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Community responsibility

October 1, 2007
by MICHAEL PELTIER, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
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If the government investigated your nonprofit organization to determine if it deserved its tax-exempt status, how would you react? What evidence could you provide? The need for nonprofits to enhance—and document—their social accountability programs is greater than ever. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has begun investigating how not-for-profits conduct their business and whether they deserve their tax-exempt status. Grassley is currently investigating hospitals, but he has expressed interest in analyzing this difference in long-term care.

If Grassley believes the difference is negligible or nonexistent, nonprofit long-term care organizations could be required to pay property taxes and other fees despite their work in the community. In April, Larry Minnix, president/CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA), penned a letter to nonprofits on their responsibility to their communities (see “Doing Good and Doing Well,” p. 60). While these facilities fulfill this responsibility by providing charity within their communities and in their greater communities, they may be required to prove this to investigators in the future.

What Is Social Accountability?

According to AAHSA, “Social accountability is a measure of an organization's commitment to its mission, its stakeholders, and society. It is also a process for planning, budgeting, reporting, and evaluating these community benefits.” Kay Kallander, senior vice-president of strategic planning at American Baptist Homes of the West (ABHOW), says that this responsibility “brings value to the communities in which we work.” Based in Pleasanton, California, ABHOW has 30 communities throughout California, Washington, and Arizona. “We want to be focused on enhancing these communi-ties and towns beyond just our own business pro forma,” she adds.

Wesley Towers, in Hutchinson, Kansas, follows the same philosophy. “I believe that social accountability means being transparent and demonstrating this to our community and stakeholders,” says Ray Vernon, president/CEO of Wesley Towers. “We provide services to elders beyond what the public would normally want to do and fund. We provide a quality of life for our residents that appreciates and recognizes their important contributions to our community, state, and nation.” Wesley Towers advocates long-term care by training others and being active in the field, and it promotes quality and excellence in service to seniors.

Fulfilling Community Needs

Social responsibility has always been a part of ABHOW's culture, and several years ago the organization began tracking, articulating, and sharing its efforts. “But I would be remiss if I gave any impression that our predecessors were not attentive to this, as well,” Kallander explains. “We're just doing an extended job of capturing this information.”

Wesley Towers has had an ongoing formal philosophy to highlight its partnership and citizenship to its stakeholders since 1999. “Our first demonstration of this was to the Hutchinson City Council,” Vernon says. “At that time (and it still somewhat exists today) there was a perception that not-for-profit retirement communities catered to the wealthy and provided little social benefit. Our goal then, as today, was to demonstrate that we do serve those in need and provide many social and community benefits worthy of our 501(c) designation and tax exemptions.”

Both ABHOW and Wesley Towers provide an essential responsibility that is common among nonprofits: They provide charitable care to residents who are unable to pay. “If a resident in an ABHOW community runs out of funds,” Kallander notes, “he or she is never asked to leave and is given all the care needed.” At Wesley Towers, no resident has ever had to leave the facility because of an inability to pay for care or services.

Long-term care organizations are also major employers in their communities and make important economic contributions to those communities. “It is our philosophy,” Vernon says, “to share our facilities and resources as much as possible without jeopardizing the needs of our residents.” Each ABHOW community develops programs that meet the needs of its particular location.

To contribute to its external community, a nonprofit organization can:

  • Provide training, education, and employment opportunities for healthcare professionals throughout the community.

  • Offer scholarships to employees for nursing, management, and certification programs.

  • Provide local, state, and national leadership from management in the interest of issues that affect older Americans, such as healthcare, housing, and wellness.

  • Serve as a polling place for local, state, and national elections.

  • Invite local public agencies to visit and voice their needs.

  • Reach into the community by providing meeting space and free clinic services.

  • Extend transportation services using facility buses.

  • Set up a hotline for seniors to call for resources or information.

  • Operate a Meals On Wheels program.

  • Knit caps for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units.

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