New research supports what we at GuideStar have long believed: (1) donors give more to transparent nonprofits and (2) transparent organizations tend to be stronger organizations.
The research, recently published in the Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance, offers nonprofit leaders a powerful set of insights. Professors Erica Harris of Villanova University and Dan Neely of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee analyzed more than 6,300 nonprofits in the GuideStar database. (They selected these organizations from an initial set of 14,000.) They found that as a group, nonprofits that earned a GuideStar Seal of Transparency averaged 53 percent more in contributions the following year compared to organizations that didn’t earn a Seal.
Professors Harris and Neely looked for other explanations and used a set of sophisticated statistical techniques to control for other factors—such as organization size, fundraising expenses, governance, and ratings by third parties (e.g., Charity Navigator or BBB Wise Giving Alliance). In every case, the relationship with transparency still held.
The research didn’t just show an increase in contributions for organizations that earned a seal. Harris and Neely’s analysis also suggests that these organizations had stronger performance across a range of governance, financial, and operational dimensions.
Visit our page about this research to learn more. And check out the infographic to the right (which we’re releasing under a Creative Commons Attribution/No Derivatives license so you can share/use it with minimal restrictions).
What This Research Means for Nonprofits
The effort of earning a Seal of Transparency literally paid off for thousands of organizations. Of course, there’s no guarantee that a nonprofit that earns a Seal will receive more contributions. That takes the hard work of fundraising. But this research strongly suggests that nonprofits can put a “finger on the scale” of raising money to meet their missions ... simply by telling the world about their work in a structured way on their GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles.
The Harris and Neely research aligns with GuideStar’s own—more modest—analysis:
- GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles with a Gold or Platinum Seal of Transparency get twice the amount of views as profiles without Seals.
- In 2017, 78 percent of the nonprofits that received donations through GuideStar’s website had Seals.
- Also in 2017, contributions to nonprofits with Gold or Platinum Seals were 11 percent larger than those to organizations with Bronze or Silver Seals.
These findings also mesh with a new Give.org “Donor Trust Report,” which shows that a nonprofit’s accomplishments are the number one factor in establishing donor trust.
We encourage nonprofits to share information about their work through their websites, literature, social media, and, of course, their GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles. Updating your profile on GuideStar is free. It allows your organization to reach GuideStar’s 10 million visitors a year and the millions of people who use more than 200 sites and applications that are powered by GuideStar data.
Every study ends with a call for more research. This one is no exception, and we have much more to learn. But this study is also an affirmation: openness matters.
About the Research
These findings are from Erica E. Harris and Daniel Neely, “Determinants and Consequences of Nonprofit Transparency,” Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance website. Erica Harris is a professor at Villanova University. Daniel Neely is a professor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. The Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance is a peer-reviewed academic journal.
Professors Harris and Neely initially looked at more than 14,000 organizations in the GuideStar database and selected more than 6,300 to examine more closely. These nonprofits represented a range of missions and programs. The researchers defined transparent as sharing information beyond the 990 with the public. Because nonprofits voluntarily provide information beyond the 990 to earn GuideStar Seals of Transparency, they compared nonprofits that earned a Seal in 2012 or 2013 to those that did not.
Although Professors Harris and Neely obtained the raw data for this research from GuideStar, GuideStar was not involved in the data analysis, conclusions drawn from it, or preparation of the journal article.
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, 2016, 2017, and 2018. 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.