It has been a long time since a fellow consultant to non-profit organizations urged me to check out GuideStar which, according to him, was delivering much needed services no one had previously thought to offer. I was living in Idaho in 1994, doing some consulting with non-profit organizations, teaching at Lewis-Clark State College, and doing contract work for North Idaho College. I had just finished five years managing The Festival at Sandpoint, also in Idaho, and was celebrating my seventh year in this State after nearly two decades in Flagstaff, Arizona. There I had directed Northern Arizona University’s non-profit management program, operated a consulting business serving non-profit organizations, and managed several 501-c3 organizations in the arts and education. It has been twenty-one years since GuideStar totally changed the way I do business.
I have always been very fussy about which clients I accepted. But prior to 1994 the selection process was hit or miss; a client would call and expect an answer within hours. But there was no real basis on which to give even a tentative yes or no. Even a week or so later armed with an organization’s Bylaws, 990 (tax return), annual meeting minutes, form 1023, and a few other legal documents sent by mail, I ended up working with some non-profit organizations I would rather have thrown to the wolves—or better yet, the IRS. There are some really bad ones out there, many of them in north Idaho, and one way or another they all seem to have found me. GuideStar changed that, though not all at once.
Immediate access via GuideStar to continuing records, mainly the 990’s, of organizations that sought to use my services took much of the guess work out of the selection process. I have always believed the values of an organization reside in how it earns and spends its money; likely that is also true of individuals. Spending 20% of my income on beer and 10% on charity says something about my values. From several 990’s an experienced person can extract not only a record of finances but a history, as well, and discern where the organization has been, where it is, and perhaps what its trajectory is for the future. The 990’s supplied by GuideStar--totally free of charge--also contain the groups’ EINs and exact corporate names which enable us non-profit detectives to learn a lot more on the Internet about a potential client. And so, GuideStar has changed entirely the nature of my non-profit consulting. But GuideStar services have done some things for me that are yet more important.
I live in Idaho which is geographically, culturally, and politically isolated to a degree that most people cannot imagine. We have an enormous number of non-profits, many of which do not bother with the niceties of life, such as renewing corporate status, filing with the IRS for tax exempt status, or holding annual meetings. For the past ten years or so, I have tried to keep tabs on about 200 of them. That was never really feasible prior to GuideStar. I could always obtain a 990 from the IRS or, theoretically, from the organization itself—though I cannot count the number of times I have illegally been refused that information—but GuideStar makes it as easy as a few clicks on my computer. Of course, GuideStar is of no help whatsoever in the next step-- determining which organizations should be reported to the IRS, the local newspaper, or the Idaho Secretary of State. But that is as it should be; objectivity in providing information has been the principle behind this organization for its entire history.
Since ignorance is never really bliss, even in Idaho where all too often ‘tis folly to be wise, GuideStar provides the raw data--the items which I have mentioned above and a host more such as years of incorporation, mailing addresses, names of board members and staff members who make large salaries, and so forth. Using that information I can make decisions as to which deserve attention or assistance and which do not. It has been a great partnership and, therefore, I sincerely hope GuideStar and I are both around for another twenty-one years. In the meantime, I will continue to send my annual donation check and serve on GuideStar panels so as to offer both my money and my experience to the coffers of a truly remarkable organization that has served me and the non-profit community exceedingly well.
The preceding is a guest post by Tim Hunt. After finishing a doctorate in English at Northern Illinois University in 1971, Tim Hunt became an assistant and later associate professor of humanities and non-profit management at Northern Arizona University. While in Flagstaff, he also managed several non-profit groups and operated a consulting business that took him around the country. In 1987, he moved to northern Idaho where, for five years, he managed the The Festival at Sandpoint, and other non-profits. He then became director of the Coeur d'Alene Center of Lewis-Clark State College. He is now retired and lives in Hayden, Idaho, with his wife, Kathryn, and their three cats.