Highlights of Blackbaud’s Online Marketing Benchmark Study for Nonprofits

Dennis McCarthy

How to Ensure Your Charitable Donations Do the Most Good

David Bakke

Does running your nonprofit feel a bit overwhelming?

Most nonprofit leaders wear so many hats that deciding where to focus their time and energy can feel very overwhelming!

Community College Foundations: Fundraising and Endowment Management Strategies for the “New Normal”

In late April 2013, the New Community College at CUNY (NYC) received a grant of $15 million - one of the largest gifts ever for a Community College. A gift this size is rare and will have a significant impact on this college. The donation also puts a spotlight on community colleges, an important sector to both higher education and the local communities they serve.

Wishing you a happy Memorial Day

GuideStar wishes you a very happy Memorial Day! We remember those who have given their lives serving our country. We hope you take a moment to celebrate those who have sacrificed so much so that we could have so much, and honor their memories with your loved ones. It’s a great time for a picnic or BBQ with your family and friends!

INFOGRAPHIC: Which causes do most nonprofits serve?

This Spring we dug into the GuideStar database and searched organizations based on each National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) Category Code. The NTEE Classification System, used by the IRS and National Center For Charitable Statistics, to classify nonprofits, breaks out nonprofit organizations into 26 major groups (we’ve also referred to them as Categories in our infographic). The groups are classified even further and we’ve represented the next level by Subcategories (also known as Decile Codes).

5 Reasons You Should Take a Second Look at Your Form 990…Today

Andrew Gray

What can data do for you?

These days, Big Data is all the rage. You can’t swing a stick in a coffee shop without hitting a journalist or blogger writing about the potential – and pitfalls – of drawing insights from the unprecedented volume of data being produced every second of every day. Organizations of all kinds are being urged to make the most of this new resource to better target and tailor their work.

But for a resource-strapped nonprofit, taking on data analytics can seem to be a monumental challenge. Financial concerns are paramount: with the field of data analytics booming and salaries skyrocketing, attracting top-tier talent can take massive financial resources from organizations that may already be forced to make sacrifices just to operate. Second is the problem of understanding: without prior experience, it can be difficult to know what, if any, insights data can generate that would empower your organization to better achieve its mission.

Luckily, both problems are easily solvable. Your nonprofit can recruit passionate students from around the world seeking real-world experience – for free – through a new massively open online course, the University of Washington’s Introduction to Data Science. Organizations can post projects ranging from data visualization to predictive modeling and more. Not sure how you could benefit? Here are some tips on how your organization can learn – and grow - from data:

1. Don’t worry about getting technical – instead, think of where you need help and what questions you want answered.

Free resources like Introduction to Data Science mean that you don’t need to worry about the technicalities, like how to use (or pronounce) data software solutions like Hadoop. Instead, you’re free to focus on asking guiding questions and letting students handle the rest.

First, figure out where you’d like your organization to gain additional insights. Data analysis can help with anything from publicity / marketing to human resources to gauging impact – it just takes a well-framed question or two. Here are some examples:

  • Which pieces of our web content have most boosted our online presence (social media followers, Google searches, site traffic) and why?
  • Which of our social media posts have seen the most engagement from followers? What characterizes these posts (e.g. timing, length, subject)?
  • How can we best present the statistics that inform our mission and demonstrate the urgency of our work?
  • Given the demographics and other (anonymized) information about our clients, can you predict which ones will be impacted by our services the most?
  • What is the profile of the ideal hire / partner / consultant for our organization?
  • How do the measurable indicators of our impact compare to those of other organizations working with similar clients?
  • Based on previous grants we’ve received, why do certain foundations tend to support our work?

2. Consider what you could learn from public datasets.

A common misconception among nonprofits is that organizations need to have their own internal store of data to benefit from analytics support. However, there are thousands of powerful datasets available online from research institutions, free of charge; moreover, in the age of the web and social media, data pulled from social networks or your own web traffic can generate extraordinary insights about your reach. Here are a few examples:

  • Twitter and Facebook both have APIs – application programming interfaces – that allow developers to pull data and analyze data from public feeds.
  • There are several unofficial APIs for Google Trends, a public tool that examines Google search volume over time for a given term and offers the chance to drill down by language, location, and more.
  • The powerful Google Analytics API, when partnered with metadata from your website, can help discern patterns in web traffic, allowing you to better target your content to your anticipated audience.
  • The World Bank has a massive volume of datasets on a wide variety of international development-related topics.
  • Pew Research, a leading nonpartisan research and polling firm, has thousands of historical datasets from U.S. political surveys available for analysis.
  • Google has a listing of hundreds of additional publicly available datasets from governments, research institutions, and more.

3. Don’t stress about “Big Data” – focus on your own organization’s context.

The notion of “Big Data” can be overwhelming at times. With 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (and counting!) being generated every day, who has time to attempt to sift through it and separate the signal from the noise?

Truth be told, to benefit from data analytics, your organization doesn’t need to worry about conjuring up a massive internal dataset, nor must it seek answers from unwieldy public datasets. Instead, focus on finding the information you need to answer the specific questions you’re asking.

In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, GuideStar’s own Jacob Harold calls “medium data” – information specific to your organization’s work and its field – a necessary precursor to “going big.” He’s right: for most organizations, more modest, targeted datasets can provide extraordinarily valuable insights. Depending on your needs, external data can also serve as a “training set” to develop overarching models that can then draw more specific insights using smaller internal datasets.


Still unsure how data can help your organization? Post in the comments and we’ll brainstorm with you! Don’t miss the opportunity to recruit students for free data analytics support – sign up for Introduction to Data Science today to gain insights that could supercharge your impact.

Amit Jain

Amit Jain is the lead researcher and marketing director at Coursolve, which connects academic courses to organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. He is also an associate teacher of middle school math and science at a charter school in Boston, MA.

Our Friends in Oklahoma, Hearts and Heads Together

Not too long ago, we were sharing a suggested vehicle for philanthropy in response to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Sacramento Region Community Foundation: Leading Pivotal Change Toward Community Philanthropy in the Sacramento Region

Congratulations to GuideStar’s newest DonorEdge customer, Sacramento Region Community Foundation (SRCF), on the successful launch of their local version of GuideStar DonorEdge, The Giving Edge, and Arts Day of Giving on April 29! The launch and giving event was a first in several exciting ways:

  • The Giving Edge launched to the public in only 60 days!
    • This ground-breaking launch was made possible by innovative new GuideStar DonorEdge technology, shared knowledge and expertise of the DonorEdge Learning Community, and dedicated SRCF staff and partners.
    • The Arts Day of Giving raised more than $500,000 for the Sacramento region community in 24 hours!
      • It was Sacramento’s first ever regional online giving event.
      • A 2011 study found that Sacramento residents:
        • are less likely to give than the national average
        • who do give, give below the national average
        • only 63% of giving is local
  • 70 local arts nonprofits shared their stories through their Giving Edge profiles
    • A $1,000 prize was awarded to the nonprofit receiving the most unique visits to their Giving Edge profile during the 24-hour period.

These first-ever milestones achieved by SRCF and its partners set the stage for pivotal change, long-term impact of increasing community philanthropy, and improving the quality of life in the Sacramento region community. The Giving Edge is ultimately about engaging the Sacramento region in charitable giving, inspiring philanthropy at all levels, providing nonprofits an opportunity to showcase their critical contribution to community and society, and empowering donors to make informed decisions about their charitable giving.

Congratulations to our partners in Sacramento!

Lori Larson

If you are interested in learning more about DonorEdge or the DonorEdge Learning Community, please contact Lori Larson, senior director GuideStar DonorEdge,

Lori Larson is senior director of GuideStar DonorEdge. Lori leads GuideStar’s market and product strategy for DonorEdge and is responsible for customer account management of the DonorEdge Learning Community. Prior to joining GuideStar, Lori worked for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, with her most recent position being director of knowledge development. Previous to her foundation and nonprofit sector work, Lori was the operations manager of a multi-entity oil and gas corporation in Houston, Texas, and was assistant publisher of a software company in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The New and Improved GuideStar Exchange Form

You told us that the GuideStar Exchange Form was too hard to fill out. There were too many sections. You couldn't always tell what kind of information was supposed to go in specific fields. The form was hard to navigate.

Befriending Your Donors: Interview with Fundraiser Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf, author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, recently spoke with his publisher about donor relations. GuideStar has published two excerpts from the book (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share Dr. Wolf's additional thoughts with you.

Your book is about relating to donors, at times befriending them. A cynical person might say that's a manipulative ploy to snare money.

That's an attitude I've never understood. I like people. I like getting to know them whether they have money or turn out to be donors. Invariably, our relating makes them feel good and makes me feel good—especially when we strike a bond or find common interests. Why should there be an invisible barrier just because someone is a potential supporter?

You have a would-be donor on your radar: he has money and community influence. Problem is you detest the fellow. What's your strategy?

This is a great challenge. I find it difficult to build a relationship with someone I don't respect. And I'm loath to fake it. On the other hand, I've been wrong about people who I didn't think I'd like and who turned out to be genuinely interesting and kind. So everyone gets a chance in my book. But if it's not a good match, I'll look for another fundraising volunteer. Interestingly, there's almost always someone who will take up the challenge.

You say that if you were to choose one potential donor you'd like to make friends with, it would be the wealthy individual who says (or implies) that he or she doesn't want to talk about money and doesn't want to be solicited. That sounds counter-intuitive.

There are many wealthy people who don't want to talk about money and others who tell you they don't want to be solicited. It's a challenge, certainly, but it can be overcome. One of my mentors was just such a person. He didn't like talking about his personal giving but he did love to talk about what was going on with the organization. And more than anything, he liked to give advice. I asked for it frequently. Sometimes he would become especially interested in an idea and would ask, "How much would it take to do that?" And that would usually lead to a nice check.

Can you be too close to someone to ask them for money? And, if so, what's Plan B?

Absolutely. There are people I won't solicit because the relationship is too close. But I will help others develop a plan of action and I don't mind opening the door for other fundraisers, making the introduction. One of my boyhood friends—a man with quite a lot of money—is someone I finally decided I could solicit. But I asked him first if he'd mind or would he rather be solicited by someone else. We had a good laugh, went off for a beer, and I came away with a contribution.

Your book makes it clear that connecting with donors can take a while. When all the good work and time invested fails, it must be awfully frustrating, is it not?

Ted Williams was one of my heroes—he was a great hitter for the Boston Red Sox and practiced hard to get better and better. But when he stood at the plate, even with his remarkable hand-eye coordination, he realized he'd fail more often than not. One season he batted .406—an amazing average. That means, the greatest hitter perhaps of all time struck out, grounded out, and popped up more often than he got a hit. Fundraising is like that. You work hard but you don't expect 100 percent success. You just try to improve your average and hit for extra bases when you can.

You're a huge proponent of thank you letters, aren't you?

I write "thank you" letters obsessively—they're one of the secrets of truly effective fundraising. Sometimes people ask me: "What should I say in my letters?" That's a completely wrong-headed question. The whole point is that there is no formula. The letters must be personal, often citing some wonderful thing a donor or a member of the organizational family has done recently. Sometimes I send an article that I know will be of interest or share something humorous. And often the best letters are those I send for no reason at all—a note or a card that says I'm thinking of them.

You claim in your book that you can predict "with a fair degree of accuracy who's going to be an effective fundraiser and who isn't." Tell me the clues you pick up.

Self-confidence combined with interest in other people. These are individuals willing to look me in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and show curiosity. They're willing to engage, and, most important, they show a talent for listening. On the other side, I've rarely met a good fundraiser who scowls a lot or looks depressed. The first three letters of fundraising are "f-u-n," after all.

Many have the impression that fundraisers have to be gregarious. Need introverts apply?

It's funny—some gregarious people are terrible fundraisers. Everything's about them. On the other hand, skillful fundraisers can be modest and quiet—and great at listening. They draw out the donor and find topics he or she wants to talk about. But it is true, if you lack self-confidence, you probably won't be good at raising money. You have to be able to make others feel comfortable.

What's the worst mistake a fundraiser can make?

If there's one mistake I've made all too often, it's not paying attention to donors' children. They're the ones, after all, who will someday come into the family wealth. And once they do, it's too late to cultivate a relationship. Because kids like to strike out on their own and usually don't want to mimic their parents' philanthropy, I try to find activities and programs for them that are completely different from the ones their mothers and fathers are supporting.


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Dr. Thomas Wolf's career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts. After serving as the founding director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector and assisted 10 of the 50 largest U.S. foundations and various government agencies with their grants programs. The author of numerous books and articles, Wolf is also a professional flutist listed in the International Who's Who of Music.

Sharing info about your nonprofit on GuideStar is easier than ever

We are excited to announce that the GuideStar Exchange interface has been overhauled to be more streamlined and easy-to-use, allowing participants to provide information about their nonprofits on GuideStar as they have access to it - one step at a time.

GuideStar Member Spotlight: Bruce Keenan

Bruce Keenan

Advanced Training for Nonprofit Professionals

As nonprofit professionals reach a certain level in their jobs, they often seek advanced training development. It may come with a rise through the ranks, or it may occur when a staffer is tasked with a new strategic fundraising campaign. In any case, nonprofit professionals have options for advanced training and career development courses in their work.

2012 IRS Forms 990, 990-EZ and 8868 Extension Request Available NOW!

If your nonprofit organization’s fiscal year ended December 31st, your filing deadline is May 15th. Still trying to get your Form 990 in before the deadline? Whether you e-File or mail Forms 990, NCCS Form 990 Online can help make the process trouble-free. The web site can:

Nonprofits should collaborate and share more ideas internally

Did you know that some of your best ideas for your organization can come from your internal employees? The people who come to work for your organization every day have some great ideas floating around in their heads, but often don’t have the opportunity to say what they think about a particular matter or topic. Usually a company’s challenges can be solved via an internal idea. Your employees could be very helpful in helping achieve your end goal and helping in the smooth running of your organization or department, particularly in the following ways:

The Pre-Ask Meeting: Who, What, When, Where and Why?

The most important activity on every cultivation plan for soliciting major gifts from prospective donors is a personal meeting or visit.

Getting creative with your target audience

There is great work being done across the world to not only communicate the missions and impact of nonprofit organizations, but also to deliver innovative, lasting messages that influence change and ultimately make the world a better place.

Viral Volunteerism: 171 Billion Reasons to Give Back

Have you ever stopped to think about the value of your volunteers? Every nonprofit certainly appreciates its volunteers, but I’m talking hard dollars and cents here. If you added up all the volunteer hours over the last year, how much would that actually be worth? For most nonprofits, the total sum might be staggering. Here’s why.

Corbit Harrison

According to a report by, each volunteer hour is worth $22.14 per hour. If you consider that over 7.9 billion hours were donated in 2011 (according to The Federal Agency for Service & Volunteering), the total “value” of volunteer hours in the US exceeds $171 billion annually.

Corporate America’s Impact on Volunteerism

Simply stated, volunteers can be the greatest asset a nonprofit has. As I discussed in a previous article, corporate sponsors have started to realize this fact. These days, most major for-profits have some type of corporate volunteer program. If you’re not familiar with such programs, corporations typically partner with nonprofits by sending a steady stream of employees as volunteers. Some companies even offer paid time off for employees to volunteer. These arrangements can be especially beneficial for the nonprofit, as corporate employees tend to be highly skilled volunteers with expertise in areas such as marketing, accounting, technology, and other professional services.

Going Beyond Employee Volunteer Programs

Lately, we’ve been noticing a desire (by both nonprofits and corporate partners) to move “beyond” a traditional employee volunteer program. The natural progression is often for the corporation to make a financial contribution to further support the nonprofit’s mission. Sure, corporate financial donations are always appreciated, but such endowments can be quickly eaten up by the nonprofit’s operating budget. Such donations, though certainly helpful, rarely offer any lasting or ongoing value to the nonprofit. If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s time I introduce you to a new concept: viral volunteerism.

What is Viral Volunteerism?

In today’s culture, it’s quite common to hear the word “viral” used to describe some silly YouTube video that managed to get millions of views. How could this concept ever apply to your volunteer programs and other services? Simply put, our research shows that every corporate sponsorship dollar assigned to new technology (specifically value-added software applications) has an obvious “viral” effect on the nonprofit’s mission and vision. Keep in mind that software donations aren’t a particularly new concept. For example, Microsoft has been leading the charge on this for years. However, I would argue that engaging corporate sponsors to help pay for new applications has an added “viral” effect (versus traditional software donation programs). Let’s take a closer look at a real-world example.

Why “Viral” is Better than “Free”

A food bank realizes it desperately needs a volunteer management tool like VolunteerHub. Instead of paying for it, the food bank sends a letter (click here for a free template) to its favorite corporate donor asking for the gift of technology. The corporate sponsor agrees and purchases the VolunteerHub subscription for the food bank. Instantly, the food bank sees a 40% improvement in volunteer operations and is able to re-allocate some of its volunteer hours to recruiting new volunteers. After one year of this arrangement, the food bank is able to increase total volunteer hours by 15% and reduce volunteer turnover by 5%. Simultaneously, the corporate sponsor sees the value that the food bank is getting from the software and decides to make a similar donation to 10 other nonprofits in the community.

So let’s take a deeper look at the value being created in this example. Keep in mind, each improvement is valued at $22.14 per volunteer hour used by a nonprofit.

  • Value for the food bank:
    • Free volunteer management tool, sponsored by the corporate partner
    • 40% improvement in operations, allowing for a re-allocation of volunteer hours to more value-added activities
    • 15% increase in total volunteer hours
    • 5% decrease in volunteer turnover
  • Value for the corporate sponsor:
    • Measurable value for each philanthropic dollar invested
    • Reinforced relationship with the food bank
    • Scalable philanthropic program, which can be offered to other charitable organizations
  • Value for the community:
    • Simply multiply the value experienced by the food bank times the number of software sponsorships offered by the corporate partner

Go Viral & Start Benefitting

I’d personally like to offer myself as a resource in helping nonprofits connect their operational needs to corporate philanthropy. Since 1996, VolunteerHub has been used by nonprofits to track over 5 billion hours (yes, billion with a “b”). We’ve established a strong record of helping nonprofits get connected with corporate sponsors. Feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll be glad to help.

The preceding is a guest post by Corbit Harrison, Chief Operating Officer for VolunteerHub, a cloud-based volunteer management software application that offers online event registration, email and SMS (text) messaging, report generation, and much more. Corbit has been actively helping non-profit organizations better engage constituents for over 10 years. Connect with Corbit on LinkedIn. This is part of our ongoing VolunteerCorner series – focusing on issues that you need to know about in the nonprofit sector.

Looking to take your online presence to the next level?

What's the key to successful crowd funding? How do you drive online advocacy? Want to know how to turn your followers into fundraisers?

Are Your Marketing and Fundraising Goals Easy to Reach… Or A Stretch?

Nancy Schwartz

Meeting Yearly with Individual Board Members Bears Fruit

Excerpted from the newly revised edition of The Ultimate Board Member's Book: A 1-Hour Guide to Understanding and Fulfilling Your Role and Responsibilities

Chances are your board chair and CEO have never conducted yearly meetings with individual board members.

When introduced to the idea, many ask the logical question, "Why?" They feel their board is functioning well, members are giving, and people seem pleased with their committee or task force assignments. All's well in the world.

Even if that's true, a yearly meeting with each board member will both improve motivation and often increase their financial contributions.

Organizations that resist individual meetings cite time as the consideration. Board members won't care to spend an extra hour this way, they believe. My 30 years of experience refutes this. And, if someone really resists, there's no need to press further.

Here's what is to be gained from an individual meeting. Judge for yourself whether it's worth the time:

  • A confidential forum for board members to express their concerns, desires, or issues.
  • An opportunity to determine, with the organization's leadership, the nature and extent of their involvement for the coming year.
  • Positive feedback for their current involvement and encouragement to stay involved in the most productive way.
  • A personal solicitation of their gift that models the asking process they may be called upon to emulate one day.

In my opinion, the benefit of such a meeting can't be overstated. Yes, and there's one other critical reason for this get-together: it offers a gracious opportunity to "de-enlist" when necessary.

Sometimes, even a once-stellar board member no longer performs. And, too often, we let this slide for months or years. We rationalize for him—after all, he's a volunteer—and tend to make excuses long after we should.

Possibly the most challenging decision board members ever make is determining when and how to de-enlist one of their colleagues.

As necessary as the action might be, board members hesitate. They're concerned, rightly, about the person's feelings and how the fallout might affect the organization's reputation. What we fail to factor in, however, is that most uninvolved board members are looking for a gracious way out.

If your board chair and CEO are willing to meet annually with each board member, the angst over de-enlistment will dissipate. This is the best opportunity, in private, to ask why the person's involvement has declined.

Very often, a board member will confess that she's lost interest, has an ill spouse, a new and demanding job, or other such personal and pressing matters. At that moment, the board chair and CEO can thank the person for her service, acknowledge the current situation with regret, and offer her the opportunity to step down, perhaps temporarily, until circumstances have changed.

Once in a while, a board member whose de-enlistment seemed certain will even turn things around (probably due to the special attention received).

It's important to prune deadwood on a board. But it's also key to discover why the wood is dying. Only then can you prune correctly, or water and witness new growth.

Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from The Ultimate Board Member's Book: A 1-Hour Guide to Understanding and Fulfilling Your Role and Responsibilities, newly revised edition. Excerpted with permission.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is also the author of Over Goal! and Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards as well as a regular contributor to Contributions Magazine. She is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well known in the United States and internationally.

How Fundraisers Can Get More Out of LinkedIn

Originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Avoiding Financial Fraud

Imagine that you wake up one morning to find your organization's name on the front page of the newspaper with a headline about fraud. It might be your worst nightmare as a board member.

It actually happened to the Woodruff Arts Center last November, when it admitted it had been defrauded of $1.438 million by an employee over a five-year period. Last month, the employee, Ralph Clark, admitted to embezzling $1.1 million by approving fictitious invoices for facilities-related services rendered to the arts center. He was able to approve invoices of up to $50,000 with little oversight, and the funds were then paid to his personal bank account. The fictitious invoices were for cleaning services from his wife's business that were never rendered ($780,000) and services he and students allegedly performed after hours ($153,000 and $41,000, respectively). He also received kickbacks ($165,000) from a maintenance service vendor in exchange for approving inflated invoices. (It is unclear why the difference in embezzlement amounts exists. Woodruff reported $1.438 million in fraud, but Clark admitted to only $1.1 million in embezzlement.)

The silver lining of the Woodruff's misfortune is that it gives nonprofit boards an excuse to reevaluate their own actions with respect to internal controls. Here are four tips to start the conversation.

Set the Right Tone at the Top

There is a reason "control environment" is the first and most important factor in establishing an entity's internal control framework, according to COSO, the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission. The control environment, the entity's "tone at the top" conveyed by management, senior leaders, and, of course, a nonprofit's board of directors, affects employees' behavior.

Employees and those associated with an organization ascertain quickly whether management is happy to endorse—wink, wink—the occasional pocketing of supplies for personal use, or whether a lavish outing on the organization's dime is soft compensation (in lieu of higher salaries), a justified reward, or simply a nice excuse to try a hot restaurant's new spring menu.

The environment is set and felt in less obvious ways as well. Is merit rewarded above longevity? Are employees encouraged to engage in open dialogue with superiors and board members? Are there opportunities to engage in open dialogue (informal and otherwise) across divisions and departments, and even across leadership levels?

Such an environment—one that appreciates merit, encourages dialogue, and operates ethically—is the most effective complement to system-based internal controls and ongoing oversight activities from the auditor or the board.

Get Over the Denial Quickly

You may feel an entire gamut of emotions upon learning of employee fraud: anger, denial, embarrassment, or betrayal. Your instinct may be to act on any or all of those emotions rashly by firing the executive director, blaming a wayward employee, resigning from the board, or turning off your phone.

But as Katherine McLane, the vice president for communications and external affairs for the Livestrong Foundation, advised attendees of the Direct Marketing Association's annual nonprofit conference in Washington, D.C., last February, being prepared to make tough decisions and avoiding the paralysis boards sometimes feel when faced with unpalatable choices were two key factors that helped her organization navigate their own trying episode.

They acted swiftly and coherently, but not rashly or impulsively, to "tell [Lance Armstrong] to step away for the sake of preserving" the foundation's work. The board didn't linger over its denial; it wasn't paralyzed by the scandal. Individually, board members still had to process their emotions with respect to the incident, but as a group, as a leadership entity, as a board, the board acted.

Engage the Auditor

An annual audit and a strong relationship with an auditor can add tremendous value to an organization, in terms of accounting expertise, advice on internal controls, and knowledge about industry issues. Such value is often why some states and funders encourage (or mandate) the use of independent auditors for organizations that exceed certain size thresholds.

But if board members are simply relying on the auditor to ensure that the financial aspects of the organization are running smoothly, they may be caught unaware. An audit is not foolproof. An audit is not simply a stamp of approval that allows the board to consider programmatic challenges in lieu of financial ones.

An audit is an important aspect of maintaining the financial health of an organization, especially a larger organization, but it is not a panacea to prevent fraud.

Board members should view conversations with the auditor as an opportunity to discuss the organization's overall health and especially areas for improvement the auditor may have noticed. And the conversation should be just that: a conversation. If the auditor simply presents findings to the audit committee, whose members nod in approval, skim the management letter, and report briefly to the full board, the conversation is lacking engagement.

After all, it was an audit by Jones Day, a law firm retained by the Woodruff Arts Center, that gathered evidence and findings about the employee's fraud. Jones Day was retained when the employee's supervisor became suspicious, and I hope the conversations Jones Day continues to have with Woodruff's board continue to help the arts center resolve its challenges.

Review Finances Concisely, Consistently, and Creatively

I hope a review of financial information is an integral part of every board meeting, but simply reviewing the information is no guarantee that it is relevant, useful, or even accurate. Plus, if the financial review is buried as the final agenda item or if board members allow their eyes to glaze over as soon as numbers are placed before them, the review might not be all that helpful. And if too much attention is focused on the revenue side of the equation (How is our endowment doing? Have we met our year-to-date fundraising goal?), expense issues—including potentially fraudulent ones—may go unnoticed.

Instead, consider presenting the financial update in a concise, consistent, and creative way during each board meeting. Make as much information available to the board as it desires, but spend the meeting time discussing a few key metrics that board members should review on a regular basis. These vary by organization, but they usually involve a budget-to-actual report, a cash update, an administrative update (perhaps on the status of the audit or tax return), and an update on any other matters of importance to the board.

Spend the board meeting summarizing these key metrics (perhaps with graphs to illustrate the point in picture form), and allow the board to develop a baseline expectation of what the pictures should show. That way, deviations will be more apparent and pique the board's interest.

These four tips aren't guaranteed to prevent fraud or keep an organization's name off the front page of the paper, but by considering these and any other tips, board members might be able to sleep a bit easier, knowing their worst nightmares as board members are less likely to be realized.


Elaine Grogan Luttrull, CPA, Minerva Financial Arts
© 2013, Minerva Financial Arts

CPA Elaine Grogan Luttrull is the author of Arts & Numbers (Agate B2, 2013) and the founder of Minerva Financial Arts, a company devoted to bridging the gap between business and the arts. In addition, she teaches at the Ohio State University and the Columbus College of Art & Design, and she is the former director of financial analysis for The Julliard School.

Should you be in the cloud?

The cloud. Few phrases have gotten more buzz in recent years. Of course, what that buzz means to nonprofits is rarely discussed with any great detail.

Follow-up to Major Gifts for Small Shops Webinar

During yesterday's fundraising webinar, I received several questions I wasn't able to answer live. See below for my follow-up: