Alex Beam

Nonprofits, we hardly knew ya

The removal of thousands from IRS tax exempt status means we may never get to visit the Cat and Dog Museum

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / June 21, 2011

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Earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service announced that 275,000 nonprofit corporations, clubs, and charities had lost their tax-exempt status. Poof! Just like that, 6,500 of them in Massachusetts.

Most of the organizations simply no longer existed. I can’t imagine that the Harvard Class of 1904 club had been meeting much lately. Other groups had failed to meet IRS filing requirements. If they redo their paperwork, they might win their tax exemption back.

I pored through the massive spreadsheet, and it is one long list of woe, near-woe, with an occasional knowing smile thrown in. (Did the Memory Disorders Research Society forget to file?) Dozens of underfunded youth sports leagues, well-intentioned foundations created in the wake of the loss of a loved one, radio clubs, and oddball fraternal organizations have bitten the dust.

Of course, with death comes resurrection. There are still over 20,000 nonprofits in the Bay State, with about 1,000 new ones springing up each year. It’s like E.O. Wilson’s famous description of microbiotic death and genesis on the rain forest floor in “Biophilia’’: “Within my circle of vision, millions of unseen organisms died each second.’’ Their remains in turn helped “to create millions of new organisms, each second.’’

Some losses have no recompense. Godspeed the St. Francis of Assisi Old Girls, the French Bulldog Connection Rescue, and the New England Council of Latin. With the passing of the Brockton-based Tri-County Beagle Association, does that mean that beagling — the traditional chasing of the hare — is dead in the Commonwealth? I hope not.

I feel confident that even though the Boston-based Friends of Beethoven has played its last measure, Ludwig van still has plenty of Hub fans. I am equally sure that there are still many Concerned Parents of Westfield, People Who Care of Lynn, and Lexington Friends of Children, even if their 501(c)(3)s have closed their doors.

What happened to the Cat and Dog Museum of Winthrop? “It was a dream of mine, I still hope to make it happen some day,’’ Beverly Alba told me. “I didn’t keep up with the filings.’’ A retired teacher and veterinary technician, Alba had access to a trove of paintings and other art works depicting dogs and cats. Her idea was and is unique. “There is a cat museum in the Netherlands and one in Japan,’’ she said. “And there is a dog museum in St. Louis. My goal was to get a location, but there were a lot of costs involved.’’

Can Citizens for a Better New England really be out of business? Yes indeed, although there is a trick of nomenclature involved. Back Bay preservation activists launched CBNE to fight the planned developments of the New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., a.k.a. The New England, on Boylston Street between the Public Garden and Copley Square. Alas, both pedigreed eyesores got built anyway — Philip Johnson’s hideous 500 Boylston and Robert A.M. Stern’s garish ziggurat of zilchitude, 222 Berkeley Street, across from Trinity Church.

Bettina Norton, now executive editor of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, says that CBNE achieved a modest success, pressuring the buildings’ developers to set their buildings back from the street, and to lop off a few floors. “It was a shame for Trinity, because that spire is meant to be seen against an open sky,’’ Norton said. “Now the buildings kill the sun during the early morning service.’’

Fraternal organizations seem to be closing down like crazy. The Improved Order of Red Men (“America’s Oldest Fraternal Organization’’) lost many chapters, as did the masonically allied International Order of the Rainbow for Girls, the nonsectarian Knights of Pythias (“dedicated to the cause of universal peace’’), the Knights of Columbus, and others.

Speaking with Grand Secretary Karen Grabau of the Order of the Eastern Star, I learned that there were 63,000 OES members in Massachusetts in the 1930s. That number has dwindled to about 7,000. Still, Eastern Star, whose members are Masons, their wives, and sometimes their widows, still claims to be the largest mixed-gender fraternal organization in the world.

Using the IRS numbers, I noted that 13 OES groups sank beneath the horizon in the June 8 nonprofit purge. Grabau thinks the actual count is closer to eight. “There has been confusion over the assigning of file numbers,’’ she said. “I’ve had a lot of trouble with the IRS.’’

Haven’t we all, my friend. Haven’t we all.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is