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Form 990 is available for public inspection and, for some people, serves as the primary or sole source of information about a particular organization. How the public perceives an organization in such cases may be determined by the information presented on its return. - Message printed on 990 tax returns used by nonprofits

Funny, when the Direct Marketing Association wants coverage of its comments at postal hearings and FTC forums, reporters at DM News get calls and e-mails galore. But when we call the DMA seeking answers to something of a different nature, we're faced with two words - "no comment." Case in point: As we have done for three years now, DM News requested and received the DMA's latest 990 tax return from the IRS. Because the DMA files its taxes as a 401(c)(6) nonprofit organization, those returns are available for public consumption.

In comparing this year's return to previous ones, however, several questions arise that only the DMA can answer. The questions probably aren't difficult to answer. Among them: Why did the tax return say the DMA lost $1.49 million for fiscal year 2003, but its annual report indicated that the DMA's net assets increased nearly $1.1 million? Also, why did the DMA's pension plan nearly quadruple, from $880,000 to $3.39 million last year, and why did its postage and shipping expenses triple, from $522,273 to $1.78 million?

When I asked a DMA official why they would offer no answers to these questions, among the reasons was that because the returns are public information, people who were interested could request the returns themselves. OK, but they'll walk away with the same question: Was the DMA in the red or black last year? I also was asked why we write about the DMA's tax returns. For that answer, see the words preceding this column. The DMA's decision to have no comment for this story, just as it did a year ago, is not the route it should take. We're not talking about Enron and Tyco here.

At conferences over the years, we've heard the same thing from members: They don't know what the DMA is doing. We're just a few months from hearing who will replace H. Robert Wientzen at the DMA. I, for one, am hoping his successor will be more forthcoming. I don't think the DMA is trying to hide anything, but what it has in its annual report and what its tax return indicates paint two different pictures.

To me, silence is a far worse answer.


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