GuideStar’s database has information on 1,684,038 active nonprofits. Recently, we added new information to the profiles of 46 of these organizations: the fact that they had been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). That action has earned us both celebration and criticism. So I wanted to take a moment to share the thinking behind our choice to add this new data source.
We see our role in the nonprofit sector as being a hub of information about nonprofit organizations. GuideStar has more than 3 billion pieces of data, much of it from the Forms 990 that nonprofits file with the IRS. Many profiles also include additional information: data shared directly with GuideStar by 138,000 nonprofits, more than 300,000 reviews, analysis from 3,000 experts, and more.
Our task is to take this diversity of sources to offer a multi-dimensional view of nonprofits. That means GuideStar profiles present a mixture of irrefutable facts and people’s opinions. Sometimes, a single profile contains contradictory information. For example, we share stakeholder reviews of nonprofits through our partnership with GreatNonprofits. Most of these reviews are positive, but, as of June 14, 2017, we are sharing 17,086 negative reviews. We also have built tools to let nonprofits tell their own stories—in their own terms—with text, photos, video, and quantitative metrics. None of these data sources is perfect. Even the seemingly objective financial data in the Form 990 is subject to significant accounting discretion.
GuideStar’s job is not to make decisions for people. Our job is to help people access the information they need so that they can make their own decisions.
A few months ago we started to hear from customers who were worried they might facilitate a donation to a hate group—which I’ll (imperfectly) define as an organization that denigrates a group of people based on their identity. Given this concern, we began researching potential partners from whom we could obtain data on hate groups—not because we thought we could provide a definitive answer, but because we wanted to offer additional data. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) emerged as the best option. GuideStar is not the only organization to rely on the SPLC: major donor-advised funds, giving platforms, media outlets, and law enforcement agencies also use SPLC’s data.
The SPLC has the most comprehensive information on hate groups that we could find. It has been in business for 46 years and shows every sign of remaining in existence for many years to come. There are, though, legitimate critiques of SPLC’s analyses, such as this from the Philanthropy Roundtable or this in the Atlantic. And although the SPLC identifies a wide range of hate group ideologies—from “Black Separatist” to “Holocaust Denial”—some have accused SPLC of political bias. Others accuse it of being too focused on fundraising. We fully acknowledge these critiques. No data source is perfect.
Let me be clear, GuideStar does not engage in partisan politics. Our staff includes Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; our people and our data reflect the diversity of American society. And, importantly, the nonprofit sector itself reflects that same diversity. In a time of political polarization, that means that GuideStar’s data about nonprofits will necessarily reflect a variety of perspectives. We acknowledge that we must make choices about what data to share and how to frame that data. And trust us, those choices are not always easy.
Given demand from our users—and our mission to offer a multi-dimensional view of nonprofits—we intend to continue using the SPLC as a data source. That said, we are currently iterating on the design of our Nonprofits Profiles and will release a significant refresh this summer. This refresh will include changes in how we present many aspects of nonprofit data, including data from the SPLC. As part of this refresh, we will link directly to SPLC analysis so that users can make as informed a decision as possible. If a user does not consider the SPLC’s analysis to be legitimate, we invite him or her to ignore it. We would say the same for any other type of data we share.
Our beloved country finds itself in a time of political polarization. At times, nonprofit organizations reflect that polarization. But we must remember that in the vast majority of cases, nonprofits embody the qualities that bring us together as a people. The nonprofit community can and should be a reminder of the best parts of the America story. May it—may we—rise to this moment.
Jacob Harold is GuideStar's president and CEO. Harold came to GuideStar from the Hewlett Foundation, where he led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. Between 2006 and 2012, he oversaw $30 million in grants that, together, aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving. Jacob was named to the NonProfit Times (NPT) Power and Influence Top 50 list in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He has written extensively on climate change and philanthropic strategy; his essays have been used as course materials at Stanford, Duke, Wharton, Harvard, Oxford, and Tsinghua. Harold earned an AB from Duke and an MBA from Stanford. He grew up in Winston-Salem, NC where his parents ran small, community-based nonprofits.