Financial oversight

I posted some thoughts a few days ago about an SPJ list of recommended financial best practices.

One recommendation is: “Require two signatures on all checks.”

I wrote that my SPJ chapter – Washington, D.C., Pro – doesn’t follow that particular practice, but I think it should.

At our summer meeting on Sunday, the chapter board talked about the best practices document, including the double-signature recommendation.

Bill McCloskey, who is on both the chapter board and SPJ’s national board, said that even though our chapter isn’t as geographically spread out as some, it’s not always easy to get two people to meet whenever we need to write a check.

McCloskey suggested a different approach: giving a second person on the board read-only access to online bank statements.

Our treasurer, Amy Fickling, already prepares a monthly financial statement and shares it with the board before our meetings. We review and ask questions, if we have any, before approving each report.

But having a second set of eyes watching transactions as they occur is a good financial safeguard.

As we made clear at our meeting, this was not a judgment about the integrity of our current treasurer, who keeps our books in good order. The change is to add a layer of security for the chapter, no matter who our treasurer is in the future.

Good books

One thing that has emerged from the allegations that Scott Cooper took money from the Oklahoma SPJ chapter is a renewed focus on good financial practices.

President-elect Sonny Albarado is the chair of a committee that has looked at what happened, but also talked about ideas for encouraging sound accounting and record-keeping.

The first item on a list of best practices the committee drafted resonated when I read it: “Require two signatures on all checks.”

I am on the board of the Washington, D.C., Pro chapter. We do a good job watching our money and spending it carefully. But we do not practice the two-signature guideline. I think we should.

Too many crime stories about the treasurer of this fraternal group or that Little League absconding with money mention a common weakness: that one person wrote and signed checks and could hide embezzlement fairly easily, at least for a while. We shouldn’t rely on the integrity of a treasurer alone; structural safeguards need to be place.

Albarado said during Saturday’s Executive Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., that getting two signatures can be a hardship for chapters covering large areas, whose officers can’t readily meet to sign a check.

Perhaps. But several other measures on the best practices list can add layers of financial security, such as:

– “Require officer approval of any expenditure over $25; board approval of any expenditure over $100.”

– “Avoid credit/debit cards; they are too easily abused.”

– “When depositing funds in the chapter bank account, use a “For Deposit Only” rubber stamp on the back of checks. No individual should sign a check made out to the chapter.”

SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel said that any one of the key measures could have prevented the theft of money from the Oklahoma chapter.

All pro and student chapter leaders and advisors should read the list and think about whether their chapter can improve.

I suggested at the Executive Committee meeting that SPJ have a stronger, more specific requirement for annual financial reviews than what’s currently on the chapter report. But I learned that this might not be possible, since SPJ chapters are separate entities and can’t be squarely under the thumb of the national organization in this way.

So, we’re left with prodding, needling, cajoling and other semi-forceful tactics for getting chapters to be prudent in their financial records.

Some SPJ leaders talked last week about bookkeeping and accounting into a how-to guide for chapters on preparing a good chapter report. I wondered if that was enough, if a vital responsibility might be buried as part of a broader topic.

I commend headquarters, though, for distributing the best practices list quickly (on Monday – two days after the meeting) and making it a stand-alone topic.

The Executive Committee also agreed that there should be a program on finances at this year’s national convention and that SPJ should create a webinar of 7 to 10 minutes,

Any other suggestions?

Enshrined while alive

If you’re Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, do you still want the Joe Paterno Award, as best college football coach in the country?

Not so much. Beamer decided to put it in a drawer, out of sight.

This angle in the Penn State story made me think about SPJ’s controversial decision to stop giving a Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award because of comments she made about Israel and Zionists. (To be clear, I am not comparing Thomas’s comments to Paterno’s apparent dereliction of moral duty.)

A group of SPJers tried to revive the Thomas award, but a majority of delegates at last year’s national convention rejected the proposed reinstatement.

I was part of that group trying for reinstatment, and believe it was wrong for a journalism group – committed to and respecting of free speech – to get rid of a lifetime achievement award solely because of comments the namesake made while she was a columnist and later a private citizen.

But I’m not mentioning the Paterno Award and the Thomas Award here to dredge up that debate (which had passionate, well-meaning people on both sides).

Instead, amid the Penn State scandal, I am reminded of an important issue: naming awards, buildings and so on after living people. We have no guarantees they won’t sully their names later in life, and where does that leave us?

I wrote about this in a column for the September/October 2010 Quill, before Thomas made the second round of comments, which led to the end of the award named after her.

I asked: “Should awards (or anything else of note) be named after people?” Also: “Consider the Postal Service, which says: ‘No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.'”

I suggest that SPJ consider the same approach as the Postal Service – before there is a next time.

UPDATE to Endorsements, Inc.

SPJ President John Ensslin emailed me yesterday to clarify his position on the limits for current national board members in connection with candidate campaigns.

Newly written campaign guidelines say “5. Current national SPJ board members should remain neutral in all elections.”

During Saturday’s SPJ Executive Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., I asked if there were more specific guidelines, such as whether and how board members could “friend,” “like” or “follow” candidates on social media.

Ensslin told me there were not, that the guidelines were purposely left broad.

But he realized later that he and I were talking about two different things. Here’s what he wrote yesterday in an email, which he gave me permission to post:

“Andy I misunderstood you when we were talking Saturday.
I thought you were referring to your Facebook page, not your campaign’s Facebook page.
Sorry for the misunderstanding, but I could see where some would think that friending a campaign page would amount to an endorsement.
So my advice to board members would be to refrain from doing so.
Being a friend on a personal Facebook page, however does not seem like a problem.
Again, sorry for the misunderstanding.
John”
 
I agree with this sentiment. I’m usually outnumbered when this conversation comes up in the context of journalists connecting with sources, but I consider the word “friend” on Facebook to be just as it sounds – or carrying that perception, at least – and I don’t “friend” people I cover.
 
But, as I pointed out in my previous post about this, SPJ has created election guidelines (“should” vs. “shall”), not rules, so board members may do as they see fit.
 
During a brief email thread about this among national board members yesterday, no one objected to board members following candidates on Twitter. “Following” was not seen as an endorsement.

Endorsements, etc.

SPJ national board members are not supposed to endorse or campaign other candidates. I think that’s long been an unwritten rule, but not always followed.

This year, it’s spelled out in a newly drafted set of campaign guidelines. The pertinent section is: “5. Current national SPJ board members should remain neutral in all elections.”

Notice the wording – “should remain neutral” rather than “shall not campaign.”

I asked SPJ President John Ensslin about the guideline on Saturday. I wanted to know about gray areas, such as whether board members can “like” or “friend” candidates on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Ensslin said the guideline for board members intentionally was left broad.

I asked if that was out of concern for infringing on board members’ free speech. He said it was.

I have heard different sides of the debate. Some people think board members, who hold positions of power within SPJ, shouldn’t influence elections. Others says it’s unfair and possibly at odds with the First Amendment to prevent anyone – board member or not – from expressing his or her views about SPJ candidates.

Thus, we have “should remain neutral.”

The board of the SDX Foundation – the nonprofit arm of SPJ that supports educational programs – hasn’t settled on a stance for advocacy and neutrality in SPJ elections.

The answer to the Facebook and Twitter question, by the way, is: It’s OK for board members to connect to candidates on social media.

A new era

I’ve covered many political campaigns, but never run one as a candidate. And SPJ has held many national elections, but none in which every SPJ member gets to vote. So, this year, we break new ground at the same time.

Until now, elections for SPJ national board seats and officer positions have been carried out through the delegate system. Last year, delegates agreed to switch to One Member, One Vote. (More on that in at least one future post, maybe more)

One of the strong objections to OMOV – a small, outspoken group of opponents raised many – was that it would be a financial burden on future candidates as they tried to reach thousands of potential voters across the country instead of dozens in a convention conference room.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I just looked at the list of candidates running for national or regional offices so far and see that each has an easy, no-cost way to get out their messages or to be reached (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn).

I planned to use only a Facebook page (Schotz2012), but I’m also going to try keeping this WordPress blog. I’ll see how it goes.

Yes, we all can campaign, effectively, for free.

If any candidate feels driven to buy campaign buttons or giveaway knick-knacks, take a moment and let the impulse pass. Instead, I encourage you to direct your money to a most worthy SPJ cause: the Legal Defense Fund. Spend your money at this year’s LDF auction at the national convention (Sept. 20 to 22 in Fort Lauderdale). Full disclosure: I am part of the committee that was asked to help round up auction items this year. Please donate! (by Aug. 17)