Way to politicize charity

It happens occasionally, but none more so than by inviting a Presidential contender to speak on your behalf. Teen Challenge USA is bringingSarah Palin to Missoula on September 12. Tickets are $100 per person.

I don’t know much about Teen Challenge, but I don’t see publicizing and endorsing politicians in their mission statement:

To provide youth, adults and families with an effective and comprehensive Christian faith-based solution to life-controlling drug and alcohol problems in order to become productive members of society.

For the Missoula program, it costs $1500 a month per student to provide a residential drug-rehabilitation program for women. I’m not sure if that is the best way to help folks with their addictions, but it seems like an admirable alternative to incarceration.

It is hard to evaluate the effectiveness of any charity, but Charity Navigator gives one of the chapters of Teen Challenge their lowest rating. It seems that the Midlands group spends nearly 30% of their income on administration and a bit less than 20% on fundraising expenses, leaving only 54% for drug rehabilitation programs. Admittedly, other chapters do better but I have to wonder what sort of oversight the national office has on the hundred or more regional centers.

Skylar Browning at the Missoula Independent asks the same question – mulling over whether Teen Challenge PNW Missoula will even make a profit on the Palin talk. If Palin typically charges up to $100,000 per talk and there are other expenses involved like hiring security guards, booking the Hilton, providing food, etc., then you have to wonder how 1,600 tickets at $100 will cover the costs. Maybe other groups are helping, but it isn’t clear.

What is obvious is that this is a very successful marketing ploy by Teen Challenge. They’ve brought attention to themselves, perhaps raising awareness that Missoula is one of the “drug capitals” of the nation(that should be great for attracting economic development to our town).

But, by bringing such a polarizing political figure they are risking the political message dominating the event. For instance, Jan Henderson, director of the treatment center here in Missoula, expressed admiration for Palin’s strength in “standing” up to media scrutiny of her life and politics. A classic Republican line, blaming the ‘liberal’ media for all that is wrong with this country.

It makes you wonder about Faith-based partnerships, doesn’t it? Here is one charity plainly aligning themselves with one side of the political divide and not the other. Perhaps they all do. And, maybe your faith-based charity is better than mine, but if your political benefactor gets elected then I’m sure yours will fare better than mine.

The real losers of this politicization of charity are probably the beneficiaries of those charities. Because I know a number of people who will now question how much of their donation is going to support politicians, as compared to really helping those in need.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Did you hear about amazon.com’s stupendous blunder last week? They took back books that people had purchased from them. Seems as though amazon didn’t have the legal rights to sell the book (ironically, it was Orwell’s ‘1984’), so they just went and grabbed it back.

Putting aside visions of jack-booted thugs knocking down your front door and repossessing the goods, the reality is still pretty scary. Amazon used their wireless access to book owners personal property and deleted the Kindle versions of the book. It sets an amazing precedent and raises deep questions of what ‘ownership’ entails in the digital age.

Increasingly we are being faced by a subscription model for digital property. For many this started with Netflix, whereby you pay a monthly fees and can receive and mail back as many DVDs as you care to in a month. Like your local video store, you don’t own the DVD and must return it as soon as you stop paying the monthly subscription fee.

Next were services like Rhapsody and lala, where for another small monthly fee you can listen online to as many of their CDs as meets your fancy. This time, however, you don’t physically own anything. The music streams to your computer over the net. And, again, if you don’t pay your subscription you lose access to the music. A lot like cable.

Apparently, we will soon all be subscribing to our word processing software and the like. With ‘cloud computing’, the increasingly complicated and memory-hogging software will reside on a server somewhere. You won’t own it, but given yet another monthly subscription fee, you will have unlimited use of that software over the net. This will surely make backups, bug-fixes and version updates much, much easier and should be easily accessible by both the good, the bad, and the ugly of the computer world. (Just wait for the screams over Windows 7 and you’ll know what I mean!)

But what happens if your finances hit a bit of a rough spot through no fault of your own (sky fell on your head, rug got pulled out, or your boss just made a bad decision) and you can no longer afford all those subscriptions? Voop. Gone. And nothing to show for it. Just when you need it most (to read up on new skills and emerging trends, to cheer you up at the end of a long day, or to update your resume and bash out a new job application), all your prior investments into books, CDs and DVDs, and information technology will be worth nothing.

I have to wonder if media and technology companies have thought this one through? Sure it makes ‘piracy’ more difficult, since you can’t just lean over the back fence and lend your neighbor the book you just read or your favorite CD of the week. But, it is likely to further the digital divide, creating a class of have’s (those who can afford the myriad monthly fees) and the have not’s. Gone is the model of broadcasting and mutual sharing of costs and benefits, like me helping pay for your kids to go to school or my tax dollars going to support that museum you like.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we see even greater use of bootleg versions or open-source products, like Linux, since there are still many of us who like to hold (and share) what we own. And so I have to wonder if they media companies are, again, shooting themselves in the foot, because if many of us turn to those bootlegs and royalty-free products then they could find themselves with a rapidly declining sales base. Where once they had loyal subscribers they might soon find they have angry, former customers.

Hit me with your best shot!

Today’s Missoulian bags on the Mayor’s budget. Of course, he’s an easy target and I’m sure he can take it.

But, out of a $42.7 million budget, the Missoulian editorial team could only find two small things to trim – $20,000 for a lobbyist in Helena, and a request that City Council members agree to cut their own stipends.

That’s it? Our investigative proudest couldn’t find any other fat to cut? Did they look, or did they just read the press release? Somehow I expected more from the paper of record.

Rather than commenting sagely on the Mayor’s budget, today’s editorial is much more disturbing. It indicates an automatic, unconsidered swipe at the Mayor and his allies on Council. It wouldn’t matter how wise the proposed budget, or how much he cut from it we now know the Missoulian would still criticize it. The Mayor’s administration will never be good enough for the all-seeing, all-knowing editorial board, because there will always be more that could be cut. Government, in their eyes, is always bad and less is always better. I guess now we know the political leanings of our local paper!

Personally, I think we get very good representation from our City Council members and I think they are grossly underpaid for all the hours they dedicate. Like Engen, they are true believers in Missoula and are proud to work on our behalf. Pity that the Missoulian couldn’t applaud their leadership and their financial sacrifice.

Instead, they take a cheap shot. Is that the best you’ve got? C’mon, hit me with something substantial next time, not a partisan hack.