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Monday, July 26, 2010

The Friends of Lulu Post

I had been advised several times to be discrete about what has been going on at Friends of Lulu, as to protect their image. The thought was: if we admit that Lulu was in trouble, it would just demonstrate that women are incapable of running an organization. It would hurt the cause of Women in Comics.

While whether being silent on these issues truly helps FoL is debatable, it has become very clear that it has not helped me in the least. It has only really set me up as the focal point for speculation, and perhaps even blame. It has also isolated me (and in turn, Lulu) from potential assistance, and brought a tremendous burden squarely down on my shoulders alone. This has to end today.

So I am going to set the record straight. Everything I write here can be backed up by documentation.

My first year at Lulu was a time of unprecedented outreach and growth for the organization. FoL was still recovering from public censure over a number of issues. Their infrastructure was also in dire need of an update. And so though the new board of directors had many dreams and plans for Lulu, we were realistic enough to know that 2008 was going to be about a lot of behind-the-scenes "heavy lifting."

Here are some examples of the the work we did that first year:

Our new Membership Secretary spent countless volunteer hours updating our member database. This was huge for us, because it was very outdated and we had previously received a lot of returned mail with the wrong address.

It had been so long since the official FoL website had been updated, nobody -- not even the web service provider -- knew how to get into the system and edit it. The situation became dire because we had outdated information on many women in our directory that was turning up in search engines. Out of desperation, I blocked out a couple of weekends to build a new website from scratch.

Doing outreach for new members and donors throughout the comics community, I was shocked at how many people had a negative opinion of Lulu. Some still held grudges against the organization from more than ten years previous. Person-by-person, I worked to address their issues and cast the organization in a more favorable light. At times this involved me making elaborate apologies on behalf of Lulu for things that happened way before I was connected to the organization. The result: record donation and memberships, and opening lines of communication that were previously considered irrevocably closed.

Since I lived in New York City, I worked closely with the NY Friends of Lulu chapter to help revitalize that part of the organization and come up with new strategies to increase membership.

We restarted the Friends of Lulu mentorship program, and completed a mentorship with a talented young woman who wanted to become a manga artist.

We had a year of many successful convention appearances, culminating with a dazzling Lulu Awards at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. The Lulu Awards had standing-room-only attendance. I had personally brought in a record amount of sponsorships for that awards ceremony, including one from DC Comics.

In an effort to save money, bring Lulu into the Digital Age, and increase outreach, I created an e-newsletter to replace our paper ones. This newsletter was designed to be sent out to members old and new on a bi-monthly, rather than quarterly, basis -- and specifically give them a platform to promote their work. There was some resistance to the e-newsletter from Lulu "veterans," who claimed that we were only doing it because we were too "lazy and/or incompetent" to continue the paper newsletters. In this and other initiatives to update Friends of Lulu, I often felt as if I was fighting a constant uphill battle against portions of the organization/membership who did not want change.

Finally, foundations were being built during 2008 to bring about wonderful things for the future. Among the possibilities being discussed:
  • A partnership with Zuda.com to have an online showcase of new female talent
  • A Friends of Lulu magazine
  • A new anthology book, perhaps sponsored/published by a major comics company
  • Revitalization of the "Junior Lulu" program
  • New Friends of Lulu merchandise
  • An even bigger convention presence
  • New chapters in other parts of the United States
It was an exciting time. Personally, I felt as if perhaps my previous heartbreaks related to the industry might have been worth it because it brought me to Friends of Lulu.

But during the transition of the Board of Directors in Spring of 2009, it was brought to my attention that there might have been a number of filing issues in terms of status and taxes that had either not been done, or done incorrectly, for years. The moment I found this out, I made the somewhat controversial decision to halt all acceptance of donations and memberships until it was straightened out. It might have all turned out to have been a false alarm -- but I didn't want to take that chance.

Further consultation with an accountant revealed even more potential filing issues. We were going to have to hire an accountant and bring our records in to take a closer look.

Unfortunately, an emergency situation with a board member halted all those efforts. During this situation, the boxes with all our financial records were either misplaced, thrown out, or were otherwise lost. We made a number of efforts, both by ourselves and through others, to get the records back, but by late 2009 it was clear that they were most likely gone. If these records are indeed never recovered, the person who was in charge of them will be held responsible.

By the Summer of 2009, another board member went on an extended vacation and would not be able to attend meetings for several months. With two members down, it was difficult to get a lot done, and the Board unofficially dissolved. I was left alone to handle these unresolved issues.

It was suggested to me during that time that I should still do the Lulu Awards, in order to maintain continuity. Unable to get anyone to help me, I had to eventually hire an assistant. The decision to make the awards "virtual" was mine, made out of necessity and a lack of free time.

Since then, I have had to handle everything myself as best as I knew how. I have spent countless hours going through what records I could find, trying to piece the last several years of our financial existence together. I have consulted a lawyer as to what can be done, and the amount of work that is going to take is going to be huge -- and without the boxes of records, pretty damn difficult.

The effect on myself of such misfortune to strike the organization after such a great year cannot be underestimated. This all happened roughly during the same time-frame in which my stepfather died, my mini-series was put on indefinite hiatus, and a client defaulted on payment. I was devastated and depressed. The advice I was given in regards to the Lulu situation (which had begun to take up ever-greater chunks of my time)? Don't say anything public. Do the best you can. You're doing great.

I now want to take this opportunity to itemize what money Friends of Lulu still has at the moment, what expenditures we made since freezing memberships/donations early last year, and what FOL materials I am currently in possession of.
  • We have roughly $1,800 in a bank account and a PayPal account.
  • Since Spring of 09 the Friends of Lulu accounts have been used for one organizational meeting for the Lulu Awards, the purchasing of the actual awards, and the shipment of said awards.
  • We have mailed out several packages to members as requested.
  • I also hired an assistant to help me with the Lulu Awards out of necessity, though she has yet to invoice for the work.
All of the above can be documented by records & receipts.

In my possession are:
  • Two sketchbooks filled with donated artwork.
  • Two boxes of "Girl's Guide To Guy's Stuff" books.
  • One scrapbook containing all the historical milestones and original art since the founding of the organization.
  • One binder filled with every FOL newsletter printed.
  • One box filled with Lulu documentation since the founding (non-financial).
  • Various membership materials and supplies.
  • Several pieces of donated art from artists like Gene Ha, Dustin Nguyen, and Donna Barr.
I have asked many people connected to Lulu for specific help in dealing with the issues as laid out earlier in this post. While I have gotten some good advice and insight, I have been pretty much left to deal with the nitty-gritty of this stuff -- including issues that were present before I became president -- by myself. So I will do what I can, in the time available to me.

After I resolve (IF I am indeed able to resolve) all these FoL issues, I have two choices:
  1. Donate the remaining money (if any) to a charity and officially dissolve FoL.
  2. Put FoL in the hands of a next generation.
The problem becomes this: running a non-profit is a tremendous responsibility. It requires a lot of time. It is not a hobby. Collecting money from people is serious business. I mean, I could lie and tell prospective new board members that it's all a piece of cake, that it's easy, that it's something you can do every now and then when you have some spare time. But it's not. It's a job. It's an unpaid volunteer job that needs a portion of your time every week in order to run smoothly.

Only persons with the requisite time, skills, and sense of responsibility can take on this work. I had already scouted for a potential new board of directors, but nobody wanted to take it on. If anybody feels they can take on the rigors of running a true non-profit, please contact me.

If by September 2010 nobody steps forward and shows interest in helping run this organization, I will start taking steps to officially dissolve it as a non-profit. Then I will donate the leftover money (if any) between the other major comics charities, return the donated artwork, and ship the historical records and sketchbooks to a University or MoCCA.

Before I would take steps to dissolve FoL (if it comes to that), I will personally contact a number of concerned parties via a mass email asking for volunteers to keep the organization going.

Other options for Lulu are configurations outside of non-profit status, that are easier to manage or more directly address the needs of women in comics today. Personally, I think women in comics could really benefit from a professional organization that stresses networking, education, and how to break into the industry. Such a professional organization would require a different status filing than a non-profit, but I think would be more concretely helpful.

Is Friends of Lulu an organization whose time has come and gone? Is it time for a change? Has their mission been accomplished? Some people love the organization -- or at least, the idea of it. And some have expressed inexplicable hostility towards even the thought of a women's organization in comics. In terms of the latter, some of the most hostile persons towards Lulu have been women themselves.

I personally feel that things for women in comics are as good as it is going to get in the mainstream comics world. I still feel that there are things that are unfair, and that as a woman I am at a disadvantage. Especially as a female writer who wants to write "male" comics (and has received threats because of it). But I don't know how much a non-profit group is going to do to change that. I ultimately believe that market forces are going to change that. Digital comics are going to change that. Naturally changing demographics are going to change that. Corporate restructurings are going to change that.

But I do think there is a place for honoring the women that have come before us, and educating the future. Whether that is a non-profit, or a group, or a collection in a University, or an online collective -- I hope that something is created.

I would be remiss if I didn't thank the two people who dutifully stuck by Lulu the longest: Charlie Boatner and Marc Wilkofsky. These two people, longer than any others, continued to check in, forward mail, follow up, and offer what help they could give.

Also, my thanks to Danna for all her hard work and care with the Lulu Awards.

I wish I had the unlimited time and energy to make Friends of Lulu a full-time job. But between work and other responsibilities, it has become too hard to do by myself. I did the best I could with what I had -- and I'm going to do the best I can with what resources & time are available to me.

Maybe it's time for a new start.

But if it is true that "Lulu Is For Everybody," then the burden of responsibility lies not just with me.