Thursday, November 13, 2008

990 Resources - On-line courses

The IRS recently posted new mini-courses on a number of topics. They are really quite helpful and free! There are a few 990 preparatory courses that have good detail. Most are less than or around half an hour.

They may not be "better than Cats" but I just might watch them again and again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Economic Effects on Philanthropy

Techsoup has posted a nice compilation of articles and blog posts on the economy and philanthropy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

990 Trainings from MCN!

Do not miss these 990 trainings from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. They are all over the state, please forward them to your contacts statewide. They are presented by Eve Borenstein who is a fount of 990 knowledge. She makes this exciting topic even better with sample 990s that are as instructional as they are funny. These half day or longer trainings provide a great amount of detail and will really help your organization use the form 990 that meets both compliance needs and tells the public about the good work your nonprofit does.

In the past few weeks I have presented to people in Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Marshall, and Willmar. I will also be in St. Cloud on November 25th. These sessions have been generously hosted by the Bremer Bank nonprofit resource specialists. If you will be in St. Cloud on November 25th, contact Kathy Grochow for details about a two hour 990 training. Here are the details:

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008
Networking 8:30 – 9:00 am

Program 9:00 - 11:00 am
St. Cloud Public Library, in the Bremer Community Room1

300 West St. Germain Street
St. Cloud MN 56301

This session will provide an overview of the structure of the form and the newest features, including the new governance section. Learn about existing resources to prepare your organization to review and file the new form. The session is free, but pre-registration is required by November 24th. Please RSVP: Kathy Grochow, Bremer, 320-255-7137 or

A Call for Shelter in the Economic Storm

Do you fear that with our slow economy charitable giving will be the first thing people strike from their personal budget? Maybe not.

Check out the Star Tribune op-ed article, “A Call for Shelter in the Economic Storm”, written by Rich Cowles, executive director of the Charities Review Council.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Seminars to Webinars--Some October Events to Consider

Are you looking for ways to improve the functionality of your nonprofit? Maybe you're wanting to enhance your personal leadership skills? Well, there are a variety of events, training sessions, and webinars available each month around the Twin Cities and online, providing information from financial management to strategic planning to volunteer training.

Checkout some of the events that are occuring through the end of October.

Free Seminar: Prepare for the New 990, hosted by LarsonAllen LLP
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 ● 8:30 am

Calculating True Program Costs, hosted by the Nonprofits Assistance Fund
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 ● 9:00 am

Training Your Staff to Supervise Volunteers, hosted by Hands on Twin Cities
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 ● 9:00 am

Financial Management Network: Using Lines of Credit, Loans, and Mortgages, hosted by the Nonprofits Assistance Fund
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 ● 12:00 pm

Balance Blend: Making Web 2.0 Work for You, hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
Thursday, October 23, 2008 ● 9:00 am

HR 101, hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
Thursday, October 23, 2008 ● 8:30 am

Public Policy Network Lunch: It’s all about the relationships, hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
Friday, October 24, 2008 ● 12:00 pm

Certificate in Volunteer Leadership, hosted by Hands on Twin Cities
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 ● 8:30 am

Strategic Planning: Putting the Pieces Together, hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 ● 9: 00 am

Webinar: Tools for Surviving Tough Times—And Thriving Afterwards, hosted by Fieldstone Alliance
Thursday, October 30, 2008 ● 1:00 pm

Marketing and Public Relations: Twin Strategies for Success, hosted by the Center for Business Excellence
Friday, October 31, 2008 ● 8:00 am

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blog links: Managing Your Nonprofit in Today's Economy

The Nonprofits Assistance Fund has compiled some blog posts that may be helpful to nonprofits in this time of uncertainty.

You can also read their last newsletter issue, Nonprofits Count, which includes, "Managing and Adapting During Uncertain Economic Times,"

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

IRS Form 990 - Ready?

We just posted two articles to help you prepare to use the new IRS Form 990. They are intended to help you begin to understand how to best complete the form - in the spirit of compliance and to help build public trust.

Here is what you need to know --> There are steps you must take this year in order to be ready to use the form next year. Do not wait until next year to have your auditor tell what you should have done this year.

Get started by reading the articles posted on or by registering for a 990 webinar. We have also posted two new model policies you might need - a whisteblower policy and a document retention policy. We already have a conflict of interest policy with an annual witten disclosure for download. You can also sign up for a webinar on 10/27.

What else do you want to know about the new 990? Let me know by emailing me. If someone else is providing training we will direct you to them or we might design a bit of future help for you. If you have training available let me know and I will post it here.

I will also post after attending sessions at this week's MCN conference. Stay tuned, we might actually be blogging regularly.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Polysyllabic post, please read

So I spent part of my lunch cogitating on the revival of the commensurate test.

Gene Takagi's Nonprofit Law Blog covered it very well in a recent post, Re-Embracing the Commensurate Test. At the risk of over-simplifying a decision, the IRS examined the activities and governance of a nonprofit and found that they did not match its exempt purpose and took away their tax exemption. The Chronicle of Philanthropy also covered the issue in this article.

It is a complex decision but I recommend reading the actual IRS letter if you want to learn more.

I am such a nerd that even this seemingly arcane matter made me think of a suggestion: Next time you are reviewing your 990 ask the following questions of your auditor or whoever is responsible for your 990.

  • "How does this document prove that we deserve to be tax-exempt? Do our program descriptions and financial activity match our stated tax exempt purpose? Who benefited most from the way we spent our resources?"

Answering those questions is not as easy as it looks. Studying the new IRS Form 990 is a good place to start learning more. Most people may not know that the commensurate test has risen again. Those who do know about this will point out that the chances of it being applied to your organization are slim.

Every nonprofit has an annual opportunity to establish that its tax exemption is deserved. I would hope we all take it seriously. Maybe, if all 990s were complete and accurate, the commensurate test would fade away again. I would have to find a better reason to use the word commensurate.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Accountability Superhighway

When working with organizations on reviews I frequently encourage them to post their annual reports, IRS Form 990s, independent audits, and more on their web site. I have also been asking people if anyone has telephoned them lately to ask for an annual report. I find that very few donors do this.

I was very excited to read that a recent Nonprofit Times survey confirmed the increasing prevalence of the Internet as a means to research potential donations! I know this is not the biggest news to everyone but it holds enormous promise to charitable giving and building public trust. Having your annual report on-line can actually be less expensive. You can even do it in such a way that it can be easily printed for those without computer access. It is also easier to correct mistakes and to keep it current.

Take a look at our annual reporting standard as a simple guide to what information you should be sure to have on your web site in addition to important public documents. Let us know if you have any interesting ideas or questions about using your web site to build public trust.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In a nutshell

Transparency is not always easy but is always good in the short and long run.

Kate Barr, the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Assitance Fund, discussed the recent national ACORN scandal. Rather than just linking to the New York Times article about it, I suggest giving her blog a read. Compare ACORN's reaction to eight years of scandal versus a local response to a much shorter instant of fraud. Michael Wirth Davis of Goodwill/Easter Seals discussed his organization's decision to work with authorities and to be as transparent as possible at last year's annual forum.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Board Games

Sometimes it helps to have some simple guidance for your board recruiting.

In this post from the Nonprofiteer, "Board members are not hypothetical constructs", I found some nice advice. Many nonprofits are having a hard time finding board members. Sometimes this results in burnout of current members, difficulty achieving quorum, executive directors who are surprised that recruitment was not listed as a higher priority in their job description, etc.

In the linked blog the author suggests an approach that resembles the amassing of volunteer support for a capital campaign. I think that many nonprofits use an approach similar to this with some success. They ask what needs to be done, set up their criteria, and spend their time talking to actual people.

In short, the emphasis is on talking to people, not about them. What board recruiting tactics have helped your organization?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Public Trust check-up

How much do know you about general trust in the nonprofit sector?

In case you missed our Annual Forum speaker, Paul Light of NYU's Wagner School of Public Service, we have posted links to highlights and his remarks on our our web site. His research has shown that the level of trust in nonprofits "not risen significantly" in the years following September 11th, 2001. While nonprofits continue to be trusted more than the federal government and for-profit business, there are serious doubts about the ability of nonprofits to spend money wisely. His research and the Council's own local survey are a good opportunity to learn more.

The conversation about public trust was also covered by Dave Beal in his latest column in the Pioneer Press.

I am convinced that the nonprofit sector can turn these numbers around. There are a myriad of low cost ways to demonstrate that your organization is trustworthy.

For example, Does your website prominently post an annual report, accomplishments or outcomes, 990s, audits, or other public disclosure documents?

[Organization Self-Promotion Warning] How about an Accountability Wizard Review to publicly demonstrate a committment to accountability?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ewe or ewe

It is very rare that three of my favorite subjects mystically converge. But it has happened. In this article by Scott Russell at Minnpost we see three of my favorite things discussed:
1. Nonprofit transparency.
2. Togo, where I served in the Peace Corps .
3. Sheep. Did you know that when I am not reading 990s I go home and spin yarn?

The New Standards (A semi-official informal announcement)

Have you heard a rumor about new Accountability Standards? Maybe you read an article on April 14th about them by MinnPost's new star nonprfofit reporter Scott Russel. It's all true.

We are in the very beginning of a process to update our standards. Please stay tuned for invitations to surveys about our current standards, to internet discussion groups, and to meetings to discuss the standards. Currently our program committee is developing a set of draft standards to be presented for a public discussion by January 2009. The earliest the new standards will be in use would be late May or June 2009. Prior to the full implementation of the new standards we will be working to phase in currently reviewed organizations and to redesign the Wizard. The redesign will not only enable the usage of new standards, it will also offer new features and improve the existing program. Your input will be crucial to the new Accountability Standards. We will keep you updated about opportunities to participate. It is important to us that the update goes smoothly and we will be communicating more regularly. We plan to conduct the update so that it does not disrupt new reviews and renewal reviews starting late this year.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Draft Instructions for the New 990!

Time to read and comment again. Once I get time to read them once through I may post again. But for now, go to the IRS Web site to read and comment on the instructions.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Executive Salaries and Public Trust

Can the salary of an executive director of a charity lead to an immediate and potentially very serious loss of trust? National Night Out might know the answer to this question. Check out this fascinating article in the April 4th Minneapolis Star Tribune, National Night Out Director's Pay Prompts Outrage. The founding CEO's salary was $270,000 with $44,000 in benefits, according to the 2006 990. We do not have a standard that deals directly with CEO pay. It is in fact very hard to define what is too much.

In all cases, there are important steps that charity managers should take to see that salary decisions are made by a board that is un-conflicted and truly independent, you should also check comparable using salary studies such as the one conducted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Past studies have shown that truly excessive nonprofit salaries are rare. In fact low low salaries have made many potential leaders reluctant to become executive directors. See this study by Compasspoint.

While excessive salaries may be rare, every nonprofit must have a good process for determining executive pay that it is covered by active use of a conflict of interest policy. The IRS calls this type of salary determination process "Rebuttable Presumption." Impress your friends and colleagues while protecting your nonprofit by reading a quick explanation on the IRS Web site and then bringing it up in casual settings.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


The toolbox is open for business. Check it out for a range of resources that can help you to run an accountable, effective, and happy nonprofit. I am convinced that the free resources available to nonprofits are woefully under-used. Organizations who have completed Accountability Wizard Reviews will find material that can help them meet the Charities Review Council's Accountability Standards. We have also added to templates for Wizard participants on our "Useful Documents page."

Even if you have not participated in a review, you may find something in any of these links that will help you serve your donors and meet your mission for years to come. The journey of a thousand donations starts with one good disclosure!

Special thanks to super volunteer Richard Sletten and last summers brilliant team of graduate students from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute: Jocey Hale, Amy Arcand, Kari Anderson, Kim Klose, Brenda Diethelm-Okita and their professors including Melissa Stone and the many other faculty who helped with this work.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hello from the Wizard

Accountability Wizardry is about the easy or innovative ways that charities are working to build public trust and the ways that innovative donors are working to do the most good with their time and money. Many of the positions I will take and the questions I will ask all come back to one of the values the staff, board, and volunteers here at the Charities Review Council frequently come back to:

Public trust is the bedrock of the charitable/nonprofit/voluntary/non-governmental sector. Donors make better decisions when they know more about a charity and trust it.

Sure there are studies and contrasting opinions that prove or disprove the role of trust and the types of information provided to donors. We'll discuss those and debate the best ways to help donors make decisions. These are hardly settled questions and we all love a well-questioned assumption (at least I do). I am personally convinced that if charities were better understood there were would be better support for them, more donors and volunteers.

I hope that these debates will uncover and share solutions to help busy and dedicated charities. If there is one thing that I have learned from the more 300 charities who we have reviewed here at the Charities Review Council, practical and cheap solutions are what is needed by the understaffed and undersupported people who are providing some of the most essential services in our society. It's time to find the appropriate technology of the nonprofit world.

I hope that this blog and other resources I point to will help charities find the support and trust they need and help donors find the charities that will help them make a better world for everyone.