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From the President's Office, February 2007

Dear Friend:

Many of you have told us that you dislike having to log in every time you use GuideStar. I am happy to report that you no longer do—last week, we launched a  Remember Me feature on our site. Just click the  Remember Me box beneath the password box on our home page or log-in page, and you will be logged in the next time you use GuideStar, as long as you don't log out when you leave our site and as long as you return within 60 days.

I find two things about this new feature particularly satisfying: it makes our site easier to use, and it was added in direct response to our users' feedback. This feedback came to us through our user surveys, feedback links, and face-to-face conversations at conferences, meetings, and presentations.

A number of my colleagues and I are about to have new opportunities to receive your feedback in person. Although it is still, in Longfellow's words, "the long and dreary Winter," we are braving the elements to take GuideStar on the road. During the next several weeks, GuideStar representatives will be showing up on the West Coast, East Coast, and points in between. We'll be adding more events as we confirm them, so check back to see if one has been added near you.

I hope that, if our paths do cross in the next few months, you'll take a moment to tell us about your experiences using GuideStar. Let us know what you like best, what you like least, what's working well, what could be better, and the projects you'd like to see us undertake. If we can't meet soon in person, I hope you'll e-mail me at president@guidestar.org or call with your ideas on how to make GuideStar better.

Also, if you have an upcoming event that we can attend or if you would like us to make a presentation or speak to a group of GuideStar users, please write to my colleague Karen Rayzor at krayzor@guidestar.org.

And, in case you were wondering what happens with our new Remember Me feature if you log out when you leave our site or return after 60 days: just log in again. If you've forgotten your password, click the  Forgot your password? link below the Remember Me box, and we'll e-mail a new password to you. Once you log in with your new password, you can change it by clicking on the My GuideStar link at the top of the page and then the Edit my profile link on your My GuideStar page.

Sincerely,

Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO

Ensuring New Employees' Success: Best Practices for Employee Onboarding


Imagine it's your first day at a new job. You arrive at an office where no one seems to be expecting you. After locating your workstation, you realize that no one has shown you how to log into your computer or get an outside line on your phone. You do not have a clear idea of what you are expected to do first in your new job. Your supervisor is nowhere to be found, and you are starting to question your decision to accept this position.

As the above scenario suggests, an organization never gets a second chance to make a first impression with its new hires. Investing in employee onboarding ensures that an organization is prepared for and committed to positioning its new hires for success in their new roles.

Effective employee onboarding serves three interrelated purposes. First, it ensures that the new hire feels welcomed, comfortable, prepared, and supported. These feelings increase the new hire's ability to make an impact within the organization, both immediately and over time. Finally, employee success leads to satisfaction and retention, which allows the organization to continue to meet its mission.

To position a new hire for success, it is important that an organization prepares in advance and continues to support the new employee throughout the first several months (and beyond). This article explores some tried-and-true best practices for employee onboarding.

Before the First Day

Preparing for a new hire's start date is the first step. Start by completing an agenda for the employee's first week on the job. Schedule times for the new hire to meet with key staff members. Provide staff members with the new employee's résumé and job description and advise them to follow a meeting format that includes sharing a description of their own positions, how their roles interact with that of the new hire, and how they might expect to work together in the future. This is also a good time to assign a mentor or buddy to the new hire as an immediate resource for any questions, help him or her build a network, educate the new employee about resources, and give him or her key information about organizational culture and goals.

Next, create a comfortable workstation for the new employee. Stock his or her workstation with the tools needed to hit the ground running, such as paper, pens, computer, phone, keys, and business cards. Make sure that voice mail and e-mail accounts are set up. Leave a copy of an organization chart, staff list, and phone directory on the new hire's desk. If your organization has a new employee handbook, leave it on the desk as well. To really impress someone on his or her first day, add any branded collateral that you can spare—a logo backpack, hat, T-shirt, or mug.

Finally, make sure all administrative forms—such as employment, direct deposit, and benefits—are ready to be completed on day one.

The First Day

The first day of a new job can rattle the nerves of even the most experienced professional. The better prepared you are to welcome the new hire on his or her first day, the easier this transition will be for everyone.

Schedule a particular staff member to be available to greet the new employee and give an office tour. During the office tour, introduce the new hire to all staff members as well as point out the copy machine, mail room, employee mailboxes, lunch room, and restrooms. Remember that new hires are asked to absorb a lot of information in a short amount of time, so they will likely have questions about these things later.

Balance the first day's schedule between orientation, meetings, and less formal gatherings. Arrange for a group of staff members to treat the new hire to lunch on the first day.

Schedule a meeting with the employee's supervisor for the first afternoon. During this meeting, the supervisor should review the responsibilities of the position and give an overview of what the first 30-90 days in the position will look like.

During the First Week

Whereas the first day entails presenting a good deal of information to the new hire, the first week focuses on the exchange between the new employee and other staff members, primarily between the new staffer's supervisor and/or direct reports.

During the first week, the supervisor and new hire should meet to discuss desired management style and information about typical processes, such as how decisions are made. This is also the time to agree on expectations and create a timeline for deliverables.

If the new hire will have a supervisory role, ensure that he or she meets with any direct reports one-on-one and as a group within the first week. These meetings will help build the new team, provide context and orientation toward the department/team, and allow the new hire to get a sense of each team member's work style.

It is also important for the new hire to interact with other staff that may not be on his or her immediate team. Schedule at least one meeting per day with staff members outside the employee's team or department. These meetings give the new employee a way to learn about the whole organization from many different perspectives and to create new relationships with key staff members.

In addition to interacting with internal staff, if it is appropriate for his or her role, ensure that the new hire meets in person with partners, funders, board members, or other constituents within the first month. Encourage each new hire to notify personal and professional contacts of his or her new role, thereby providing a marketing opportunity for your organization.

The First Three Months ... and Beyond

Effective employee onboarding continues past the first week. Throughout the first three months, stay mindful of opportunities to integrate new hires into their work groups and into the organization as a whole.

After 90 days, have the supervisor provide formal feedback on the new hire's performance and also solicit feedback from the employee. Depending on the organization's culture and policies, this meeting could involve a representative of the Human Resources Department. During this meeting, any issues of concern should be addressed and accomplishments noted so that all parties are confident that the new hire is poised for success in his or her role.

Finally, remember to build opportunities for feedback into the onboarding process. Encourage the new hire to note any ideas that he or she has for improving the operations, strategy, or culture of the organization. The new hire may or may not feel comfortable sharing these suggestions immediately, but it is important that the organization be open to the impressions of someone who is coming in with fresh eyes. Allow employee onboarding to be an iterative process, one that evolves with your organization's growth.

Although all of these steps require an investment of time and resources, it is an investment that will pay enormous dividends for your organization for years to come.

Commongood Careers
© 2007, Commongood Careers

Commongood Careers is dedicated to helping today's most effective social entrepreneurs hire the best talent. Founded by nonprofit professionals, Commongood Careers offers personalized, engaged services to job seekers and organizations throughout the hiring process as well as access to a wealth of knowledge about careers in the social sector.

Volunteers, Part I: What Makes Them Stay?


It's no secret that a dedicated group of volunteers is an important cornerstone of many nonprofit agencies. In fact, according to a recent study, approximately 6 million volunteers are active in American nonprofit organizations, contributing a total of more than 15 billion volunteer hours. Volunteer hours equate to the work of more than 9 million full-time employees, making the value of volunteer labor close to $284 billion. With statistics like these, it's also no secret that organizations should be willing to do what it takes to retain volunteers. But exactly what does it take to keep volunteers? And what causes volunteers to leave?

Simply put, to reduce turnover, volunteers must be pleased with the environment in which they work and motivated by the tasks to which they are assigned. This month, we look at the things that motivate volunteers to stay. Next month, we'll examine the environmental factors that cause them to leave.

Understanding Motivation

When someone shows up to volunteer, often there are many people making bids for his or her time. Everyone's "to-do" list rolls out, and a volunteer may find himself or herself shuffled to a variety of people doing a range of tasks. To retain volunteers, however, an organization needs to be aware of what motivates and leads each one to feel satisfied with the time he or she donates.

Skill Development

Some volunteers want to bring their expertise to your group, whether it is their marketing background, computer experience, or people skills. Others may volunteer to enhance certain skills or maintain ones they already possess. Still others come with the desire to learn something new.

For example, if you find out that your new volunteer, Susan, works in the telemarketing industry, your immediate thought might be to assign her the task of fundraising via telephone. If you dig deeper, however, you'll learn that Susan is volunteering to get away from the stress of her day job, and that she really wants to become part of the volunteer training team. Susan would like to learn about your organization and refine her management and speaking skills. With the experience she acquires by volunteering with you, she hopes to secure a new job.

This example illustrates how crucial it is to gather information from a newly recruited volunteer. Find out not only his/her current skills but also what skills he or she wishes to develop through volunteer activities. This is a valuable means of evaluating the tasks that should be assigned to maximize retention.

Personal Growth

Many volunteers come to an organization hoping to expand their horizons. Like Susan, some feel that their volunteer experience will help them advance in their careers. Others simply want to use their volunteer service as a way to cultivate new interests. Another portion will use their volunteering to aid them in making career or education choices.

Challenge

Volunteers enjoy challenging tasks and look for chances to step up to the next level. If this sense of challenge is lacking, volunteers will not generally continue service with an organization. Make sure you give your volunteers some interesting, more challenging activities along with more "routine" assignments.

Contact with Clients

Some of the most rewarding work for volunteers can be direct contact with the individuals an organization serves. They can see the direct benefits of their work in their role as a mentor, helper, or other capacity. Sometimes a volunteer's greatest motivation to continue his or her service is a heartfelt "thank you" from a client.

Recognition of Service

Another integral part of volunteer retention is recognizing and appreciating the time and effort volunteers bring to your organization. Emphasize to your volunteers the importance of their contributions; volunteers who stay are ones who feel they are making a significant impact.

Of course, there are many ways to say "thank you." Informally, something as simple as "You're doing a great job!" can be a big morale booster. Making snacks available during projects or meetings is another way to show your appreciation. More formally, consider a once-a-year volunteer appreciation night to award certificates, etc. Although this latter idea seems obvious, a recent study by the Urban Institute found that just 30 percent of charities actually follow this practice.

It is important not only to recognize volunteers within an organization but also to promote their accomplishments within the community. Consider using the same methods your group already uses to publicize its programs to acknowledge your volunteers' important work and accomplishments as well. In addition, you may want to ask volunteers if they would like their employers to be made aware of their contributions to your organization.

Rewards

Even though volunteers are not compensated monetarily, your organization should definitely consider rewarding them in other ways. Effective rewards can include such simple, no-cost things as reserving parking spaces for volunteers or giving them their own desks or workspaces.

As far as actual tasks are concerned, volunteer jobs can be designed in hierarchical levels, allowing a volunteer to advance over time and acquire a higher "status." With each level, an organization can allow for increases in self-direction and decision making. Not only will the added responsibilities make the volunteer feel "promoted" but he or she will also feel more engaged. Volunteer coordinators may also want to reward well-proven volunteers by allowing them to train or mentor new recruits or by assigning them special projects.

Summary

Even though volunteers come to an organization to donate their time and abilities, it's important to keep in mind that it's not what they can do for you that keeps them coming back, it's what you can do for them. Given the points we've outlined, it's easy to see that many volunteer retention factors are under the direct control of the organization. Although it appears there are many aspects to juggle, in terms of your organization's time and energy investment, it's worth the effort to keep a volunteer.

It's important to remember that your organization's general goals should be twofold. First and foremost, of course, you are there to fulfill your mission within the community. When a second priority becomes enhancing the lives of the volunteers who help carry this mission forward, you will see an increase in volunteer involvement and retention. As artist and author Florence Scovel Shinn put it: "Giving opens the way for receiving."

Read "Volunteers, Part II: Why Do They Leave?"

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

IRS Increases Enforcement Focus on Nonprofit Executive Compensation


Note: The following discussion is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice. For specific information about compensation practices for exempt organizations, consult your attorney or tax advisor.
The IRS is sending some pretty strong signals these days that it is going to be looking hard at compensation and benefit levels for nonprofit executives. And nonprofits that want to avoid unwanted scrutiny may need to be more familiar with such terms as "disqualified persons," "excess benefit transactions," and "rebuttable presumption of reasonableness."

  • New Form 990 Instructions
    The 2006 instructions require more information to be reported on compensation and who sets compensation. Legislation in 2006 required more stringent definitions of "disqualified persons"—those in a position to exercise substantial influence over an exempt organization—and increased penalties for those who participate in an "excess benefit transaction" (a financial transaction in an amount that exceeds market rate) in violation of the rules. The changes are summarized and the new instructions are available on the IRS Web site (see the links at the end of this article).

  • New IRS List of Good Governance Practices
    A draft list of "Good Governance Practices for 501(c)(3) Organizations" was released by the IRS on February 7, 2007. It stated:
    Charities should generally not compensate persons for service on the board of directors except to reimburse direct expenses of such service. ... Charities may pay reasonable compensation for services provided by officers and staff. In determining reasonable compensation, a charity may wish to rely on the rebuttable presumption test of section 4958 of the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury Regulation section of 53.4958-6.
    You can link to the full draft from the end of this article.

  • IRS Findings of 2006 Executive Compensation Initiative Project
    In 2006, the IRS concluded an Executive Compensation Initiative Project (started in February 2004). In a report just released on Parts I and II of the project, the IRS noted that "Significant reporting issues exist—Over 30% of compliance check recipients amended their Forms 990. Fifteen percent (15%) of the compliance check recipients were selected for examination." The report also states, "Where problems were found, significant dollars are being assessed (25 examinations have resulted in proposed excise tax assessments under Chapter 42, aggregating in excess of $21 million, against 40 disqualified persons or organization managers.)"

    You can link to the full report from the end of this article.

  • IRS Investigation of Nonprofit Hospital Executive Compensation
    In 2006, as part of an investigation into how nonprofit hospitals set and pay compensation to their executives, the IRS sent questionnaires to more than 500 hospitals. In 2007, the IRS plans to evaluate the responses. Next steps could include more written guidance, new examinations, and additional compliance checks. Congressional leaders have also expressed interest in hospital executive compensation, particularly as the debate over medical costs and coverage has intensified.

  • Matching Data Reported to the IRS and SSA
    The 2007 plan for the IRS Exempt Organizations Division also includes a project to ensure that nonprofit organizations report and pay employment taxes properly. Recently, the IRS developed a process to match information reported to the Social Security Administration with IRS data. The IRS will select the targets for examination using a risk-modeling program developed in 2006 that identifies high-risk compliance patterns.

What the IRS Notices on Form 990

The nonprofits that were included in the IRS compliance check were chosen because of omissions on their Forms 990. To avoid making similar mistakes, be sure to answer and include any required schedule or explanation for the following sections of the form:

  • Schedule A, Part III–List transactions between related individuals or leases of property to officers, directors, or shareholders. If there are no such transactions, note, "None."

  • Form 990, Part IV, line 50–List receivables from trustees, officers, directors, and key employees. If there are no such transactions, note, "None."

  • Form 990, Part V-A, column B–Complete for each listed officer, trustee, or key employee, even if they are not compensated.

  • Form 990, Part VI, question 89–Checkbox for "Entered into an excess benefit transaction." Be sure to check "No" if there were no excess benefit transactions.

What a Nonprofit Should Do

To avoid problems with executive compensation, the IRS advises nonprofits to:

  • Set compensation in advance using appropriate comparability data.
  • Make sure that no one involved in setting salaries has a conflict of interest.
  • Document all decisions on compensation.
  • Avoid penalties by reporting all economic benefits to officers, directors, and key employees on Form 990.
Having good compensation practices means having established policies and procedures, doing the homework of finding and assessing comparables, making decisions based upon them, and then recording the actions taken. You are not likely to get in trouble with the IRS if you develop and follow procedures for setting compensation and if you make an honest, responsible effort to determine appropriate compensation based on your size, revenues, organizational structure, and mission. Be sure to:

  • Document the policies and procedures in advance and include them in board minutes.
  • Collect comparable salaries (for like services, in like enterprises, in like circumstances). Surveys and databases of salary information as well as the Form 990 images on the Web make these data more easily available than ever before.
The IRS has actually provided a checklist for organizations that can be used to establish procedures that will help them avoid an IRS investigation. Follow the checklist, and the burden of proof that the organization is breaking the rules moves to the IRS. This checklist can be found at "Compensation Issues for Exempt Organizations," slides 13-19.

To establish a rebuttable presumption of reasonableness (meaning the burden of proof that the compensation is unreasonable is on the IRS), nonprofits should use an independent survey of comparability data. Information and software that easily provide the necessary analyses can be obtained from GuideStar; ERI Economic Research Institute; SalariesReview; Abbott, Langer Association Surveys; and other salary survey sources that specialize in the nonprofit sector.

By obtaining and using appropriate data, nonprofits can set compensation that attracts and retains talented staff and is aligned with organizational missions and values. At the same time, they can ensure that charitable dollars are spent on achieving the mission, not answering questions from the IRS, state charity regulators, and Congress.

More Information

Linda M. Lampkin, ERI Economic Research Institute
© 2007, ERI EconomicResearch Institute

Linda M. Lampkin is research director of ERI Economic Research Institute, a company that provides Form 990 compensation data for use by nonprofits, and former director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute. She can be reached at linda.lampkin@erieri.com or (877) 799-3428.

Volunteers, Part II: Why Do They Leave?


Last month, we examined factors that motivate volunteers, the things that keep them coming back to their volunteer stints. (Click here to read the article.) This month, we look at the factors that cause them to leave.

A dingy or poorly arranged office/workplace, inadequate supervision or leadership quality, and nonexistent or ineffective communication can all make a volunteer head for the door, never to return. Fortunately, these environmental factors are all under a nonprofit's direct control.

Appearance of Office/Workspace

Although it's tempting for a nonprofit to downplay "appearances," a cramped, cluttered, or outdated space is not appealing to most volunteers. No-cost or low-cost solutions such as a simple coat of paint or rearranging desks and equipment may make all the difference. Also examine the lighting to make sure that the space is well lit and inviting.

Equipment Quality

Give volunteers the proper tools to do their tasks. If you don't, their frustration levels can run high. Anything from having a hole punch, paper cutter, or stapler that doesn't work, clear up to the computer that freezes when data entry on a spreadsheet is almost complete, can drive a volunteer to distraction—and departure.

Orientation and Training

Just as in the business sector, orientation and training are of paramount importance. A new volunteer should be introduced to the organization and its mission. The volunteer can then see how the organization's services fit into the community.

Part of orientation should also involve communicating how the volunteer's tasks mesh with the organization's goals. After the initial overview, a volunteer should have a training period, in which he or she receives instructions on and becomes familiar with assigned tasks. As in the private sector, make sure to design policies and "job descriptions" for volunteers, so they will know what is expected of them. Ongoing or "refresher" training is also helpful.

Although these suggestions seem rudimentary, research has shown that many volunteers do not receive much in the way of formal training. Instead, many organizations fall back on on-the-job training or use other volunteers as makeshift trainers. Nonprofits should be sure to have "train the trainer" workshops for those in charge of training and orientation of newly recruited volunteers.

Communication

Volunteers should receive clear, day-to-day instructions about their assigned tasks. Make sure every volunteer knows to whom he or she may go for additional instructions or clarification

In a larger sense, communication also plays a key role in keeping volunteers on the same playing field as any paid staff members. Make sure key correspondence is sent to volunteers as well as staff members. If a volunteer works in a particular department, make sure to add his or her e-mail address to the distribution group for that team. Volunteers should also be kept abreast of outside issues affecting the organization and factors affecting their jobs within the organization. Invite volunteers to staff meetings if at all possible.

Remember that communication is a two-way street. Make sure to ask periodically for volunteers' feedback. Soliciting feedback can be as informal as asking, "How's everything going?" to conducting a formal survey.

Don't forget evaluation. Not only should supervisors solicit feedback from volunteers but supervisors should also provide feedback to volunteers. Whether done in a formal or informal fashion, providing information about a volunteer's work will enhance his or her future performance.

Organization

Many volunteers complain about the level of disorganization within an organization, sometimes leading to a perception of wasted time, money, or energy. One of the most effective ways to improve volunteers' perception of your group is to put more effort into volunteer coordination. Of course, a volunteer coordinator's time is often stretched thin and allocated to a variety of other tasks as well.

To ease some of the load for volunteer coordinators, a number of nonprofits are turning to on-line scheduling programs. Streamlining volunteer organization, these scheduling tools allow volunteer coordinators to devote more time to volunteers and less time to paperwork, phone calls, and e-mails. On-line scheduling allows new projects to be posted and volunteers to be alerted. Volunteers can log on to the site at their convenience, 24/7. They can browse the site to find projects they are interested in and sign up.

Additionally, on-line scheduling provides extra organizational tools for administrators. When planning and promoting an event, a maximum number of participants can be set, so that there are neither too many nor too few volunteers for a given project. Real-time numbers allow project coordinators to allocate an appropriate amount of resources to a task, eliminating redundancy, waste, and unnecessary expense.

Interpersonal Relationships

Team building is an important aspect of any group. Make sure that volunteers feel comfortable with the other volunteers in the organization as well as supervisors, paid employees, and individuals the organization serves (if applicable). Turnover tends to reduce when volunteers develop good interpersonal relationships with others and feel they are part of a team and have a support network within the organization.

Working Conditions

Educating paid staff about the value volunteers bring to an organization is crucial. Paid staff should give volunteers the same respect as any other coworker. Volunteer coordinators should also take care that volunteers are treated equally and fairly. Any volunteer who feels that he or she is being given unequal work or less opportunity is more likely to become dissatisfied and leave the organization.

Summary

If the prospect of improving in all these areas seems daunting, then start with some basics. A recent study has concluded that two key factors in volunteer retention are orientation/training and assigning challenging tasks to volunteers. Looking beyond the study, however, think first about improving communication and organization, and you will see an increase in efficiency. This will allow you to dedicate more time to the key factors and ultimately toward all of the volunteer retention aspects.


Read "Volunteers, Part I: What Makes Them Stay?"

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

IRS Updates, March 2007: Telephone Tax Refund and Free Training on Changes in Exempt Organizations Tax Law


 Note: The following discussion is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice. For specific information about the telephone tax refund and the provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 affecting exempt organizations, consult your attorney or tax advisor.

Telephone Tax Refund

Uncle Sam wants you to know that your organization may be entitled to a refund of long-distance taxes paid between March 1, 2003, and July 31, 2006. More than 160 million individuals, businesses, and exempt organizations qualify for this one-time payment.

To request the refund, complete Form 8913, Credit for Federal Telephone Excise Tax Paid, and attach it to Form 990-T. Don't worry if your organization normally does not file a 990-T; submitting a 990-T solely to request a telephone excise tax refund does not mean that your organization will owe unrelated business income tax. The IRS has added a line (44f) to the form to make requesting the refund easier.

To determine the amount of your refund, you can either add up the amount paid during the 41 months in question or calculate the refund amount using an IRS formula based on your April and September 2006 bills.

For more information, see:

Free Training on Changes in Exempt Organizations Tax Law

The IRS is offering two free programs on the impact of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 on exempt organizations:

  • March 13, 2007, 2:00-3:00 p.m. ET—Tax Talk Today, "Exempt Organizations: Emerging Issues."
  • March 21-22, 2007—Phone forum, "Exempt Organizations: Impact of Pension Protection Act of 2006 on Form 990."
See more information on either event >

More Information on the Pension Protection Act of 2006



Suzanne E. Coffman, March 2007
© 2007, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.

If You Didn't Get the Gift, Here's Why

Excerpt from Asking: A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift


Where Newsletter Readers Seek (Web Site) Help: February Question of the Month Results


Ever find yourself at a digital dead end? Tangled up in the Web? Where you turn for assistance in these sticky situations was the focus of February's Question of the Month. We asked, "When you need help using a Web site, which of the following are you most likely to do?" Here's what you told us:

What Readers Do When Stumped

(Participants could choose more than one answer)

Look for FAQs on the Web site 74%
E-mail the Web site's customer service staff 49%
Leave the Web site and search the Internet 49%
Call the Web site's customer service staff 18%
Open a live chat session with the Web site's customer service staff 14%
Other 14%
Watch a video demonstration on the Web site 10%
Check the Web site for on-line seminar opportunities 2.0%


Over half of the participants who said they look for FAQs also supplement their sleuthing by either leaving the Web site to search the Internet or e-mailing the Web sites' customer service staff.

What Readers Look for in a Web Site

Several participants shared their thoughts on what makes a good Web site. Many readers commented that sites need to have a clean presentation with timely material that is clearly written and pertinent to the user. As newsletter reader C.C. Benedict concisely put it, "Updated websites are a must; donors want to know what's up NOW, not two years ago; language has to be lay-person-friendly, writing clear, concise, not fluff."

Too much fluff and the site may cause a "disconnect" and deter visitors from ever returning. The Internet is a vast depository of often redundant information, so at the first sign of a struggle, surfers might follow the path of this anonymous participant: "If I am unable to easily find the info needed to use the website successfully, I am most likely to leave the website and not return"—certainly a worst-case scenario for any Webmaster.

Another participant pointed that the rush to have the latest and greatest presentation and graphics can prevent some visitors from coming back for more. Accessibility by the widest range of connections and software is key to keeping a large user base, wrote Steve Hoad of the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods: "How many low income and dial up customers, along with persons with disabilities are you 'locking out' with web site decisions to use modern, often inaccessible, software programs?"

It seems that GuideStar Newsletter readers want a site that provides quality, not quantity. It's better to have current, plainly written information that can be accessed by the widest range of users than to present a "flashy" site with a sparse amount of content.

Why We Asked

We're constantly working to improve our visitors' experience. Your responses to Questions of the Month like this one and our semiannual user surveys help us determine when we're on the right track and where we can improve. And don't forget the Feedback link at the top of home page, advanced search page, and search results page. Although we can't respond to every comment, we do read each one, and we greatly appreciate the time our users take to tell us about their experiences on GuideStar.

Christopher Trent Kaplan, March 2007
© 2007, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Chris Kaplan is an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary and a communications/marketing intern at GuideStar.

Initial Success: Expressing Your Nonprofit Brand through Initials


"AARP is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age. We lead positive social change. Using our collective will, influence and good intentions, we make things better not just for ourselves but for everyone."

Whereas I'm personally not ready to join their ranks (although the milestone is not that far off!), AARP's mission statement is intriguing and someday soon will be relevant in my life. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is the spelled-out name of the organization. So ... what is AARP? Is it the Adopt A Road Program? Is it the Association Against Rational Policy? Could the initials stand for Appletalk Address Resolution Protocol? Of course not.

As most readers are aware, AARP is none other than the American Association for Retired Persons. And as most alert readers know, in January 2000, AARP officially changed its name to just those initials. In another generation, it's likely that few people will remember that AARP used to have the word "Retired" in its moniker.

"AARP has been the name most of us have already been using," says AARP executive director Horace B. Deets. He notes that the association's board of directors acted to make the change official. The new name is important. Deets adds, "More than a third of our 33 million members are in the work force."

AARP was faced with an issue many organizations—at some point in their history—have to confront. They must remain relevant to their core and prospective markets while not loosing valuable brand equity in a name that may be well established.

An Energy Example

When British Petroleum acquired Amoco, the ubiquitous green and yellow gas station signs quickly populated the American landscape. Just as quickly, the energy supplier adopted the simple "BP" autograph to grace its pumps and fuel signs.

Instead of confusing Americans with the Anglican name, BP used the switch to initials to express its refined brand essence. "Beyond Petroleum" became the tagline, the advertising signoff, and the new way for the marketplace to think about BP. Although the company was not suggesting an actual name change (making the initials legally stand for something new), it's natural to think of the Beyond Petroleum positioning statement whenever we see the stylized BP sunflower logo.

This new positioning aligns perfectly with BP's mission as expressed in this statement to its customers and stockholders: "As a major supplier of energy, we believe we have a responsibility to be a leader in finding and implementing solutions to climate change. BP was the first major energy company to publicly acknowledge the need to take steps against climate change and to commit to reduce its own emissions. In 2004, we launched a five-year $350-million emission reduction program with a goal of avoiding an additional one million tons each year. We are one of the world's biggest investors in lower carbon fuels and technologies."

This isn't just talk; it's backed up by actions:

  • In 1998, BP set itself the target of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, which was achieved in 2001, nine years earlier than expected.
  • BP put over $87.7 million into community investment programs around the world during 2004.
  • BP Solar is one of the world's largest solar electric companies.

Financial Services, Too

I was watching golf on TV one Sunday and saw ads for RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland), Wachovia, Fidelity, and Barclays. None of them said anything that provided a point of differentiation. They all seemed to blur together into a faceless, unmemorable rabble.

Then a spot came on for UBS. The animated logo at the commercial's close morphed the words "You and Us" into UBS. The commercial conveyed how UBS worked with the customer—one-on-one—to achieve tailored solutions to specific financial issues. The world's largest wealth manager bills itself as "a global financial firm with the heart and soul of a two-person organization." The voiceover said, "You and us ... UBS." It's a nice memory device and, at the time, made me forget to ask what the initials UBS really stand for. (It used to mean Union Bank of Switzerland).

Like BP, UBS used its initials to leverage its brand essence—and as a bonus, drive those initials deep into our memory banks.

Got initials? Do your supporters refer to your organization in the shorthand? In their minds, what do your initials really stand for? If your name has an alternate meaning, make sure it's relevant and believable. Then, use those initials to express your brand essence.

Michael DiFrisco, BrandXcellence
© 2006, BrandXcellence

Michael DiFrisco is president of BrandXcellence, offering self-guided and facilitated brand strategy workshops and brand-driven marketing services to improve the accountability and ROI of your nonprofit's marketing and communications.