the tax law responsibilities and demands for transparency, so I don’t really care that OSF discloses its finances and the church does not because of tax law requirements. I am not actually all that interested (for this post, at least) in the actual finances at all. What I am interested in are the sorts of ways that John self-discloses about his own purposes in soliciting donations for Open Stories Foundation and how different donors (from my anecdotal experience online) have processed these directives — and I’m interested in comparing that to how the church discloses about certain facts from its history and past and how various members have processed learning about those facts.
The Summer 2010 Deal
Let’s go through some history. John Dehlin has been doing Mormon Stories podcast for a long time. Episode 1 was published in 2005 (that’s 10 years ago!) and continued through to around the beginning of 2008 before John went on temporary hiatus. John came back on the scene in the beginning of January 2010 with episodes 112 and 113 (an interview with Joanna Brooks), and since then has created around 400 additional episodes (including some episodes created by other hosts, but excluding all other podcasts originated in the Open Stories Foundation [e.g., Mormon Matters, A Thoughtful Faith, Gay Mormon Stories, etc.,]). So, John’s listener base could spread as far back as 2005, but the majority of podcasts were created since 2010.
What else happened in 2010?
In May of 2010, John wrote and spoke about five important announcements for Mormon Stories Podcast. Of relevance to many people who use Facebook here, this announced the launch of Mormon Stories Podcast Community on Facebook. But of relevance to this post, it also announced the launch of Open Stories Foundation and a certain three-month experiment. Here’s a relevant snippet from the experiment:
…A 3 Month Experiment (Donor Drive): Over the past few months I have worked very, very hard to bring you some very high quality interviews. A few of you have been very supportive in terms of contributions, and I am very, very grateful for that support — but a new situation has arisen where I will need your help. Many of you know that I just finished up my first year in a 6 year psychology Ph.D. program. It was kind of crazy for me to leave a six figure job with MIT, with 4 young children at home, to go back to school — but my work with Mormon Stories has really led me to feel like I need to become a counselor – specifically to work with folks who struggle within the LDS church. Anyway — I was recently offered a $15,000 Assistantship to cover some of my expenses for next year as a grad student — but if I had taken it, I would have not been able to continue with Mormon Stories. So I took a bit of a crazy gamble. I turned down the assistantship, with the hope/faith that I could recruit enough monthly support from my listeners to at least make up for the assistantship that I turned down.So here is what I’m going to do. Over the next 3 months I have planned some of the most interesting and exciting guest and projects to date for Mormon Stories. In exchange, I am going to see how many listeners I can get to sign up for an automatic monthly subscription to Mormon Stories (which will help get me through grad school). If I can get enough people to sign up for monthly subscriptions, I will definitely keep Mormon Stories going at the rate of one, multi-part interview per week. If I can’t get enough listeners to support me in that way, I will probably keep Mormon Stories going, but will likely have to get a part time job in the Fall/Winter to support my family while in school — and will only release episodes as I’m able…
The deal was that people would donate money to John Dehlin, and he would spend time on the podcast. The important thing about the announcement of this deal was that it came in quick succession with several milestones — the starting of Open Stories Foundation as a non-profit, the restarting of the podcast in 2010, and the deal itself. I have no idea how many people donated prior to 2010, but it seems that as of the restart (after which Dehlin ramped up his podcasting [400 more episodes!]), he was very upfront and transparent about the deal.
This deal wasn’t mentioned only in that May 2010 post. Over a cursory (not comprehensive) review of other posts and podcast episodes, I found references to the personal/familial benefit of the deal in several other locations, including:
- Episode 231: Mormon Stories 2011 and Beyond (January of 2011)
- Episode 298: We Really Need Your Support (October of 2011)
- Episode 355: What Mormon Stories is Trying to Do, and How to Keep it Alive (June 2012) (DOUBLECHECK)
- Strategy Announcement for 2012 (October 2012)
- Episode 516: 2014 Mormon Stories End-of-Year Update (December 2014)
Groceries and Grad School
As I said near the beginning, one thing I noticed with Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent piece on the Open Stories Foundation’s finances from my review online was how many people were so surprised to discover that John was using donations to pay for things like grad school and family groceries. Several people had very reasonable alternative notions for what the donations were used for: some people thought it went toward equipment, while others thought it went toward hosting and other web expenses. Others focused on the conferences, saying they believed that donations were used to pay for travel/flight for the regional conferences. One person even suggested that the donations might pay for honorariums for certain podcast guests.
These are all certainly reasonable options, but the striking thing is that John has, at several times, pointed out what he has actually used the money for.
Transparency and Due Diligence
What I have been thinking about is this: what is the obligation of an organization (like OSF) to disclose and ensure every donor knows what he or she is getting into vs the obligation of a donor to perform due diligence and discover the organization’s purposes and intentions?
This does not just apply to John Dehlin, see, but also to church membership.
Even as I found those podcasts and blog post updates where John had mentioned paying for grad school, etc., I was reminded of a similar apologetic response to claims that the church isn’t transparent with its history (I’m not touching the finances here…just history). Some apologists say, “If you didn’t know about church history, that’s your own fault. Here is x, y, and z official church publication where these issues are mentioned.”
I know that in these instances, critics or doubters will usually respond: “But those things weren’t emphasized! Those things aren’t brought up week in and week out in Sunday School!”
And here, it’s also true that John doesn’t necessarily talk about grad school with every podcast. What he does talk about in every intro and outro of Mormon Stories is that donations will help support the podcast, keep the community alive, provide for new programs, and things like that.
And then I also realized that some people don’t even listen to the podcasts. For the people whose only engagement with Mormon Stories is through Facebook, how would they know? For the people whose only engagement was through local support communities or regional conferences, how would they know?
Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that OSF and John are far more transparent than the church. While many were surprised about Peggy’s report, the thing that struck me was that it was all old information — straight out of OSF’s already published 2013 financials. So, the real question (in my mind) is not whether OSF is transparent or not…but where the comparative responsibilities lie. When does an organization meet its responsibility for transparency and the prospective donor (or member) pick up a responsibility for due diligence?
- Did you know that the money raised through Open Stories Foundation has been used to help fund Dehlin’s education and family expenses?
- Are you OK with this? Have you ever donated to Mormon Stories or Open Stories Foundation?
- Do you think that OSF and Mormon Stories do a good job of transparency?
- Do you think that it was reasonable for some people to expect the funds to go only for podcast equipment, expenses from hosting podcasts, conferences, etc.,?
- Now that Dehlin has been excommunicated, what do you think will be the fate of Mormon Stories podcast and the Open Stories Foundation?