If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Major changes are in the works for ASJA during the coming months, but there’s a good chance you won’t notice them.

Confused about so-called “major changes” that won’t attract any attention? It’s a fair question. The answer depends on the dual structure of ASJA’s organizations and a disconnect between what our members think we do and the way we actually conduct business. For many of our members, maybe for most of them, “ASJA” is a single entity responsible for all that we do. Members pay their dues to ASJA, they donate to ASJA, they attend conferences organized by ASJA, they volunteer for ASJA, and they read ASJA publications in print and online. Compliments and complaints are directed to ASJA.

In reality, though, “ASJA” is made up of two related, but distinct, organizations with different responsibilities, obligations, and leadership. In the next few months, the two organizations will become one. Combining the two will be a major change in structure and governance but members’ interactions with the resulting organization shouldn’t change. They might even be better.

The plan is complicated, and it was tempting to leave well enough alone. The decision to proceed was not made on a whim. With the assistance of outside counsel, the officers and directors discussed the pros and cons for what often seemed like forever before deciding to move forward.

Still confused? A bit of history and some explanation might help.

More than 70 years ago, a small group of freelance writers, most of them from New York City and its environs, formed “The Society of Magazine Writers.” The principal purposes of the new organization would be “to collate and exchange information important to the writer, raise the general level of non-fiction magazine writing, and improve conditions for the independent writer.” The Society was incorporated under New York’s Not-for-Profit Corporation Law in January 1963. Two decades later, as The Society grew beyond the confines of the Big Apple, the name was changed to something more familiar, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Inc.

ASJA, Inc., remains a tax-exempt membership-based organization pursuant to Section 501(c)(6) of Internal Revenue Service regulations. The designation means that ASJA, Inc., files informational tax returns with the IRS but pays no taxes. Donations to ASJA, Inc., currently are not deductible as charitable donations for the donor but may qualify as business deductions.

The next significant change for ASJA came in 1967, when officers of The Society of Magazine Writers establish a charitable trust. The new organization, characterized as a 501(c)(3) public charity by the IRS, can accept donations that are tax-deductible for the donor. Subsequent amendments changed the name of the charity to the American Society of Journalists and Authors Charitable Trust and placed the Llewellyn Miller Fund (the forerunner of WEAF, the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund), the Educational Foundation, and the Awards Fund under the Charitable Trust umbrella.

From the late 1960s until today, ASJA, Inc., and the Charitable Trust moved along on related, but often significantly different, tracks. The former functioned as the membership, publications, and advocacy side of ASJA; the latter served as our charitable arm. This division of responsibilities worked well at inception and still does, but over the years the boundary between the two organizations became blurred. The annual conference in New York, for example, falls under the purview of the Charitable Trust’s Educational Foundation but the membership side—ASJA, Inc.—also is involved with the conference in many ways: sorting out and collecting different registration fees for members and non-members and volunteer recruiting from the membership, as examples.

Also important is the often-duplicative workload on staff that results from maintaining two separate organizations that do many of the same things. When money is donated to the Charitable Trust to be used for a specific purpose, such as a donation to WEAF or to establish a recurring award, those funds cannot be used for any other purpose. These “restricted funds” are maintained in Charitable Trust accounts.

Non-restricted funds, which can be used for any legitimate purpose, show up in the accounts of both ASJA, Inc., and the Charitable Trust, with separate accounts maintained for each organization. Two sets of books, necessary because there are two organizations, require separate accounting and the production of two monthly financial reports. Dealing with two budgets makes long-term financial planning complicated, and sorting out the overall financial health of ASJA can be tricky. The two organizations also have separate governance—elected officers and directors for ASJA, Inc. and three trustees for the Charitable Trust.

Bringing the two organizations together as one will eliminate redundancies in accounting, management, required audits, reporting, governance, and other functions, while simplifying governance. There will be savings in fixed expenses and in staff time, and our overall efficiency should improve all good outcomes. We’ll post regular updates as things move along. If you have questions, let us know.

Why fix something that’s already working? To make it work better.

Interested in becoming a member of ASJA? Get the scoop here.