Group for Md. Nonprofits Claims to Push for Accountability and Ethics - Southern Maryland Headline News

Group for Md. Nonprofits Claims to Push for Accountability and Ethics

by L. REED WALTON, Capital News Service

BALTIMORE - Five more Maryland nonprofits have made the grade for their ethics, openness and accountability, according to the group that oversees state nonprofit organizations.

The five companies will join 69 other Maryland nonprofits in meeting the Standards for Excellence, a set of goals devised by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations (called Maryland Nonprofits, The goals are much like a voluntary Sarbanes-Oxley Act for non-profits, and rate spending and fundraising practices, ethical boards, avoiding conflicts of interest and more.

"The whole center of the program is an ethics and accountability code for the nonprofit sector," said Amy Coates-Madsen, program director for Standards for Excellence.

Standards for Excellence was started by Maryland Nonprofits in 1998. Executive Director Peter Berns and his staff set out eight guiding principles and 54 standards for running a nonprofit business ethically, and use these to evaluate companies who apply to earn the approval of Maryland Nonprofits.

But unlike regulations applied to public, for-profit companies, which penalize for noncompliance, Standards for Excellence lets companies which are applying for the award work toward meeting the standards with the help of Maryland Nonprofits advisers.

The process continues after companies receive the award, or are "certified," because they must be re-certified every few years in order to keep the seal.

Earning the group's seal of approval Wednesday were: the Accokeek Foundation, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Langton Green Inc., the Association of Partners for Public Lands and Baltimore HealthCare Access.

Arnold Dordick, executive director of Langton Green, an Annapolis-based resource for developmentally disabled adults, worked for three years before becoming certified with Standards of Excellence this year.

Langton Green is a small nonprofit, with 120 employees mostly working to care for disabled clients, and Dordick said he wanted to take the time to consider how his company met each point in the Standards code.

"We were actually commended on our policies after three years," he said. "Not just, 'Oh, you passed,' but 'This is really excellent.'"

"We want everybody to pass," said Shauna Chabot, who evaluates non-profit company practices for Standards of Excellence. "We really do want nonprofits to be operating effectively and efficiently so they can fulfill their mission."

The standards also help companies, Chabot said, operate like a "real business," examining how they work under the laws and regulations that govern nonprofits.

Kathleen Westcoat, executive director of Baltimore HealthCare Access, asked to be rated by Maryland Nonprofits about eight months after taking over leadership at the company.

The previous chief operating officer, Westcoat said, did not manage regulatory issues very well, so when Westcoat took the job she asked Maryland Nonprofits for help.

"It was really unbelievable for me because I learned how to do things right from the get-go," she said.

Nonprofits like Westcoat's are not required to earn the Seal of Excellence, or even to apply. But Maryland Nonprofits encourages every nonprofit to examine the Standards of Excellence literature and conduct an internal review.

With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Maryland Nonprofits formed the Standards for Excellence Institute, based in Washington, D.C., in 2001.

The institute currently has official Standards for Excellence partner programs in eight other states, and any nonprofit across the country can request information. About 160 nonprofits nationwide hold the Seal of Excellence.

Erica Greeley, deputy director of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, cautioned against using a "one-size-fits-all" approach to accountability standards for nonprofits.

Without an education component to the certification program, Greeley said, smaller nonprofits with limited resources might not even know they were violating industry regulations and as a result might be seen as not accountable for their practices. But, Greeley said, state associations like Maryland Nonprofits can play a large role in educating all companies.

Editor's Note: The 2004 IRS Form 990--the tax return for organizations exempt from income tax--for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations shows that Peter Berns, Executive Director, was paid $206,631 in compensation and another $10,332 in contributions to employee benefit plans and deferred compensation for the 2004 tax year. The 2004 return is the most recent that was available on the organization's website. We always suggest weighing the salary paid to the executives of a non-profit organization when determining the worthiness of the organization to receive your charitable contributions.

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