Update: There was another interesting blogpost published after our blogpost. It was published at Wheat and Tares by Andrew S and is titled Transparency & Due Diligence: Open Stories Foundation Finances. Give it a read.
Sam Brunson at By Common Consent recently published a blogpost in which he asks “Does Open Stories Foundation Qualify as Tax-Exampt?” He concludes:
Mostly, people don’t use tax-exempt organizations to cheat the system. They’re subject to tight regulation and broad financial disclosure requirements. But unless you’re familiar with the area, there are tons (and tons and tons) of potential traps. Maybe OSF successfully navigated them. But, on my surface-level review, I’m skeptical.
In the middle of his blogpost, Brunson quotes Dehlin from a blogpost that appeared on MormonStories.org in January 2011 (emphasis mine):
Back in the summer of 2010 I made a deal w/ the listeners. If enough of you would sign up for monthly financial donations to Mormon Stories , I would promise to release a quality episode each week. The way that I was able to make this happen as a super busy Clinical Psychology Ph.D. student was to turn down other paid assistantships and do Mormon Stories as my part time job while in school. While the money in no way covers my family’s annual expenses, it does help us pay for things like health insurance, groceries, etc.
Dehlin said he would release an episode each week if he received a certain level of financial donations. So, has he released an episode each week? That depends on what an “episode” is.
What Counts as an Episode?
The first thing we need to consider is what counts as an episode. I see three obvious things that could be considered an episode:
- Any audio file that is released. This may consist of a single interview or other event that was recorded. Many interviews are released in multiple parts. In this defintion, each part of an interview would be considered an episode. I will refer to these as “parts”.
- Any episode or episodes that were released on the same published blogpost on the MormonStories.org website. Sometimes John Dehlin would release multi-part episodes on the same blogpost (this would be considered one episode). Sometimes he released some subset of parts of the interview on individual blogposts (which would be considered an individual episode even though it was part of the same interview). I will refer to these as “blogposts”.
- Finally, the last characterization of an episode would be any natural collection of interview parts whether John released them all on one blogpost or released parts on individual blogposts. One example would be the Interfaith Amigos episodes: four audio files were released on four separate blogposts, but these could be grouped together and considered on episode under this third defintion. I will refer to these as “groups”.
The table below shows the number of parts, blogs, and groups (as defined above) for the years of 2010 through 2013. I restrict this analysis to those years because those are the years for which 990 forms are available.
Day of the Week
The first thing I was interested in was the weekly distribution of episode releases.
Wednesday was the most popular day for both blogposts (as defined above) and parts to be released. Saturday was by far the least popular day for both of these things to be released.
The following two figures show the weekly distribution for episode blogposts (red) and episode parts (blue). The first figure is of the raw data and the second is of the percentage of total blogposts and parts, respectively.
red: parts, blue: blogposts
red: parts, blue: blogposts
Episodes Released by Year
Here I plot the parts (blue), blogposts (red), and groups (orange) released per year. It is clear that the number of parts has decreased monotonically from 2010 to 2013. While not monotonic, the trend for both blogposts and groups is also decreasing.
I believe the best measure of content produced is the number of parts released. The majority of Mormon Stories parts are roughly one hour in length and using the number of parts released gives a rough estimate of the number of hours of content produced (and available to listeners).
It can be argued, however, that the number of groups is also an important measure of content produced because this measure accounts more for the behind-the-scenes time in addition to the hours of podcast content released. For example, one 1-hour interview requires much more behind-the-scenes work per hour of content released than one 5-hour interview does. Notably, both the number of parts and groups have decreased from 2010 to 2013.
Blue: parts, Red: blogposts, Orange: groups
Content Produced vs. Dehlin’s Compensation
In his piece, Brunson says:
The case law points to the following criteria, among other things, in deciding whether compensation constitutes private inurement:
1. Benefits to an insider at the charity can constitute private inurement.[fn3]
2. Constant, significant increase in compensation, irrespective of entity revenue or amount of work performed.[fn4]
3. Significant control over the tax-exempt entity (including a significant say in setting one’s own compensation).[fn5]
4. The compensation is in line with compensation at comparable charities. (Note that it is the charity’s responsibility to provide comparability reports; even if it had a disinterested board approve the compensation, without those objective reports, it is hard to prove that compensation is reasonable.)[fn6]
For this blogpost, I am particularly interested in Brunson’s point #2: How has Dehlin’s compensation changed (has it changed?) compared to the amount of content he has produced?
First, I present the following table which contains the annual “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received” as reported on the Open Stories Foundation 990 forms and the compensation received by John Dehlin as reported on the same form.
Above I mentioned that I believe the best measure of content produced, with regards to the Mormon Stories podcast, is the number of parts released. Below is a figure that shows the percentage of total parts released per year (blue, total considering all parts released between 2010 and 2013) and the ratio of Dehlin’s compensation to contributions received listed as a percentage (blue).
percentage of total parts released per year (blue, total considering all parts released between 2010 and 2013) and the ratio of Dehlin’s compensation to contributions received listed as a percentage (blue)
Dehlin’s compensation as a percentage of contributions received decreased from 2010 to 2012, but increased nearly 150% from 2012 to 2013 while the total contributions received decreased 33% during the same period. This jump in compensation to contributions occurred as content produced (measured by parts released) continued to decrease to its lowest point during the four year period.
Another way to see this jump is by look at the ratio of “compensation as a percentage of contributions” to “parts released as a percentage of the total number of parts released from 2010 to 2013″. If we plot those ratios we get the following figure.
Ratio of “compensation as % of contributions” to “% of parts released”
Note that using the measures of number of blogspots or groups (rather than parts) does not qualitatively change the results. Clearly, this ratio experiences a massive jump due to both the increase in compensation that Dehlin received in 2013 and the decrease in content produced such that the ratio in 2013 is nearly 3 times that of the previous 3 years.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but certainly each of these three measures chosen don’t fully capture “work done”. The Open Stories Foundation has other goals and endeavors than just the production of the Mormon Stories podcast, but that is the primary interaction I’ve had with the Foundation which I imagine is also true for most people.
I hope this provides some insight into Brunson’s point #2.
A couple other things stand out to me from the 990 forms (2010 – 2013):
- Each and every year between 2010 and 2013 it is listed that John Dehlin averaged 50 hours per week of work on the Open Stories Foundation (even as content produced decreased and his compensation increased)
- John Dehlin was the only director, officer, etc. that received compensation from 2010 – 2012. In 2013, John Dehlin and Dan Wotherspoon both received compensation.
- The total director, officer, etc. compensation as a percentage of total contributions received for each year were: 46.83% (2010), 37.65% (2011), 27.87% (2012), and 84.68% (2013). Nearly 85% of the contributions received in 2013 went to personal compensation! (see figure below)
- The amount of contributions that didn’t go to personal contributions each year was: $31,141 (2010), $66,243 (2011), $145,466 (2012), and $20, 543 (2013). To show (emphasize) this graphically, see the figure below.
The total director, officer, etc. compensation as a percentage of total contributions received for each year were: 46.83% (2010), 37.65% (2011), 27.87% (2012), and 84.68% (2013).
The amout of contributions that didn’t go to personal contributions each year was: $31,141 (2010), $66,243 (2011), $145,466 (2012), and $20, 543 (2013).
The amout of contributions (%) that didn’t go to personal contributions each year was: 53.17% (2010), 62.35% (2011), 72.13% (2012), and 15.32% (2013).
Note: Similar disclaimers as Sam Brunson apply here. Additionally, I am not an expert in law or accounting relating to tax exempt organization. This was purely a mathematical exercise to elucidate ideas related to Brunson’s point #2 above: “Constant, significant increase in compensation, irrespective of entity revenue or amount of work performed”.