"The money….that's how they will come after you son…."
This must have been the advice and counsel that Dr. King received from his father and others when he undertook the leadership of the civil rights campaign in the 1960's and 1950's. "They will attack your integrity around money, they will attack your integrity around your work, and finally, if none of that works, they will attack your personal integrity." These were likely the words of one known as Daddy King, or Martin Luther King, Sr., to his son Dr. King, as he embarked on a highly visible and highly controversial mission around the civil rights movement. Whatever Daddy King said to his son, it worked.
Dr. King and my personal hero Ambassador Andrew Young ran a tight ship, even as they were pursuing the civil rights movement. Which doesn't mean they were not still attacked. Dr. King was audited by the IRS and otherwise harassed by others, both within the government and within his own community, but none of it stuck, because once again, he ran a clean shop. I cannot stress this enough. Dr. King did not just do good works, but he ran a tight organization that could withstand public scrutiny, and an audit.
Thankfully, Daddy King did well financially and so, his family (and his son Dr. King) did not have to focus on their finances. If Dr. King needed to be bailed out of jail, Daddy King was there. When Dr. King wanted to donate his Nobel Peace Prize funds ($100,000 then, $1 million today), it was Daddy King who made sure he paid the taxes on the donated funds. Daddy King was not only a brilliant civil rights leader in his own right, he was also a tight and smart businessman. And for all those hating on banks as the devil, know this — Daddy King served on the board of a bank for 40 years. He also helped to co-found a bank; Citizens Trust Bank in Atlanta. And so, he was knowledgeable about what was right, but also doing things right. And doing things right, Daddy King did. It was Daddy King who told his parishioners at Ebenezer Baptist Church to focus on their civil rights, on voting, and on getting their education yes, but also on owning their own home, and building their own businesses too. Many members are in good shape today at Ebenezer Church, because they took the advice of Daddy King so long ago. It was Daddy King who made it possible for Coretta Scott King to stand up the first iteration of her King Center. Why? He owned land and had paid his taxes over the years, and so they did not have to ask or beg anyone else to carry out their dream for them. Others helped, sure enough. And thank God for them. But it was Daddy King who made sure they could "help themselves" first.
But focusing on financial opportunity is not enough today. Leaders today, in the increasingly cynical world we live , must insure they have optimally managed what I call their "financial risk." Leave no financial door open, and close all financial doors behind you. At Operation HOPE, in the Office of the Chairman in particular, I tell everyone that they have but one lens to view all fiscal decisions involving me; never do anything that they are not comfortable seeing on the front page of the newspaper in 5-years. Adhering to this rule makes life fairly simple and straight forward.
Doing this means that I don't pay myself at Operation HOPE, ever. My compensation is set by the board of directors, and reviewed annually by a compensation committee, an executive board, and bench-marked against an annual compensation survey of the nonprofit sector (based on our budget and organizational size, etc). I get a paycheck, just like everyone else.
Doing this means that no one will ever see me riding in the backseat of a limousine on behalf of the organization, unless of course it is the President's limousine (smile). Even when a car service picks me up, I always ask to sit up front with the driver. Good optics, but frankly it also just makes me feel better. The driver and me, we are the same. We just have different jobs in life, but one is no better than the other. HOPE even uses minority vendors at below market rates as contract drivers in the cities where I travel most.
Here are some other basic dos and do-nots that I recommend, and of which by the way is our official policy at Operation HOPE:
- Avoid a company credit card at all costs. Use your own personal credit card and simply ask your organization or company to reimburse you for approved and appropriate expenses. If there is an annual fee associated with your credit card, pay it personally. Don't win battles and lose the war.
- Don't ask for, nor even ever allow your organization to give you an expense account. It will most always backfire on you. Again, simply utilize your own credit card and ask to be reimbursed as appropriate and legal. If you cannot get your own credit card because you have credit challenges, then revitalize your credit profile rather than taking a short cut and making your employer your credit provider. This story never ends well.
- Don't purchase first class plane tickets. Boy this one is big. I can remember so many times when I was sitting in business class, and a donor or big government official came on board after me, and I am sitting there while they walked back to coach. That only felt okay because I knew I had a complimentary upgrade to business class, and not because my organization bought a business class or first class ticket. Anything else, believe me, just will not work. And the auditors, rightly so, will just kill you. We never purchase a first class or business class ticket (I fly coach domestically, and business class internationally, but even the latter is formally approved by the board) in the normal course of business. That said, because I travel so much I almost always receive a complimentary seat upgrade, so it all works out. God is good (smile).
- Get audited financials as soon as possible. This was a powerful piece of advice that my friend Julia Brown told me when she worked for the Comptroller of the Currency, a federal regulator of national banks. She wanted to make sure that no one would turn Operation HOPE down based on substance, and so encouraged me and us to submit ourselves to an independent financial audit. This advice was golden, and as a result we have had audited financials for more than a dozen years now. Nothing like clean audited financials to make the donor public feel very comfortable with you. It cost us money we thought we did not have early on, but now we simply understand that it was a good investment in our future.
- Always stay above a 70% cents on the dollar ratio. Meaning that 70% or more of every dollar you bring in to your organization should go directly to the bottom line of programs and services for those you serve. HOPE is a fast growing organization even 20 years in, and growth is always expensive, but we still manage to maintain the 70% program to operating cost ratio. Our ultimate goal is 80% or better.
Fortunately for the world, Dr. King heeded the advice of his father and others, and after seeing countless examples of leaders who got caught up in scandals around money, decided early on that he would not be one of them.
Looking back over 20 years, I know without question that if I had ever missed the fiscal-integrity mark at Operation HOPE, that I would have never been able to serve the approximately 2 million poor and underserved clients we have empowered. I encourage ethical leaders in the public space today — and particularly those seeking to lead movement organizations — to focus equally not just on doing good work, but on running tight, right and highly professional organizations too.
Okay, let's go….
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass) the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum.