NABJ’s executive board spends nearly $200,000 on travel in last three years
UPDATE: NABJ President Bob Butler sent a letter funders and past presidents stating that the board has spent $200,000 in the last three fiscal years. When contacted by All Digitocracy founder Tracie Powell, he explained the accounting system that NABJ now uses mimics the calendar year. He re-emphasized that his expenses as president of the association have increased due to having to meet with corporate sponsors who need reassurance about the association’s standing. “We don’t know when those types of expenses will be incurred, so they can’t always be budgeted for,” Butler said.
Right now, journalists hoping to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) at its annual convention in Minnesota this summer are shopping for low airfare — and in some cases hotel accommodations — to Minneapolis on discount travel websites.
But it might be a good idea for NABJ executives to start surfing those websites as well, especially if they plan on continuing to rack up skyrocketing travel expenses. At a time when journalism diversity is stagnant at best, a set of expense reports released to NABJ’s membership last month shows that its executive board spent more than $190,000 solely on travel in the past three years.
According to the reports, the largest expenditures ($13,116.60 in 2013 and $28,391.24) can be attributed to NABJ President Bob Butler alone.
Since the board’s expenses had grown so much, AllDigitocracy reached out to Butler and NABJ Executive Director Darryl Matthews to find out why. We also reached out to NABJ treasurer Keith Reed via email, but got no response to multiple messages.
Members are becoming less inclined to pay their way, and leadership’s too.
During the 2013 NABJ Convention in Orlando, a group of members called on the board to release the expense reports, which show the amount of money that the organization has paid in airfare, meals, hotel and even parking and ground transportation for board members. This same group also called for the board to cut down on expenses by doing things such as holding meetings via teleconference, and paying more of their own expenses from their own wallets, sources said. (Those instructions weren’t heeded until this year when board members held a meeting by phone.)
Getting the 2012-2013 expense information was a long time coming, said Greg Lee, NABJ’s immediate past president. “I had requested the expense reports during my term,” he said. “For whatever reason, the request was denied. I’m glad to see that they’ve finally been released.”
Releasing the reports took time because NABJ had no systems in place to generate a report that gives detailed budgetary information, Matthews said. That has since changed, he added.
Still, board members are charged with holding the executive office, and each other, accountable for expenses, something that at least one board member claims has been hindered by poor communication in leadership ranks.
When asked about the expense reports, Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig, NABJ’s Region VI director, said she hadn’t seen them yet because she didn’t know that they were on the organization’s website until another member told her.
“This is a membership organization,” she said. “You have the right to be concerned if you think that the board or staff is spending too much, you have the right to ask about it.”
Corporate Dollars Drying Up
Butler, who was vice president of broadcast in 2013 and became the current president in August of that same year, blames a drop in financial support from corporations for skyrocketing travel expenses. Media companies used to underwrite costs for meetings, which typically take place four times a year.
“Board members used to get help from their corporate employers for travel,” he said. “But these companies have stopped giving us support for that. Because of this, NABJ has to pick up much of the cost.”
While Matthews said it is standard operating procedure for organizations to pick up costs for members of the board of directors to attend meetings, other journalism associations have long abandoned this practice, or have tighter restrictions on such expenses.
The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, holds two meetings a year, including one at the annual conference, said Chris Vachon, assistant executive director for the organization. SPJ has a budget for board travel that’s on a sliding scale, meaning the President has a larger travel budget than a regional director would, she said.
The Native American Journalists Association, which has an operating budget of $341,000 for this year, provides travel assistance to board members that wouldn’t be able to attend a meeting or event without it, said Pam Silas, the organization’s executive director. NAJA will pay some expenses for board members doing organization business, but board members pay their own way for meetings overall, she said.
For AAJA board members in need of assistance from the organization to get to board meetings, requests for such assistance have to be made three months in advance, according to Kathy Chow, AAJA’s executive director, while members of the Online News Association are responsible for their own travel and lodging when attending board meetings and conventions, said Benet Wilson, a member of the ONA board.
NABJ has no real policy in place governing board travel. That may soon change, said Greg Morrison, chair of the association’s finance committee.
“We need to keep an eye on expenses,” Morrison said. The operating procedures haven’t been updated since 2006-2007. We need to revisit our policies every two years to get a chance to see what works and what doesn’t so that we can make revisions and keep the organization viable.”
NABJ’s lack of a policy covering most board travel is problematic, said Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer and vice president of programs for Board Source, an organization that focuses on good governance practices for nonprofit boards.
While it isn’t often a problem for smaller organizations, organizations like NABJ with larger budgets need to have something in place, particularly when it comes to credit cards, she said.
“Many of the horror stories I hear when it comes to non-profit boards concern the use of corporate credit cards,” Walker said. “Sometimes, they’re used for things that have nothing to do with representing the organization. If it’s a mistake, that’s one thing. But if it’s fraud, action has got to be taken.”
There is no indication of fraud when it comes to NABJ’s expense accounts. The organization is looking for ways to alleviate the burden of these costs on rank-and-file members, Matthews said.
Earlier this year board members met by phone to conduct a board meeting, a practice that may continue if leaders are unable to convince sponsors to subsidize their travel, Butler said.
“The organization doesn’t have enough funding for four face-to-face meetings this year,” Matthews added. “We have been able to get travel to meetings sponsored, but that’s not something you can count on on a continuous basis. The only meetings we’ve paid for have been the meetings we have in October in the city where we’re having our convention.”
The $40,000 Question
Butler’s travel expenses as a member of the board over the last two years, a period that includes the end of his term as a vice president, and not even two years as president, are seen to some, including Butler himself, as a bit much.
From 2013-2014, Butler totaled $41,507.84 in travel expenses as opposed to the $16,062.94 accrued under immediate past president Lee for the entirety of his two-year term. In addition to going to the NABJ convention, Butler said he also attended events held by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association and the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists. NABJ also sent Butler to the Online News Association, the Radio and Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists annual meetings. He used these trips as a means to talk with sponsors, he said.
Due to NABJ’s succession of executive directors – Matthews is the fifth in almost as many years – and rumblings of financial mismanagement on a now defunct website called NABJ Board Watch, Butler said sponsors are worried and want to meet with him personally.
The two most notable sponsors requesting these meetings were The Walt Disney Company, owners of ABC and ESPN and Gannett, according to Matthews.
“A lot of my travel has been done for fundraising,” Butler said, “You want to visit companies and ask them for money before they make their budgets. Plus, we had a lot of corporate partners that wanted to see us. They wanted a physical face-to-face meeting. You have to do that to raise money.”
But has it been successful? Has spending $41,000 of the organization’s money in the name of fundraising yielded new sponsors or kept the old ones?
It depends, Butler said.
“We have managed to keep a lot of our old sponsors,” he said. “And we have a lot of commitments for new sponsors. We’re just waiting for them to honor those commitments.”
When asked for more detail on the sponsors and financial commitments, Matthews declined to give that information, citing confidentiality concerns.
Where We Go From Here
This year’s NABJ convention, at least for board members, will begin on Tuesday, Aug. 4.
With the rooms in NABJ’s block at the Hilton Minneapolis going at roughly $200 a night ($189 a night plus tax), flights ranging in price from $298 to $1,000 round trip (from Philadelphia), convention registrations ranging from $325 to $380, and an average food and recreation budget of at least $150 apiece, NABJ’s rank-and-file members are closely eyeing Butler’s $40,000 travel bill at the same time they scrimp and save to cover their own costs.
For NABJ’s executive leadership, the free ride may soon be over.