Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh weighs policy on financial donations

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 2:18 PM

In an effort to ensure the financial stability of Occupy Pittsburgh, nearly 100 members of the local protest movement debated a proposal last night that would link Occupy Pittsburgh to a nonprofit fiscal sponsor, allowing the group to accept tax-deductible donations.

Two hours into the meeting, however, things turned ugly when one of the proposal's authors stormed out of the room, charging that facilitators were trying to "kill" the measure.

From the outset, the Occupy Pittsburgh encampment on Mellon Green has been sustained by donations of food, water, and even portable toilets. But it lacks a formal means for accepting financial contributions. During a general assembly meeting held inside the United Steelworkers building, Downtown, the Occupy Pittsburgh "donations working group" introduced a proposal to begin doing so.

Under that proposal, the movement could receive funds under the auspices of the Thomas Merton Center, a long-established peace-and justice group.

"Having the ability to accept online and check donations, and receive cash and non-monetary donations which are tax-deductible to the donors in a legal and organized way is an absolute necessity for the movement to continue," the one-page proposal states.

Nathaniel Glosser, who presented the proposal to the audience, estimated that it costs roughly $8,000-12,000 a month to run Occupy Pittsburgh's Downtown encampment. "There is a lot of need for funds ... and a transparent system to track [them]," he said.

click to enlarge Nathaniel Glosser, who presented the controversial "sponsorship" proposal - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

Some occupiers suggested that Occupy Pittsburgh create its own nonprofit arm. But that would take at least six weeks, the working group concluded. So it proposed the sponsorship arrangement instead.

Fiscal sponsorship allows a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to sponsor a "project" whose participants haven't created a tax-exempt entity of their own.  Other Occupy movements, including Occupy Wall Street, have found fiscal sponsors.

"A fiscal sponsorship is not an alliance, affiliation, or collaboration," the proposal states. "It simply is use of another organization's nonprofit status so that funding can be received, while members of Occupy Pittsburgh work towards becoming financially independent."

If the Garfield-based Merton Center became Occupy Pittsburgh's fiscal sponsor, it would take care of the movement's accounting and reporting to the IRS. The center would take a 5 percent administrative fee per transaction for its services.

"The Thomas Merton Center is uniquely qualified to be a sponsor of this group," Glosser said.

Not everyone was happy with the proposal. Some raised concerns about where the money would be deposited; Merton Center chair Michael Drohan told the audience that the center has an account at PNC -- whose business practices Occupiers have protested within the past couple weeks.

"I'll be damned if my money goes anywhere near [PNC Bank]," asserted Jim Blue Thunder, who'd been involved in a demonstration at a Downtown branch of PNC

Other critics expressed concern about implications of being a "project" of The Thomas Merton Center, since not everyone may agree with the nonprofit's mission and principles.

Indeed, although last night's discussion didn't touch on it, the Merton Center's own finances, and its relationship with protest movements, have at times been rocky. The anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group, for example, had been a "project" of the center, but parted ways due to philosophical differences. Merton has also experienced financial stumbles of its own, which last year prompted the Center's board to lay off full-time staffers, a process Center leaders admitted wasn't handled well.

But those who supported making the Center a sponsor argued that developing a fiscal sponsorship would make the movement's finances more transparent, possibly enticing more donors. One occupier, who is part of the food working group, mentioned his discomfort when passers-by at Mellon Green make cash donations to him directly.

"I'd like to get this [money] out of my hands," he said.

Tom Cox, 49, of Lawrenceville, said many donors feel uncomfortable putting money in tip jars at the camp site. He said supporters of the movement would be more willing to donate to Occupy Pittsburgh if they could do so in a more organized way.

Most of the crowd appeared to agree: After a two-hour debate, facilitators held a straw poll to gauge support. By my estimate, supporters of a sponsorship outnumbered opponents by roughly two-to-one. (Notably, most of the opposition seemed to come from people who have been camping out at Mellon Green; support came largely from noncampers.) 

But minutes after the straw poll, Glosser started yelling and stormed out. Other participants followed, urging him to calm down. "I'm too pissed!" he said. Accusing meeting facilitators of trying "to kill this proposal," he said, "I suggest everybody walk out!"

Reached the following day by phone, Glosser said, "It's an internal matter that I am not entirely comfortable discussing for publication." 

After Glosser's departure, meeting attendees decided to table the proposal until next week, so the working group can further develop it.

But without naming Glosser, some people said they wanted another representative from that working group to lead future discussions. One occupier, whose question was shot down by Glosser earlier in the meeting, said he was tired of being bullied at general assemblies.

After the meeting broke for a recess, some said Glosser's outburst was nothing new. As occupier Bram Reichbaum said, "He has a bit of a temper."


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