Category Archives: research

GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource | An Update

Back in 2013, I was invited by GuideStar to produce two case studies about my experiences with the platform. They were produced in an interview format and attached to the GuideStar website. But since then, GuideStar and The Foundation Center merged to become Candid. Many helpful changes have been made to the website that have made Candid even stronger and more helpful today. But my case studies were lost in the transition.

I wanted to share those experiences along with more recent observations in a new blog post. I find most nonprofits barely skim the surface of GuideStar. While they may rightly focus on polishing their nonprofit profiles to secure official seals for transparency, they often abandon GuideStar after doing so, until a profile update is due. Smart nonprofit staff will learn to use GuideStar in greater depth, however. It is an indispensable research tool one should consult routinely.

My first experience with GuideStar was after many years of hands-on major gift fundraising experience, in the mid-2000s. I did not know much about it until then, oddly enough, as I had been distracted with multiple fundraising projects. In fact, I had just helped raise $5 million for a new facility, and our lead volunteers decided to polish the organization’s Board of Trustees as the organization moved forward into an exciting new era of community service.

The Board had become large and unwieldy. Some felt a lean and more engaged Board of Trustees made sense. Recent fundraising successes revealed those genuinely committed to the mission, and that was a relatively small group of civic leaders. To prepare, they asked me to reach out to similarly-sized nonprofit organizations in other cities, and to ask about the size of their Boards and what those groups found to be successful in terms of size and composition. I began my work.

But what I soon discovered was staff members of other nonprofits were reluctant to reveal the size and composition of their governing bodies, even in the most general sense. They felt the information was confidential. But the truth is, if you file a tax return as an approved nonprofit organization, your Board is public information. From Don Kramer’s Nonprofit Issues:

Can our 501(c)(3) organization keep the list of board members confidential and refuse to make it available to the public?

Not if you are required to file a federal Form 990, 990EZ or 990-PF tax information return. Each of those forms requires a list of officers, directors and key employees. State charitable solicitation registration forms are also likely to require the list.

If you are a very small organization or a church or other religious organization that is not required to make such a filing, you may have no legal obligation to disclose such information to the general public. But the failure to do so undercuts the credibility of the organization and is inconsistent with the increasing desire – and legislative demand – for transparency in the charitable sector.

The task was daunting. Few of my nonprofit colleagues wanted to bother with my pesky inquiries. I was frustrated. One fellow was so rude that I got angry, and I got online. And then I discovered GuideStar and tax returns galore. I was elated! I uncovered all the information I needed and more. I was able to produce a comprehensive survey and report to the Board of Trustees.

My second experience was meeting with a prospective donor, a well-respected attorney who also managed his family’s private foundation. I was implementing a major gift campaign, and had gotten halfway through the multi-million dollar effort. In this instance, I knew I needed to be well into the campaign, and to look solid and poised for success before attempting a grant request. And in fact, that was true by the time of our meeting.

I arrived with our executive director. We shared our story and why we were there to meet. The attorney then said he wanted to ask a few questions. And every one of those questions focused on our tax returns. Before we arrived, he had been doing his research on our financials as they appeared on GuideStar. But we hadn’t given them a thought. I was completely surprised. I did manage to defer the answers to his questions, as a form of follow-up to our meeting afterward (and we were able to secure the grant we sought, thank heaven). But this experience taught me to become familiar with GuideStar and my own nonprofit’s profile prior to showing up at a solicitation meeting.

My sense is today, with the ever-increasing role of professional advisors helping philanthropists make wise giving decisions, fundraising staff must familiarize themselves with their own GuideStar profile. And if the accounting staff or others have not already claimed and fleshed-out your nonprofit’s GuideStar profile, then fundraising staff should do so. As GuideStar notes, with your profile, you can:

Showcase your programs and your impact

Send fresh information to 200+ charitable sites, including AmazonSmile, Facebook, and Network for Good

Add a Donate button directly to your profile to boost your funding

Use your profile as the perfect handout in funder meetings

Celebrate your diversity and share your staff & board’s demographics

And much more.

Further, “Villanova University and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee researchers compared nonprofits that earned a GuideStar Seal of Transparency to those that did not. Nonprofits that earned a Seal averaged 53% more in contributions the following year than organizations with no Seal. The research also found organizations that elect to be more transparent had stronger performance across a range of governance, financial, and operational dimensions.”

Today, I remain an avid GuideStar fan. Not only do I make profile preparation a priority for the nonprofits with which I work, I use GuideStar to review the tax returns of private foundations that are also “nonprofits.” In these ways, GuideStar is an essential tool for building credibility, facilitating research of all kinds, and ensuring more effective and appropriate grant proposal targeting.


You might also enjoy

High Tech Prospect Research Worth the Investment (June 2011 and continuously updated since then)

Research and Writing | Ideal Tasks While Working from Home (May 2020)

TechSoup Connect Presentation on YouTube, “DIY Prospect Research” (May 2021)

Research and Writing | Ideal Tasks While Working from Home

I have worked from my home office since 2014. Austin has been for many years a fast growing metropolis. Its heavy road traffic made commuting to and from my nonprofit project’s office back then a lengthy and stressful burden. And because that project focused on K-12 sustainability education, the concept of working from home was appreciated and readily adopted.

Read a Little Every Day!
This image was used in my PowerPoint for Qgiv on prospect research. See the YouTube recording below.

It was then that I began working collaboratively in the “cloud,” researching prospective partners and writing grant proposals, uploading them to the cloud for review by our Executive Director. Fine tuning continued until the time was right to hit, “submit.” Social media writing, posting and management was easily and better done from a quiet, distraction-free work space. One weekly meeting in person in our office was part of the regimen, but that is all.

Hence, with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and “stay-at-home” restrictions, nothing has changed for me. I have continued to work smoothly and efficiently from home where it is relatively “germ-free,” quiet, and my “desk” is located not far from the coffee pot and refrigerator. For me, this is the perfect work environment. Don’t tell: I get more work done, I work longer hours than required, and I am healthier and happier overall. 

The chagrin expressed by corporate and nonprofit leaders accustomed to working in traditional environments where office employees are housed in the same physical space falls on deaf ears here. I believe it is time to adapt and move to a remote working model for almost everyone, except of course those needing staff to greet and serve visitors in person, to conduct occasional group meetings, and to actually manufacture/produce specific items. But to get comfortable allowing more employees to work from home, society will have to let go of the basic human trait, “seeing is believing.” Our times require greater trust and faith to succeed in a remote working world.

Carolyn's Prospect Research Talks
See the links in this post to watch and learn more.

One of the ideal activities I conduct while working from home is research online and grant writing. In April and May 2020, I spoke online to two organizations about research specifically, and you might enjoy watching the recordings. The first was for Qgiv (below).

You may also have read my blog post from last March, “Habits of Mind in Challenging Times … And Remote Locations,” where I discuss my work in South Texas during the 2000s with the ranching community. In hindsight, much of what we accomplished seems quite glamorous. Certainly, the donors with whom I worked are still among the leading philanthropists of Texas. But the truth is, the majority of my work was done in a quiet office with few visitors, thinking, researching, organizing, writing and the like.

Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce is known as one of the finest automobile brands in the world. The high standards for which it is known remind me of those also expected of major gift fundraising professionals.

Major gift fundraising is often wrongly perceived by outsiders. Regardless of the quiet, methodical and hard work involved in successful major gift fundraising, people sometimes think of it as a field where one “hobnobs” with wealthy donors, attends luncheons and galas, and other superficial activities. This false impression can also give rise to jealousy. If they only knew how much “unglamorous” time is actually spent working tirelessly alone on a computer. I would say 95% of my job is actually done in this fashion.

If you are working from home now during COVID-19, this is an excellent time to fine-tune your research and writing skills. As I mentioned during my spring presentations, if you take the time to do this thoughtfully and well, it might turn your organization’s entire fundraising focus upside down, and in a very good and productive way.

I would also suggest that you take the time to learn new skills, including setting up and better managing your social media platforms. Our favorite platforms continue to evolve: learn how they may have changed (be sure to check, “the back end”). If you are already active on social media, now is also an excellent time to clean up (and clean out) old information. Request that your Facebook profile be formally verified by Facebook. Claim and update your GuideStar profile to the gold or platinum seal level. Ask volunteers, clients and board members for testimonials you can share online. Set up an online gift processing platform that provides a variety of options for making charitable donations. Make it easy to give!

Looking sharp online continues to be essential to inspiring trust and to engaging the interest of donors and potential donors in the good work of your nonprofit. And as always, make sure the messages you convey in those carefully-crafted grant proposals are mirrored on your website and on social media. In other words, this stay-at-home time is the perfect time to do some nonprofit “housecleaning.” Dare I say it: the nonprofit sector might actually become smarter and stronger if it deals successfully with the stay-at-home restrictions resulting from COVID-19.

Best wishes for your fundraising success!

Notes

For women working in the field of nonprofit development with family care giving responsibilities, I want to acknowledge working from home might be tougher for you. I fully support care giving incentives and entrepreneurial approaches as outlined by Melinda Gates in her article for The Washington Post, “How Rethinking Caregiving Could Play a Crucial Role in Restarting the Economy” (May 7, 2020). We can do this!

Having trouble trusting remote workers? Turns out, remote workers sometimes have trouble trusting their Executive Directors. You might enjoy reading Adam Hickman, Ph.D. and Tonya Fredstrom for Gallup, “How to Build Trust With Remote Employees” (February 7, 2018). “Gallup asked a random sample of more than 10,000 individuals, ‘What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?’ With that leader in mind, Gallup had the respondents list three words that best describe what the leader they named contributes to their life. The responses sorted into four categories: trust, compassion, stability and hope.”

Habits of Mind in Challenging Times … and Remote Locations

In 1999, I was recruited to South Texas by a headhunter. My task was to manage a multi-million dollar major gift campaign for three years. By myself.

While there are many affluent landowners and ranch visitors in South Texas, at the time there were relatively few people with major gift experience to work with them. Many of the office support available back then included well meaning but inexperienced staff when it comes to working with major gift donors.

Horses

I set up shop with the help of the local Walmart. A spacious rug, floor lamps and an artificial plant gave my office a quiet, comfortable and professional look. Culligan Water installed a hot-and-cold water dispenser. I brought homemade food to work for lunch and kept my office well stocked with coffee, tea and dry soup packets (and a candy jar for visitors). There were mostly fast food outlets in the area back then. However, I would like to put in a good word for the delicious potato-and-egg soft tacos with green salsa that I would sometimes pick up on my way in to the office at a local taco stand. Those were the best, and I still miss them.

With the Internet readily available, I was “good to go.” I came to call my office, “the air traffic control tower.” 

The institute for which I was working was mostly privately funded by a foundation, and minimally funded by the local university. I kept wondering – given the stellar board and advisory board members involved with this little institute – why outside consultants said it had no chance of raising major gifts. The institute had paid upwards of $80,000 for a feasibility study and case statement by a consulting firm, all of which were tossed out as being unhelpful. I had my job cut out for me.

On my own for three years, I literally lived on the Internet. I searched online and read from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every work day. My findings yielded not only major gifts for capital and endowment purposes, but also for research projects. I developed habits of mind that involved disciplined, factual research online. Many new donors were brought to the aid of the institute’s work, and many detailed grant proposals were formulated.

Cabin

I find outsiders to the field of nonprofit development mistakenly perceive people like me are focused on organizing luncheons and “schmoozing” with donors. But the fact is, organizing and managing meetings and events comprises perhaps 5% of my job. Most of my work involves thoughtful research, the development of inspiring case statements, writing and designing communications pieces, developing mailing and emailing lists, grant writing, stewardship and the like. This requires “quiet time” and a focused, detail-oriented mind. For those contemplating development as a career, this paragraph is one of the most important I have ever written for you.

The fine art of nonprofit development – honed in remote locations like South Texas – helped prepare me for other major gift projects involving little or no staffing, and for challenging “work at home” times like the COVID 19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. What I discovered is the Internet is an invaluable nonprofit development resource. I remain glued to it today. There is no such thing as being “bored” when you have the Internet at your fingertips.

Working mostly without additional staff support in prior positions means I have also experimented with technological solutions to accomplish more done with less. When told something is “impossible,” I always believe there is a solution. And I have always found one! I occasionally find traditional fundraisers who still shun technology and social media. But I have found them invaluable components of my major gift activities today.

Tech Clubs Can Help

For the past several years I have been one of the lead volunteers for NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin. My involvement with NTEN began ten years ago when two nonprofit organizations asked me to help identify constituent management software to manage their donor databases. I admit, I was stumped. But I contacted NTEN and was directed to a donor management system review co-sponsored with Idealware. I was so elated by this helpful resource that I became an NTEN fan and volunteer.

A few years later when I relocated to Austin, I agreed to volunteer for #NPTechClubATX. Being involved with the club means today, I have the privilege of meeting similar problem solvers focused on social good, and learning about their innovative solutions. I am hooked.

The mission of Nonprofit Tech Club Austin is to help nonprofits find cost-effective tech solutions and techniques to make their work easier, more secure and efficient. That means for the past several years, we have offered educational programs that involve digital solutions to daunting challenges like being unable to hire extra staff (but needing to get the work done anyway), raising donations easily and creatively online, better managing board meetings, volunteers, accounting functions and more. We are #ready.

Locally, we thank startup hub Capital Factory for its support in this regard. But Zoom and similar video conferencing services can also help. You can learn more about nonprofit discounts at TechSoup.

Here’s wishing you good health, a trustworthy laptop, and a strong Internet connection!

Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog includes many stories about doing more with less and technological solutions for the “remote” worker. If you have questions at any time, please let me know

Photographs illustrating this post are courtesy of Adobe Spark.

During Good Times, Don’t Forget to Prepare for Rainy Days

“A recession is a significant decline in economic activity that goes on for more than a few months. It is visible in industrial production, employment, real income and wholesale-retail trade. The technical indicator of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth as measured by a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), although the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) does not necessarily need to see this occur to call a recession.”

– Investopedia

This post on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog was written in fall 2018. Needless to say, in 2020 with the onset of COVID-19, stay-at-home restrictions and global uncertainly about the dramatic changes witnessed in all aspects of our lives, having a reserve fund has made sense. Now that it appears we are pulling out of the economic contraction, smart nonprofits will continue to add to their reserve funds while diversifying their fundraising techniques and conducting ever more in-depth research to identify more prospective donors. Not everyone is negatively impacted by a recession, so let cool heads and smart thinking prevail during challenging times.

See the links at the conclusion for more information.


The past few years, I have read articles and watched videos featuring leading financial experts discussing the possibility of a recession. White opinion remains divided, the thought that several predict rough waters ahead causes me to revisit the idea of nonprofit organizations establishing “rainy day,” or reserve funds.

From USLegal, “A reserve fund is a fund of money created to take care of maintenance, repairs or unexpected expenses of a business.” 

Having watched nonprofits suffer intensely during the last recession of a decade ago – an experience we all hope will never be repeated – my advice for nonprofits during every year-end fundraising season is to be prepared.

Take some of your charitable donations and sock them away into a savings account or other fund where you can get to them easily if and when needed. You might even consider a specific major gift campaign to establish a reserve fund. Regardless, having such a fund in place can help with myriad situations, from recession and lagging donations, to helping your nonprofit launch an entirely new project or fund a new staff position. #JustDoIt

Rainy day funds are important.

Noteworthy Media Coverage (Most Recent First)

National Council for Nonprofits, “Operating Reserves for Nonprofits” (timeless advice, helpful resources)

  • Independent Sector video discussion on YouTube about nonprofits and the economy (September 17, 2020) – be sure to check back on YouTube for updates over time in the series, “This Week in Washington.”

  • Daniela Cambone for TheStreet, “The ‘Greatest Depression’ Is Coming; This Is How to Prepare” (November 1, 2019). “Celente added that the Fed’s latest rate cut can be likened to ‘monetary methadone,’ where liquidity is pumped into a credit system that is already over-levered. ‘It’s just shooting in more money to keep the addicted bull running. It’s not boosting economies around the world, we’re looking at a global slowdown, and the numbers are there, and even people like the IMF, the World Bank, one after the other, they’re warning of a recession,’ Celente said.”

I have an article on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog called, “Economy and Philanthropy” you might also enjoy. It dates back to when I launched my blog during the economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Looking back to those days, I would also say, not every business nor philanthropist suffers during a recession. Adjust your fundraising accordingly and do your research.

Summer is “Development” Time

I sometimes hear nonprofits lament that summertime is so “slow.” Nothing is happening. Most donors and prospective donors are out of town on vacation, they tell me. But in my experience, summertime is a busy time for development.

I have discovered quite a few grant deadlines occur during the summer and that requires attention. I have also found some donors actually have a bit more time to spend on their favorite nonprofit projects during the summer. Brainstorming meetings, planning for the fall, “asking” for support, database house cleaning and expansion, research, case statement drafting and year-end fundraising campaign development are all things I have done during the summer months. Don’t forget, many corporations budget late summer for social good projects they will underwrite next year. Summer is a great time to visit with your favorite corporate sponsors.

Coffee Waves in Port Aransas.

Earlier this year, I was asked to help the Port Aransas Art Center part-time. As you may know, Hurricane Harvey battered Port Aransas last year, but as the Instagram photo above from Coffee Waves suggests, the community is back on track and working hard to recover. It is well on its way.

As for me, I am helping to establish a new development program, I have been modernizing the website, enhancing social media, creating new e-newsletters so that we have regular monthly e-communication with constituents, securing a GuideStar gold seal and more. It has taken a lot of time, but when you work with a dedicated group of volunteers and staff, your work is enjoyable and inspiring.

I added a new section in the margin of Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog for “Quick Updates” with handy links. Please peruse my article on social media stewardship for the Association of Donor Relations Professionals’ monthly newsletter, The Hub. You might also enjoy reviewing the slide decks for my webinar and public presentations this year.

I have always been a “hands-on” learner and I readily adopt new technologies that enable me to become even more self-sufficient. Still today, I do most all work myself. This, plus years of experience in major gift fundraising make me a good teacher for those new to the fundraising profession, for startups with big ambitions, and for nonprofits that are perhaps a bit, “overweight” that need to streamline.

Wednesday 006

Another new section of my Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog is called, “A Brief Account: Short Stories.” There I share personal experiences with leading philanthropists. Some of my stories are humorous, some heart warming, but always, I try to be insightful and to share what it takes to work successfully in the field of nonprofit fundraising. Fundraising – especially major gifts – scares some nonprofit professionals. I came to the field via volunteering and a Master’s Degree in Art History. Ultimately, I hope by sharing my stories that fear will be lessened, and more interested professionals will enter our field.

Have a good summer. And now for me it is time to get, “back to work.”