OK, I know it’s un-American to say anything nice about the IRS. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably note that I’m a former Fed (U.S. Department of State for 10 years) who grew up in a civil servant household (Dad worked for 30 years for the GAO, back when it was still the General Accounting Office). So I’m inclined to see your basic G-person as the underdog. But I really do appreciate the resources the IRS makes available to one and all on www.irs.gov.
I like having 24/7 access to authoritative information that answers my questions as a taxpayer. You know, things like "How do I determine how much to deduct for my in-kind charitable donations?" Enter Publication 561, available for download from the "Forms and Publications" link on the IRS home page, or directly on the site itself. So that when the spirit (finally) moves me to clean out my closets, I won’t be delayed because I don’t know how to estimate the value of all those things I’m going to donate to a local charity’s thrift store.
Given that I work for GuideStar, it’s probably no surprise that I particularly appreciate the "Charities and Non-Profits" section of the IRS site. I’ll be writing an article about a new IRS initiative, regulation, development, whatever. I summarize it in my own words, then link directly to the official information on the IRS site. Because the IRS has embraced transparency, I am able to inform GuideStar’s users without crossing the line into providing legal or tax advice, which GuideStar does not do and which I am not qualified to do.
What does all of this have to do with trust? The IRS has given exempt nonprofits the information they need to stay in compliance with the tax code. You can point your supporters—or even your detractors—to the IRS site and say, "These are the rules, and here’s what we’re doing to obey them." You can demonstrate that your organization is aware of—and meeting—its obligations as a tax-exempt entity. Does obeying the rules speak to effectiveness and impact? Probably not. But it does demonstrate competence. I don’t know about you, but I like knowing that my contribution is going to an organization that knows what it’s doing.
P.S. If you want to know more about what your organization needs to do to be in compliance with the tax code, you can also check out www.stayexempt.org.