USPS Inspectors Investigate Nonprofit Co-op Mailings

U.S. Postal Service inspectors are taking an interest in cooperative mailings for continuing-education programs sponsored by colleges and universities, said nonprofit representatives who attended the recent National Postal Forum.

According to Neal Denton, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, Washington, DC, the inspectors are focusing on the contractual arrangements between university seminar and continuing education programs and the instructors for those programs.

A cooperative mailing is defined as a mailing that is produced by an authorized organization that cooperates with another to share the mailing's cost, risk or benefit. If it is produced with a for-profit entity, it can't be mailed at nonprofit rates.

In the case of universities and the instructors, whom inspectors classify as for-profit entities, inspectors will deem a mailing to be cooperative if both parties stand to gain or lose from the mail piece. If so, the piece must be mailed at a commercial rate. The penalty calls for organizations to pay the difference between the two rates. The majority of calls Denton has received have been from universities.

“Some people may have to pay penalties for all of the mailings that went out over the past two years,” he said. “If they deem these contracts to be cooperative mailings, then these universities and colleges are going to have to rethink the way they do their continuing education mailings and their contracts,” he said, “and they are going to have to do it quick.”

Continuing education programs are offered by universities to high school and college students as well as professionals who are looking to earn credits to either graduate, graduate early or renew a license in a particular field.

Thomas Roylance, manager of Bringham Young University's mailing services and immediate past president of the National Association of Colleges and Universities Mailing Services, said he knows of some organizations that abuse the rates, and he applauds the postal service for trying to eliminate them. But, he said, this may be one of those situations in which the law is doing more than they intended.

“I think they should be more specific when writing something like this,” he said.

According to Roylance, who learned of the USPS' interest in the issue at the postal forum, an instructor has the right to be paid if he is conducting work that falls within his mission statement. Another factor is that it's the institutions — not the instructors — that prepare the mailings.

“I agree that if a sports coach comes to a college and holds a summer camp and does something other than coaching a team, that should fall under violation of the rule,” Roylance said. “But by teaching another class, it's like teaching two classes or three. There is profit there, but if you work harder and longer you should be compensated for that. In our case, everything regarding the continuing education program — from the mailings to the promotion of it — is handled by the university. There the risk is falling solely on the university.”

Linda Augustine, manager of the Arizona State University mailing services and current president of the mailing services association, has heard from several schools regarding the issue. At least one was in violation, and she advises schools to work with the postal service to ensure mailings are within the guidelines.

Roylance said he is taking steps to avoid any confrontations with the USPS.

“We're doing some preventative maintenance,” he said. “I am going to take a look at our mailings and review the procedure by which we pay our faculty and make sure everything is in order. We want to be sure that we are not breaking the law.”

With rate increases coming in January, Roylance said more increases wouldn't be fair.

“This would sort of be like saying, 'Lets put some salt in the wound,' ” he said.

The USPS' inspectors office did not return a call for comment.

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