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GuideStar's First User Survey


Thanks to everyone who completed GuideStar's June 2000 user survey. Your answers are helping us identify which parts of our site you find most useful and which areas can better meet your needs.

A number of people included comments or suggestions with their responses. We want to take this opportunity to respond to several remarks that addressed similar issues.

The comments fell into the following areas:

  • Searching the database and search results
  • GuideStar reports
  • Financial information and IRS Forms 990, 990-EZ, and 990-PF

Searching the Database and Search Results 

  • Finding specific organizations by name 
    Several people said that they have had problems searching for specific nonprofits by name. If this happens to you, try using fewer words from the organization's name as your search term.

    Also, enter the terms in Charity Search or the Keywords field of Advanced Search, rather than in the Organization Name field of Advanced Search. Charity Search and the Keywords field are less sensitive than the Organization Name field.

  • Search categories 
    Some users commented that they would like to see more search categories. We will be adding more this fall as part of an overall upgrade of the GuideStar database and Web site.

    Until then, try refining your search by using more than one field in Advanced Search.

  • Alphabetical index of organizations in the database 
    Some participants said that they want to see an alphabetical list of the organizations in the database. Others want an alphabetical list of the nonprofits in each state.

    At this time, we do not think these ideas are feasible. There are more than 700,000 organizations in the database, making an alphabetical list unmanageable.

    The same thing is true for an alphabetical list by state. Some states have an astonishing number of nonprofit organizations in them; on July 5, the database showed 85,611 nonprofits in California, 30,406 in Illinois, and 55,154 in New York. Even less populous states have a surprisingly large number of nonprofit organizations; on July 5, the database showed 2,663 organizations in Alaska.

    There is hope, however. This fall, we will add a "sounds like" feature to our search engine. With this feature, when a search fails to find any nonprofits matching terms entered in the organization name, city, or state fields, a list of the organizations closest to the search terms will appear.

  • Searches are not broad enough 
    A few people noted that they want to identify all nonprofits in a specific category or engaged in a particular activity. Such broad searches, however, produce the message that the search criteria need to be refined.

    As part of our system upgrade this fall, we will be doubling the number of organizations that can appear in the results of a particular search. The maximum will increase from 500 to 1,000.

    In the meantime, the only thing we can suggest is to search using both the Keyword and State fields in Advanced Search. For states that have many nonprofit organizations, such as California and New York, you may also need to use Income Range.

GuideStar Reports  

  • Accessing the GuideStar Reports and Forms 990, 990-EZ, and 990-PF 
    Some users reported that they did not know how to find and view organizations' GuideStar Reports and Forms 990.

    If you have this problem, try our New User Tutorial. It shows you how to search the database and view a nonprofit's GuideStar Report.

    You may also want to look at our tutorial on Understanding the GuideStar Report. It discusses the information found on each page of a GuideStar Report, including the Form 990 page.

    You'll find more information on the Forms 990 in the financial information and IRS Forms 990, 990-EZ, and 990-PF section of this article.

  • Provide up-to-date contact information, including each organization's telephone number; indicate the geographic area(s) served by an organization; note what kind of donations an organization accepts; identify an organization's primary supporters; include the acronym(s) used by each nonprofit; provide Web site addresses for each charity that has one; indicate the number of employees working for each organization
    The short answer to these suggestions is "If we have the information, we include it."

    The complete response is that the source of information on an organization determines the extent of the data in that nonprofit's GuideStar Report.

    Information in the GuideStar Reports comes from three main sources: the Internal Revenue Service's Business Master File (BMF), IRS Forms 990 or 990-EZ, and the nonprofits themselves.

    • GuideStar Reports based on the BMF contain the least information. The BMF provides only the most basic data about an organization, such as its employer identification number (EIN), name, address, gross income, and National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) code. It does not include telephone numbers, geographic areas served, donation and supporter information, acronyms, Web site URLs, or the number of employees working for the nonprofit.

    • Reports based on the Forms 990 or 990-EZ are more complete. In addition to including its EIN, name, address, and NTEE, a charity must also list its purpose, accomplishments, senior officers, and board members for the appropriate reporting year. Last year, the IRS began requiring each charity to include a telephone number on the 990. Finally, financial information on the 990 is more accurate and complete than that found in the BMF.

      The 990 does not, however, require a charity to list its Web site address or to state explicitly which regions it serves. Sometimes GuideStar can determine from an organization's statement of purpose or accomplishments which geographic areas it covers; other times we cannot.

      Nor are charities required to classify their supporters. Some 990s identify specific donors, but privacy laws (and ethics) prohibit the inclusion of donor information on the GuideStar Web site.

    • Reports containing information provided by the organizations are the most complete. Nonprofits enhance or update their GuideStar Reports by filling out an online questionnaire. This opportunity is provided to the organizations at no charge. A nonprofit completing the questionnaire must provide the following information:

      • Organization name
      • Address
      • Phone number
      • Contact name
      • One-sentence description
      • Mission
      • Operating programs
      • Previous year's accomplishments
      • Current year's objectives

      An organization can, but is not required to, provide its Web site address, up to three NTEE codes, information about the kind of contributions it wishes to receive, a description of its geographic reach, a statement about how it assesses its programs, and a list of its board members. GuideStar also encourages each nonprofit to include acronyms or "doing business as" names, but the organization is not required to do so.

      A nonprofit cannot override financial information derived from its Form 990 or 990-EZ.

      For more information on the online questionnaire, see Completing the GuideStar Information Form (GIF).

      In the near future, we will post an article specifically for nonprofit organizations to tell them about your suggestions.

  • Identify whether an organization is a national or international headquarters; tell how many other chapters of the organization there are 
    We plan to add this information next year.

  • Get more nonprofit organizations to post their information at GuideStar
    This is one of our primary goals. Since January 2000, the number of organizations that have provided information to GuideStar has increased almost 300 percent. We are working to make that number grow even more.

    You can help by encouraging the nonprofits that interest you to fill out the questionnaire. If they do not have access to the Web, they can call Customer Service at 1-800-784-9378.

  • Provide more information on foundations, including proposal guidelines and names of board members
    You're in luck! In March, in connection with the posting of private foundations' Forms 990-PF, we began a campaign to do just that. The initial response has been positive, and we will continue our efforts to get private foundations to post information about the types of programs they support.

    We are also creating a section of the GuideStar Web site for grantmakers. The Grantmaker Center will contain information especially for grantmakers, including tips for using the GuideStar database to evaluate applicants and monitor grantees.

    The Grantmaker Center will be launched in mid-July.


  • Show how much of a charity's income is spent on programs and how much goes to administration
    If we have financial information for a public charity, a Financials page is included in that organization's GuideStar Report. The Financials page breaks expenses into three categories: program services, administration, and other.

    Unfortunately, we do not have financial information for all of the public charities in the database, for the reasons discussed in question 12 below. If a Financials page appears in an organization's GuideStar Report, you will see the word Financials on the left-hand side of the report.

  • Search results should show whether an organization has a Form 990, 990-EZ, or 990-PF
    As part of our system upgrade this fall, we will be adding an icon to the search results that indicates when a 990 image is available for a particular organization.

  • Need to have 990s for every organization in the database
    A Form 990, 990-EZ, or 990-PF is not available for every nonprofit organization. Only about one-third of the nation's more than 640,000 public charities—those with incomes of more than $25,000 per year—are required to file the 990 or 990-EZ. About 60,000 private foundations file the 990-PF.

    That leaves more than 400,000 nonprofits that do not file any kind of Form 990 (although finances of more than 125,000 of these organizations are included on group returns filed by parent organizations). GuideStar asks these organizations to fill out a basic financial statement modeled after the Form 990. Nonprofits that wish to post information at GuideStar are not required to complete the financial statement, however.

    If a Form 990 image is available for an organization, you will see Form 990 on the left-hand side of that nonprofit's GuideStar Report.

  • Need to have PDF images of the 990s; need to post Schedule A; when will the remaining 990s be posted?
    Images of more than 125,000 Forms 990 are now available at GuideStar, and more are being added. Schedule A is included in the Form 990 images.

    By the end of the summer, Form 990 images will be available for most of the 501(c)(3) organizations that file them. Which is not to say that all of the Forms 990 for a particular year will be available at the end of summer 2000; see the next question for comments on this point.

  • 990s need to be more current; when will the 1999 990s be posted?
    Often, the Form 990 image you see for an organization is the most current one available. Unfortunately, we can't give a specific date when images of all of the 1999 Forms 990 will be available at GuideStar.

    Unlike the well-known deadline for filing personal income tax returns, there is no one date on which all of the Forms 990 for a particular year must be submitted to the IRS. Instead, each nonprofit organization is required to file by the 15th day of the 5th month after the end of its fiscal year. Because the exact dates of a fiscal year vary from organization to organization, the filing dates for the 990s vary, too.

    Organizations can also receive up to two 90-day extensions of time to file. Thus, the Form 990 for a nonprofit whose fiscal year ended on December 31, 1999, might not be filed until November 15, 2000:

    Accounting period 990 due date Due date with 1 extension Due date with 2nd extension
    1/1/99-12/31/99 5/15/00 8/15/00 11/15/00


    In the meantime, we are working to increase the efficiency of the 990-posting process. We are happy to report that we have worked out a number of the kinks and that the time between the date when an organization submits its Form 990 to the IRS and the date when that document is posted at GuideStar is getting shorter.

  • Include three years' worth of financial data in organizations' GuideStar Reports; provide more than one year's 990 for each private foundation
    Eventually, three years' worth of Form 990 images—for both public charities and private foundations—will be posted at GuideStar.

  • How do foundation 990s help contributors?
    GuideStar's audience includes not only individual donors but also people who work for public charities, employees of private foundations, and researchers who focus on the nonprofit sector. The Forms 990-PF are probably more useful to people in these latter categories than to individual contributors.


The preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar’s editorial director. See more of Suzanne’s sector findings and musings on philanthropy here on our blog. 
Topics: GuideStar Survey