Re: Very long wait for funds transfer

From: "Bradley M(dot) Kuhn" <bkuhn(at)ebb(dot)org>
To: SPI Private List <spi-private(at)lists(dot)spi-inc(dot)org>
Cc: spi-general(at)lists(dot)spi-inc(dot)org
Subject: Re: Very long wait for funds transfer
Date: 2016-12-21 01:29:32
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I'm an SPI member since 2002, but most of the email below is about how my
work at my day job relates to SPI. I've tried not to conflate the too roles
too much.

Martin Michlmayr wrote:
> Furthermore, SPI donated some money to Software Freedom Conservancy to
> help with the creation of tools that will make reimbursements easier.
> While there hasn't been a lot of progress until recently, Conservancy
> hired someone a few months ago so we're also expecting to see progress in
> that area.

Indeed, to "name names" -- specifically both Brett Smith and I at
Conservancy are heavily focused on the huge problem of how to run a fiscal
sponsor with Open Source and Free Software. It's harder than it looks.

And, Martin's point about paid bookkeeping staff failing is no surprise at
> SPI has had some paid help in the past and it didn't work well,

If you hire a "bookkeeper off the street", they won't understand fiscal
sponsorship. They won't have the software [0] they need to properly
cross-categorize expenses against account and temporarily restricted funds
simultaneously. Plus, most bookkeepers that you can hire part-time at a
reasonable contract rate don't know a thing about keeping books for a
charity and how it differs from for-profit. Even *if* you hire
charity-specialist bookkeepers (who are rare), they are not likely familiar
with fiscal sponsorship, and they *certainly* won't know how to communicate
with geeks seeking reimbursements who, say, are going to be annoyed at
things like top-reply, Word document attachments, and the like.

Conservancy is younger than SPI but we grew faster (we're about to enter our
FY 2015 audit cycle and we're looking at having in excess $1.6mil in assets
managed for projects during the FY under audit). Thus, we already hit these
growing pains problems a few years ago and have focused on solving them in
the last few years [1]. We've made progress, but there's much work left to
do for both organizations.

SPI and Conservancy are natural allies on this matter because, on the fiscal
sponsorship vector, we both have almost exactly the same needs, similar
user/constituent bases, and a shared ethos -- e.g., neither org is going to
run out to buy a Windows box and a Raiser's Edge or Abila [0] license.

I understand people's frustrations with late payments, but I encourage
everyone to be realistic. At Conservancy, I'm the primary person handling
all outgoing payments. I pride myself on delivering Conservancy payments on
NET-30 terms, and do rarely drift to NET-45 in busy months, but I keep on
schedule because when reimbursement request load is heavy (e.g., after a
conference), I drop everything else in my work (*and* my personal life) and
turn my attention solely to reimbursements. I can only do that because
Conservancy is my full-time job.

Yet, I still get regular complaints -- much like the ones in this thread --
that Conservancy is not responsive enough, etc. After years of doing this,
my take is simply this: people waiting for money from you who are unsure on
precisely when it'll arrive [2] won't be happy unless you're completely
perfect, and of course no on one on earth is. So, both organizations and
reimbursement requestors should be realistic about expectations.

Conservancy and SPI are kindred spirits, and, in fact, at Conservancy, SPI
has been on our minds for at least three years now regarding this problem.
Any solutions that we implement for Conservancy must create a rising tide
that raises SPI, too. tbm, zobel, and others have worked with me to study
what I do with Ledger CLI that allows me keep Conservancy's books as
hyper-efficiently as possible. SPI's leadership have done a good job
implementing those solutions that are working at Conservancy -- particularly
given that SPI folks are all volunteers.

As we build more bookkeeping solutions at Conservancy, Brett and I see SPI
as our key and first "not us" user base. If we build something that
Conservancy can use that SPI can't, I consider it a major failure because
SPI and Conservancy are so much alike on the fiscal-sponsorship vector that
a solution that doesn't help both orgs is by-default broken.

Finally, speaking from my experience helping run a Free Software fiscal
sponsor for a very long time (for about 3/4ths of which I was paid and about
a 1/4th of which I wasn't) -- I'm in *awe* that SPI is still going as well
as it is without staff. Even though the delays are annoying, we should be
thankful to the volunteers who are doing what I know first-hand to be a
truly thankless job. In particular, I think it's unfair that some in this
thread accused SPI's leadership of treating their work only as only a hobby
project [3] -- with the (IMO incorrect) implication being that SPI's
leadership are failing to carry out their work in a highly professional
(albeit volunteer) manner. By contrast, I think they've been *very*
professional about this work, but are time and resource constrained.

It's tough to bootstrap a non-profit charity, particularly a fiscal sponsor.
Conservancy could have *easily* ended up where SPI is now: an essential
organization that appears to the untrained eye as merely a volunteer
initiative between a few friends -- due to constant lack of resources to
expand to meet community needs. For Conservancy, it was basically only
sheer force of will (mixed with some lucky breaks) that I bootstrapped
Conservancy into a funded organization, now with four staffers -- including
someone else other than me in charge.

It's easily said -- but *not* easily done -- to convert a volunteer-only
charity into a staffed one when its community needs grow, and merely "hiring
a part-time person to handle the urgent stuff" rarely works, as tbm
pointed out. Those us who have spent our careers working for and with
non-profits have seen that almost every non-profit has struggled in this way
in its history. Non-profit leadership needs to see these challenges plainly
and take them on, which I think the SPI's current leadership is doing. The
road through won't always be smooth, but SPI seems to be moving in the right
direction to me, and I hope to help, both as part of my day job and as a
volunteer, in the next year to come.

[0] Brett and I both have, at different times separated by years, done
careful analysis of what software is available to do fiscal sponsorship
bookkeeping. There are basically only three proprietary packages that
handle fiscal sponsorship: Fund-EZ, Rasier's Edge, and Abila. I even
went so far as to go to an Abila demo/marketing day -- which was useful
if only to see that other than a weak-forms-based Windows GUI, Abila's
functionality is not more featureful, and is in some ways less
feature-ful, than Conservancy's Ledger-CLI-based home-grown system.
(Abila's system has no way to record and hold reimbursement payments
while awaiting specific approvals, for example).

The Open Source solutions are in a worse state, because not *one* is
designed to handle books for a charity, and most of the codebases are
baroque messes of features that you need to hire a consultant just to
deploy them. Of course, they all tell that you can handle fiscal
sponsorship easily if you "just use Cost Centers!" -- as if the round
peg of temporarily restricted assets smoothly fits that particular
square hole.... I could go on, but the npo-accounting mailing list is
probably a better venue for such discussions:

[1] My political opponents love to talk about how I'm sitting around all day
hatching new ways to enforce the GPL, but frankly the majority of my time
in the last 5 years has spend on *this* problem of scaling fiscal
sponsorship with software solutions.

[2] I live on the other side of this, too. Speaking as someone who
hasn't even submitted my DebConf reimbursement to SPI yet, I'm actually
glad that SPI doesn't follow Conservancy's rules fully, as Conservancy
wouldn't be so forgiving at my late submission (Conservancy has a strict
must-submit-90-days-after-travel rule). I admit hearing that early
submitters hadn't gotten reimbursed yet for DebConf made me feel like
"eh, what's the point in doing it sooner rather than later?".

Then, having worked for so long on the other side, I know that late
reimbursements end up being even more work than timely ones for various
bookkeeping reasons, which makes me feel shameful and guilty for not
submitting my SPI request sooner -- and thus I keep avoiding the 20
minutes of work of putting together my reimbursement request. I face
these types of scenarios every day in my day job, yet even I can fall
into the vicious cycle -- such is very difficult to avoid here. We'll
need to work together and cooperate to avoid it.

[3] Although I think SPI, like Linux, should be proud of its roots as
starting primarily as a hobby project. The best projects we have in
Free Software were hobby projects that people took seriously and gave to
them lots of professional volunteer time, and they make strong projects
because they have both a hobbyist and professional culture together.

-- bkuhn
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