Tag Archives: GuideStar

GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource | An Update

Back in 2013, I was invited by GuideStar to produce two written case studies about my experiences with the platform. They were in an interview format and attached to the 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. 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)

Hurricane Inspiration on the Gulf Coast

When Hurricane Harvey began to threaten the Texas Coast, one of my foremost concerns was its potential impact on Texas Sealife Center. I met founder Dr. Tim Tristan before I moved from Corpus Christi about seven years ago. He shared his vision of a veterinarian-driven wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center to aid shorebirds, raptors and sea turtles with me back then, and I have never forgotten.

Sea Turtle Surgery
Thanks to the Baltimore Sun for covering Texas Sealife Center in Corpus Christi, Texas (February 14, 2017).

In 2011, Texas Sealife Center was established, and it has not looked back since. The Center is all-volunteer and it has been highly successful in helping animals caught in and injured by fishing lines, those that have ingested fishing lures, metal and plastic objects of all varieties, as well as those that have sustained physical injuries and contracted troublesome diseases.

Tim and I have kept up remotely on Facebook. This summer, I agreed to help with some grant research and writing. The Center’s goal is to secure new equipment to support its medical and rehabilitation activities, with an emphasis on sea turtles. Sadly, the number of stranded and injured animals in the Coastal Bend of South Texas continues to increase. And, more sea turtles require help than ever before.

Brown Pelican, Hurrcane Harvey
Click to reach Texas Sealife Center’s Facebook page and more photos illustrating its work during Hurricane Harvey and more.

As the volunteers have done time and again, they made themselves available 24-7 to aid wildlife caught in Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. One of the Center’s primary partners is the ARK, or the Animal Rehabilitation Keep of the Marine Science Institute of The University of Texas at Austin, located further north on the Texas Coast. The ARK was heavily damaged during Hurricane Harvey, and Texas Sealife Center gladly took-in injured wildlife that could not be successfully released there. They continue to provide critical medical care and a safe haven until the animals can heal and be released into their natural habitats. Facebook became a powerful platform for conveying the work of Texas Sealife Center during this challenging time.

Aside from researching and submitting proposals for the Center’s urgent equipment needs, one of the most important things I did for this relatively young nonprofit was to create a meaningful GuideStar profile and to obtain the gold seal for transparency. Quite a few nonprofits with which I have worked fear they must have raised a lot of money and have well-known Board members, for instance, before establishing a full profile on GuideStar.

But what GuideStar is about is not money as much as it is how transparent nonprofits are about their operations and programs, their tax statements, future plans and more. GuideStar is about trust and honesty. And hopefully, by taking the worthwhile step to secure the gold seal will inspire even greater confidence by prospective donors in the Center and its management, with the current capital campaign in mind.

I have worked with nonprofit organizations large and small. Many of the larger ones have accomplished less than the smaller ones! Donors must be wary that a well-known “name” and a list of prominent Board members does not guarantee professional operations, efficiency, and genuine dedication by the leadership and staff.

I have found small nonprofits and startups work exceedingly hard, and their volunteers are often more dedicated than those supporting organizations with ample budgets and long tenures. After a long career in major gift fundraising, some of my most fulfilling projects have involved helping small groups build the credibility necessary to inspire significant donations. With this in mind, I urge you to support Texas Sealife Center, and please follow its progress on Facebook. Thank you!

You might enjoy reading my LinkedIn blog post from 2014, #2030NOW, which addresses startups and innovative young nonprofit concepts, and my hope more “Boomers” will fund them.

Did you know? You can donate to Texas Sealife Center directly from its GuideStar profile

GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource

“If you care about nonprofits and the work they do, then you’re affected by what GuideStar does. Here at GuideStar we gather and disseminate information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization. We provide as much information as we can about each nonprofit’s mission, legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, governance, and so much more. We do that so you can take the information and make the best decisions possible.”

Advanced research can help prevent mistakes when approaching a foundation. It is also true that many donors (and their professional advisors) use GuideStar to review nonprofits for potential funding.

In 2013, I was asked by GuideStar (now a division of Candid), to share my experiences using its database. I had two case studies posted as pdf files on the website for a few years, but as GuideStar merged with Candid and the entire website has been updated, they are no longer available. Apologies!

Today, the first resource I consult when researching a potential donor is GuideStar. Surprised?

Not only does GuideStar provide information about nonprofit organizations in the traditional sense, but you can also find information about donors like private foundations that are themselves nonprofit.

There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!
There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!

Among my favorite resources are the tax returns. Sometimes even the best online and printed foundation directories do not reveal the current state of a foundation. By reviewing their tax returns in GuideStar, you can discover who is currently serving on a foundation’s board of directors (and who is serving in what positions of leadership); you can find new contact information for the foundation (and sometimes, individual trustees); you can learn the latest projects funded (and sometimes foundations can change their funding focus areas without notice); you can discover the amounts of the grants awarded (thereby indicating the level of potential interest in your perhaps similar project);  and more.

Try the “advanced search” function on GuideStar, and you can discover such things as every museum in the state of Texas (and you can sort by budget size), or, every human services nonprofit in the state of Virginia, for instance.

GuideStar Data at a Glance

1.8 million IRS-recognized tax-exempt organizations
5.4 million Form 990 images
3.2 million digitized Form 990 records
6.6 million individuals in the nonprofit sector

For me, the printed and online foundation directories are excellent resources for honing-down generally on prospective donors I want to research. But the truth is, the tax returns tell a more exact story about their current circumstances.

There are other research resources that provide general assistance in this regard, among them The Foundation Center’s “Foundation Finder,” and the National Center for Charitable Statistics. I personally find GuideStar to be the most accessible, and I like the added benefits of its GuideStar Exchange Program, the GuideStar blogs, and the ability of individuals to review nonprofits via GreatNonprofits (your reviews are linked to the organization’s GuideStar profile).

But these are just the tip of the iceberg! I urge you to explore GuideStar’s website to discover all the helpful information and resources it provides. And my hearty thanks goes to GuideStar for featuring my two case studies. I hope you will take the time to read and enjoy them!

Best wishes for your fundraising success,

Carolyn M. Appleton

Twitter notes ....
Twitter notes …