The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

From the President's Office, March 2008

Dear Friend:

Hasn't this been a fantastic primary election season? I had my doubts—and I still have some reservations—about this long-drawn-out affair. Between states jostling for position with early primaries, oversaturated media coverage, and a seemingly endless series of debates, a certain degree of voter fatigue would be understandable. But the energy, enthusiasm, and participation, particularly from young voters, have been intoxicating. This is turning out to be the best and most exciting primary election in my lifetime.

It is incumbent upon anyone with an interest in the nonprofit sector to consider the potential outcomes from a philanthropic perspective before making a decision on which candidate to back. Before I go any further, I'd like to take this moment to offer a friendly reminder:

501(c)(3) organizations cannot—under any circumstances—either endorse or oppose any political candidate. If you're unclear on the exact parameters of this restriction, please take a look at the guidance on this issue posted on the IRS Web site. This is not a restriction to be taken lightly, as it is an integral part of the covenant that allows nonprofits to pursue their charitable missions in a tax-exempt fashion.

Nonprofit professionals, however, are also citizens; we have a right—and an obligation—to select the candidates whom we feel best represent our values and concerns. I recently received an e-mail from Charles Bernard Maclean, the founder of PhilanthropyNow, a consulting organization that coaches nonprofits and donors toward more effective philanthropy, on this topic.

His message offered a series of questions designed for the media, debate organizers, and anyone who finds him- or herself in the enviable position of directly addressing the presidential candidates. The questions are intended to encourage the candidates toward openly disclosing their positions in regards to general philanthropic issues:

  • Who is your role model for good giving, and why?
  • What's the most satisfying gift you've given, and what did you get by giving it?
  • What do you care about, give to now, and why?
  • America is the most giving country in world. What will you do to continue and expand that ethic?
  • What's your stance on encouraging volunteering and dollar donation by all Americans?
  • What stops people from giving, and what national policies and legislation will you champion to dissolve that?
It is important that we elect a president with a clear understanding of—and appreciation for—the nonprofit sector and the role it plays in providing vital services to our society, often services that government cannot or does not provide. But it is equally important that we elect a president who has a personal understanding of philanthropy. Politicians are also citizens—generally wealthy citizens—and it is not unfair to assume that their personal attitudes toward charitable giving will have some effect on their professional decisions.

The ultimate concerns of the nonprofit sector should be agnostic to partisan lines. Regardless of which party is in power, we need an administration that will find a balance between effective oversight and over-regulation, one that will seek out ways to continue funding vital charitable programs, and one that will generally help create a society that encourages members of the next generation to embrace a life of volunteerism and socially conscious generosity.

Of course, the president is not the only individual with a responsibility to steer the nation toward an environment in which philanthropy can thrive. There are hundreds of thousands of others who choose to dedicate their time, their ideas, and their energies toward the same goal, including nonprofit professionals, volunteers, private philanthropists, and social entrepreneurs. Young people who aspire to a career that will allow them to have an impact on society would be well advised to note that politics are not their only option.

I believe that come November, the American people will select a candidate who will lead our country in the right direction. More important, I also believe that each of us has the opportunity to lead by example every day. By continuing to share our energies and work together, we become more than just citizens, more than just voters. In the end, we ourselves are the true agents of positive change.


Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: How Passion, Relationships, and Expectations Affect Director Tenure

In Syracuse, New York, one museum is currently searching for its fourth executive director in 10 years. Although this turnover may seem high, it is consistent with national trends in the not-for-profit industry. In a 2006 nationwide survey of nonprofit leadership, 75 percent of executives stated that they planned to leave their jobs within the next 5 years.

As students in the Syracuse University Graduate Program in Museum Studies, we recognize that we are preparing to enter a field with high attrition. So we set out to determine why this trend exists and find out if there is hope for our success. Can we avoid falling into the trap of nonprofit executive turnover?

Syracuse has long been used for market research due to its ethnic and economic diversity. Its average demographics place it fifth in a list of the top test markets in the United States. We concluded that the city is an acceptable representation of the nation.

We conducted 19 interviews with executive directors, board members, and employees from nonprofit community organizations in an effort to identify the reasons for turnover as well as ways to prevent it. Nearly every interviewee cited unmet expectations and underdeveloped relationships as the key reasons for executive director turnover. In an industry where these problems seem unavoidable, each was also able to offer valuable insight on how to succeed.

One thing that we as interviewers also noticed was that executive directors with a reasonable tenure were deeply committed to their respective organizations. Whether they were driven by wanting to know that their effort made a difference or by pure passion, directors and board members who stuck around were sincerely devoted to their organizations' missions.

Follow the Events Path to Major Gifts

Events are a common fundraising tactic among nonprofits. Dinners, galas, runs, walks, and auctions are all variations of the ever-promising, always-delivering event fundraiser.

Events encourage constituents to act in favor of the organization and provide a means for nonprofits to cultivate the relationship. But events have much more to offer. They can be a mechanism to discover major gift donors.

Events often create a donor's first impression of an organization. They can be the beginning of a long-term relationship, or they can be the end.

Events provide benefits beyond fundraising:

Five Fundraising Mistakes We Make with Our Boards

Too often nonprofit board members shy away from fundraising. When the subject comes up, many trustees suddenly become invisible or silent. Yet it is our responsibility to set up board members in active, satisfying roles that can support the fundraising process. But we frequently make mistakes that hurt, rather than help, our cause.

Why are trustees so nervous about fundraising? And how do we go wrong when we approach them about helping in fundraising? Here are five common mistakes that cause board members to back off when they should be pitching in.

Voluntourism: Making It Work for Your Organization

A growing trend is taking hold in the travel industry: "voluntourism." In a combination of vacationing and volunteering, some Americans are foregoing time-shares and are instead sharing their time with people in need. In fact, surveys conducted by Travelocity, Orbitz, and the Travel Industry Association show that the number of groups offering these volunteer vacations has doubled over the past three years. The demographics of "voluntourists" vary widely: young, old, singles, families, and even honeymooners are taking advantage of this win-win situation.

Although many voluntourism opportunities are available throughout the world, there are also plenty of offerings within the United States. For example, one prominent Web site, Global Volunteers, lists several U.S. volunteer possibilities. They include teaching English to children in immigrant populations in Minnesota, serving in various capacities on a Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, and refurbishing homes or tutoring youth in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia.

Interested in voluntourism for your organization? Here are some tips on how to start attracting voluntourists:

Assess Your Area's Tourist Attractions—Because you live in the area, sometimes you take for granted what the location has to offer. Brainstorm, request travel guides for your state, or go on-line to research. Remember that attractions don't need to be in your backyard but could be as much as a couple hours away. Include state parks, unique shopping opportunities, and scenic areas. And don't forget that a sporting event can turn an otherwise sleepy town into a bustling city, especially in college towns.

Network with Other Organizations to Reduce Costs—Voluntourists understand that they will be responsible for their travel and lodging costs. You can make your volunteer vacation more attractive, though, by exploring ways to reduce expenses. For instance, you may be able to partner with a local college during the summer to use their dorms as a temporary hostel, or approach a hotel about reduced rates. Check with local church groups or restaurants to see if they would provide low-cost or free meals for your participants.

Create Your Marketing Plan—When assembling a flyer or brochure to market your voluntourism opportunity, make sure you include all the basics. For example, list the estimated cost per person, the time frame needed (if any), and skills necessary. Emphasize any of the arrangements you have made to reduce your voluntourists' costs, as well as area attractions, and highlight the fact that expenses related to volunteer activities are tax-deductible.

Get the Word Out—Again, it's all about networking. It's always nice when someone else markets for you. Obviously, you will want to make connections with other organizations outside your region so that you will truly attract people who want to "get away" and visit your area. Think about organizations whose missions complement your own; perhaps they will even consider an "exchange program." Church groups are also natural fits. In addition, make sure to advertise your voluntourism opportunities on your own Web site, and look into getting listed on voluntourism sites.

Remember, even though your organization isn't a five-star resort, it can offer the experience of a lifetime. Unlike the typical getaway that just provides a brief respite from day-to-day activities, a volunteer vacation can enrich lives forever—both those of the voluntourists and the people they serve.

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.

Deadly Offenses

With some organizations, if you want to kill an idea, get the board to discuss it. They don't know what they want—and won't be happy until they get it.

I've been a consultant to philanthropy for 40 years. In that time, I've attended hundreds and hundreds of board meetings—perhaps a thousand (surely a sufficient number to earn me a place in heaven on the right hand of the saints and martyrs!).

Time and time again, I've heard the same seven deadly statements that can kill an idea:

IRS Updates, March 2008

The Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service was busy in February. It posted information on governance and related topics for 501(c)(3) organizations; announced that registration is open for one-day workshops for small and mid-sized 501(c)(3) organizations; released Form 990-N; posted a database of Form 990-N information; and released fact sheets on the complaint, examination, and compliance processes. Read on for details.