Article About Nonprofit Trademarks

I came across this article today and had to share. Not long ago I posted an article on things exempt orgs should do to protect its intellectual property (here). Then, in a fit of serendipity I came across this article outlining ways exempt orgs can protect one particular type of intellectual property; trademarks.

I wanted to highlight this article in particular because it raises a point that will  become more and more important for orgs to think about and navigate. As people, me included, continue to preach about the need for exempt orgs to operate as a “business” how will they balance this with the need to operate with the level of transparency expected of an exempt organization?

This article uses the Red Cross as an example, and its desire to protect information from a public disclosure request  regarding how specific funds were used. The Red Cross asserted an exemption from the request believing its compliance would require disclosure of proprietary information like how it calculates disbursements, business strategy, internal operations, etc.

As counsel for a company, the explanation Red Cross gave is something I completely sympathize with. Oftentimes, profit margins, innovation and impact depend on the ability to have a leg up on the others, the veritable “Colonel”s Recipe.”

But, when I initially read Red Cross” response the philanthropist side of me twinged…twitched really. In some form or another, stating that, “the disclosure of this information would cause economic harm because its competitors would be able to replicate its “business model” to their competitive advantage,” just didn”t sit well with me. Competitors? Where?! Who?!

Do we really want to get into the business of identifying other exempt organizations as “competitors?” Is it possible for organizations to state in mission statements that it works to cure this or end that if its operating in a way that is “competitive” so to speak? Especially when so many take the word “work” to mean doing so collaboratively?

In the case of Red Cross, its vision statement says that, “The American Red Cross, through its strong network of volunteers, donors and partners, is always there in times of need.” Is this to be read that the Red Cross works with a network of partners provided said  partners don”t do what it does; in which case best of luck to ya?

No intention to pick on the Red Cross. Perhaps it”s just a language thing. Maybe there were a few adjectives and nouns that could have been thrown in there to make this sound slightly alot less astringent. Or maybe this is a genuine disconnect between the law and the nonprofit space. But with all the hub-bub about organizations fighting disclosures, and the rise of the watch-dog group, the result here could definitely be a concern for those fighting for more transparency.


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