Friday, December 27, 2013

What inspires me to work for a capacity building organization

When I graduated from college 5 years ago, I was young, innocent and idealistic. I set out to find a job where I could have a big impact. However, I struggled to find an organization or position that really appealed to me. Nothing seemed “big” enough. Even bold missions like ending world hunger or ­­­­­curing cancer somehow seemed too narrow for what I envisioned as my contribution to the world. Then I stumbled upon the Charities Review Council. Probably not the first organization you think of with a mission to satisfy a young appetite for positive change, but as I saw it, the Council enabled me to support every nonprofit mission – and that is big.

When I deliver on the Council’s mission to strengthen the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, I affect the good work of the hundreds of nonprofits we support by helping them meet the Accountability Standards. Organizations with a strong infrastructure, including good governance, effective financial management and accountable practices are better able to deliver on their missions and garner trust from the public. Therefore, I see the work I do at the Council multiplied by the number of organizations we serve, and then again, by the hundreds of thousands of people served by those organizations. The ripple effect is what I find motivating. By dipping my toe in the sector by way of an organization like the Council, the impact of my work moves through each unique nonprofit I serve and continues to spread out into the broader community.

It is hard to believe I’ll soon be celebrating my 5th anniversary at the Charities Review Council (fairly significant, since as a millennial, that’s like a couple of decades!). However, in that time, I’ve guided myriad nonprofit organizations through the Accountability Wizard review process and provided them with the support and resources to meet the Accountability Standards. I’ve spent countless hours evaluating organizational practices and policies, as well as providing guidance, assurance and helpful tools to enable organizations to meet standards. My role may be finite, but I continue to be inspired by the broad impact I’m able to have on the sector - by working for a capacity building organization, I also work to end world hunger and to cure cancer.

-Jenna Salinas, Nonprofit Services Manager 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Smart Giving Guide

Tis’ the season of many things: sharing, spending time with loved ones, and saying “Tis’ the season.” It’s also the season of year end giving, a time when many are looking for good causes to make their year-end donations before the tax year is over. It can be a bit overwhelming when there are so many great charities asking for your support. Smart givers give with both their head and their heart, giving to the causes they care the most about, as well as researching which organizations will most effectively use their gift. In order to help you with your decisions, here are five ways to maximize your giving this season.

1. Choose a critical problem to solve and look for organizations that tackle that problem.
Instead of focusing on a specific organization, consider starting by thinking broadly about what problem is facing your community that you want to be part of the solution.   Starting with the list of strong Nonprofits that meet 27 Accountability Standards (located online at, look for organizations that want to solve the same problem that you do.  These organizations have committed themselves to working hard to build a firm and solid foundation that includes accountability, transparency, good governance and public disclosure; that foundation allows them to focus on advancing their missions. 

2. Know whether your donation is tax deductible.
Remember, just because you give to a "tax-exempt" organization does not always mean your donation is tax deductible.  Generally, gifts to a charity registered with the IRS as 501(c)(3) organization are tax deductible and contributions to most other types of organizations are not.
3. Research how the organization will use your donation.
Homework is easy now that you can find information on mission, financial health, and impact online.  Overhead is an important investment made to improve their work.  Things like training, planning, evaluation, and internal systems.  Overhead ratio is one data point to consider but doesn't tell the whole story.  Focus on the organizations performance by looking at transparency, governance, leadership, and results.  If you have questions or don't find what you're looking for, ask!  Strong nonprofits always welcome all questions from donors.

4. Does the organization strive to reflect its community?
An organization that reflects the community it serves is one that includes its constituents at all levels: on the board, on staff and in its volunteer workforce.  Organizations who are led by and for stakeholder groups often have stronger social capital and healthier ties to that community.  That means they'll have strong outcomes in their work.

5. Look for risk-taking and out-of-the-box solutions.
Nonprofits today are tasked with a huge challenge: serve more people with less money.  Donors who care about those challenges should invest their dollars into charities who innovate.  The willingness to take creative risks is the difference we need in finding new solutions to the problems we've faced since the dawn of humanity.  It's up to this generation of donors to change the world, for good.

Check out all organizations Meeting Standards here, and some additional tips and guides for giving during the holiday season below:
Charity Navigator’s 2013 Holiday Giving Guide
Just Give’s Holiday Gift Guide
Slate’s The Cynic’s Guide to Holiday Donations

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Building Capacity by Sharing Stories: Online, In Person, In Your Community

Pollen started as a newsletter created by Lars Leafblad, in which he shared local events, job openings, and news and updates of his friends and extended network, the recipients of the newsletter. Since its beginnings, the content of Pollen has always been generated by and for its members, designed to build ties across the civic-minded community.

Pollen has since grown to 7,500 plus Twin Cities-based connectors who contribute biweekly to each issue of Pollen. Today, Pollen announced a merger with OTA, a South Dakota based, fellow Bush Foundation grant recipient who also has a mission of building stronger communities by connecting civic-minded individuals. Together as OTA-Pollen, they aspire to scale their commitment to community building across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.

We shot some questions to Jamie Millard, Meghan Murphy, and Hugh Weber about OTA-Pollen, the self-described “laboratory for possibility.

CRC: How do you see OTA-Pollen helping other organizations, nonprofit or otherwise, to build their capacity?
O-P: Every capacity building organization has their niche role to play as a part of the “rising tide.” For OTA-Pollen, the role we’re playing is a piece that often gets overlooked: network-building and storytelling. When organizations and the individuals leading them are better connected and have the platform to share their story, the possibilities for impact are exponential.
We’ll be directly growing the capacity of organizations and individuals through immersive, large-scale gathering experiences and also our online community rooted in resource and story sharing.

CRC: As general cheerleaders of the Accountability Standards (your executive director, Jamie Millard, is even a former staff member of Charities Review Council) how are you keeping the standards in mind while building Pollen into a new nonprofit along with OTA?
O-P: We do indeed love the Accountability Standards! They’ve been an invaluable asset for us as an organization in startup mode. It’s already been helpful to refer back to certain Standards as we navigate very early decisions and discussions. For example, as we move into our first conversations for strategic planning, the philosophy and context behind Standards like the Impact on the Community and Diversity and Inclusivity help ground our thinking.
As we begin the process to seek 501c3 status (right now we are under fiscal sponsorship with MAP for Nonprofits), we plan to go through the Accountability Wizard to ensure we start off “Meeting Standards.”

Meghan Murphy, Jamie Millard, and Hugh Weber of OTA-Pollen
CRC: Where will OTA-Pollen be in three years?
We are looking to build artwork into storytelling in new and exciting ways, and we are confident our digital platform will be innovative in this space. We will primarily seek talent right here in the region to accomplish a new kind of reader experience. This new network will be powered  by individuals with ambitious goals, that are eager to take advantage of generous deadlines and serious compensation for a high quality work. We are excited to hire an amazing body of first-rate writers and illustrators and we are eager to empower individuals outside of that market, artists and big thinkers, to take on a passion project under the OTA-pollen banner.

CRC: What is something Pollen is not doing right now that you’d like to see come from the OTA-Pollen collaboration?
O-P: Even though Pollen has been building a rich, engaged community for the past five years, it’s mainly a digital network. In our recent member survey, it was unquestionable that one of the number one things Pollenites crave is the opportunity for more in-person gatherings. With the expertise OTA brings to the table, we’ll now have the ability to offer that type of experience!

We are also eager to extend the network well beyond the boundaries of the metro area. From the beginning OTA has focused on the stages of North Dakota, South Dakota and greater Minnesota. We look forward to building hyperlocal Pollen-like resources in communities like Bismarck, ND, Duluth, MN and Rapid City, SD. We’re excited to see all of these communities have their own petri-dish of connected, cross-sector civically-engaged community that bubbles up into the overall regional network.

CRC: What ways can smart givers be involved in the work of OTA-Pollen?
O-P: Smart givers have a deep understanding of the nonprofits and individuals doing impacting, meaningful work. One of best ways smart givers could bring that expertise to OTA-Pollen is through our first big initiative, our We Must Be Bold Tour. In January and February, we’ll be traveling the length and width of the OTA states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, collecting stories of boldness. Our hope is to work with our community to collect nominations identifying bold artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, community builders and cross-sectors leaders across the region who had embraced an ethos of creativity, connectivity and community.

Get live updates about OTA-Pollen by following them on Twitter.
 -Matt Beachey, Engagement and Communications Specialist

 Want to know how you can support Charities Review Council this month without spending a dime? Click here!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgiving with a Side of Philanthropy

Last week the Great Minnesota Give Together, Give to the Max Day, overcame some serious down-time and managed to raise $17.1 million for Minnesota nonprofits and schools. It was inspiring to see Minnesotans push through and give despite the site being down.

We at the Council were also excited to be graced by the presence of Super Kris, our super hero Executive Director.

If you were unable to give to your favorite organization because of the delay, don’t forget that you can always give online, year-round, 24 hours a day! You can donate to any organization that had an account on Give to the Max Day by searching for them

If you like the chance to be part of a great day of giving again, Giving Tuesday is coming up after Thanksgiving. Inspired by Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the hubbub around shopping for the holiday season, Giving Tuesday is a great way to put some more Thanks and Giving into the increasing span of days after thanksgiving monopolized by consumerism, and to put a philanthropic and impactful spin on what is sometimes considered a troublesome holiday.

After you give to your favorite Reviewed Organizations on Giving Tuesday, let the world know by taking an #UNselfie (a selfie celebrating the unselfish act of giving!) See below for example:

Here’s to channeling all that Black Friday energy into some truly awesome giving!

-Matt Beachey, Engagement and Communications Associate  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Be a Super Giver Today: Nonprofitopolis Needs a Hero like You!

Here at Charities Review Council, we spend a lot of our time fighting the ‘good fight’ of supporting strong nonprofits and connecting them to smart givers. But usually we do that while sitting behind our desks, convening groups of nonprofits and donors, providing advice to donors over the phone, offering technical assistance to nonprofits, or pounding away on our keyboards.  Not today.

Today, we’re revealing that we at the Charities Review Council are, in fact, super heroes. Super Giving Heroes™ to be more specific. We’re led by our fearless leader, Super Kris, and we will stop at nothing to bring prosperity, good governance, and sound infrastructure to Nonprofitopolis.

Will you join the Super Giving Heroes™ and help us give Nonprofitopolis the heroic support it needs? By donating to Charities Review Council and to one or more of your favorite organizations meeting Standards today, you’ll power up your donation and help us all! Indeed, when donors and nonprofits work together, we can truly mobilize the common good!

After all, “With great giving to Charities Review Council and to a strong nonprofit comes great impact on our community.”  

Let us know you are a #supergiver by telling us on Twitter which organization meeting Standards you donated to today, and why.

Stay tuned for updates on how we’re saving Nonprofitopolis!

Want to know how else you can be a super giver on Give to the Max Day? Watch this week’s KARE11 News segment featuring (Super) Kris (in her everyday gear): 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Give When It Matters Most, In the Best Possible Way

Smart Givers Support Relief Efforts for Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan, the recent tropical storm that devastated the Philippines, Vietnam and South China, was the strongest ever recorded. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have lost their lives, and that millions will need basic aid, including access to food, medicine, clean water, and shelter, in the coming weeks.

Picture via

You can view specific organizations that are contributing to the relief effort here

The Charities Review Council offers the following tips on smart giving in disaster situations and how to exercise caution in addition to generosity when responding to disaster-relief appeals:
  • Give financial gifts. The best and most effective type of assistance is a financial donation to a relief organization already operating in the affected area.  Do not send goods to an organization unless specifically requested.
  • Ask Questions. When researching where to send a gift, consider the following:
  1. Is the organization legitimate? If an organization is calling you, be wary. Established disaster-relief organizations are often too busy to implement a direct phone campaign during times of disaster.  Don’t be afraid to say “no” over the phone and then contact the organization directly yourself to follow up. 
  2. Are you confident the organization has the infrastructure and capacity to put your donation to good use? Does the organization already have a strong record of aiding victims of natural disasters?
Learn more about making your donation count toward disaster relief efforts, and read the full article here.

Our Executive Director Kris Kewitsch recently shared five questions to ask before giving to a cause or charity with Kare11 News. You can watch the segment below or read the full piece here.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Smart Giver and a Nonprofit Geek Walked into a Photobooth...

Question: What do you get when you renovate a 19th century horse barn, turn it into an open concept collaborative space, move a 67 year old organization into it, launch a new strategic plan, and invite a gang of strong nonprofits and engaged donors over for a party? 

Answer: A fantastic evening, and a mission that comes to life before our eyes. 

Kris Kewitsch (Executive Director, Charities Review Council), Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson, (Program Director, Charities Review Council), Kate Barr (Executive Director, Nonprofit Assistance Fund)
If you showed up to support us and see our new digs, we can’t thank you enough. Our doors opened right at 3:30pm, and friends aplenty (both old and new) stuck around until it was time to clean up. We had great conversations, a giving themed photo booth, and our event generated less than a half pound of waste, thanks to the incredible catering spread by Common Roots CafĂ©. We can’t promise a photo booth or catered appetizers every day, but we still would love to have you drop by and see us, especially if you haven’t had a chance to get to know us in a while.

At the Charities Review Council, we believe that giving is a blend of art and science, and that everyone can be a smartgiver.

Engaged philanthropy is about giving with your heart.

And also with your head.

You shared with us why you give with both, and your answers were powerful, insightful and inspiring.
We’ll be posting your answers on Twitter over the next few days using the #smartgiving hashtag. Please follow along and share. It’s the perfect time to talk about your personal giving ethos, since Give to the Max Day is right around the corner, and of course, since the giving season is upon us.  

Like us on facebook to see more pictures from our #Smartgiving Open House photo booth (including gems of nonprofit and philanthropic all-stars like the ones above).

Don’t forget to schedule your donation and show your support for the Charities Review Council on Give to the Max Day. Remember: your donation to the Charities Review Council strengthens the entire nonprofit sector.

-Kate Khaled, Engagement and Development Manager

Thursday, October 31, 2013

4 Ways to be a Smart Giver

This blog was originally posted on in preparation for Give to the Max Day 2013.

Smart giving is a partnership between donors and nonprofits - a blend of art and science. Smartgivers believe their time, talent and treasure are important social investments. People give for all kinds of reasons, and there is no wrong way to do it. But by using your heart, your head, and these four tips, you can help make sure your giving has the greatest impact this November.

1. Choose a critical problem to solve and look for organizations that tackle that problem

Instead of focusing on a specific organization, start by asking which problems facing your community list of strong nonprofits that meet 27 Accountability Standards at, look for organizations that want to solve the same problem that you do. These organizations have committed themselves to working hard to build a firm and solid foundation that includes accountability, transparency, good governance and public disclosure; that foundation allows them to focus on advancing their missions.
you’d like to address. Starting with the

2. Research how the organization will use your donation

It's easy to find information on an organization's mission, financial health, and impact online, using resources such as the Charities Review Council's list of charities meeting standards, as well as national resources like Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and Better Business Bureau. It is important to look for measures of performance beyond administrative expenses, or "overhead." An organization that invests in training, planning, evaluation, and internal systems is a stronger organization that can ultimately have the greatest impact on its community. Look for indicators of an organization's performance such as transparency, governance, leadership, and results. If you have questions or don't find what you're looking for, ask! Strong nonprofits always welcome all questions from donors.

3. Does the organization strive to reflect its community?

An organization that reflects the community it serves is one that includes its constituents at all levels: on the board, on staff and in its volunteer workforce. Organizations who are led by and for stakeholder groups often have stronger social capital and healthier ties to that community. That means they'll have strong outcomes in their work.

4. Look for risk-taking and out-of-the-box solutions

Nonprofits today are tasked with a huge challenge: serve more people with less money. Smart givers should invest their dollars into charities that innovate to work around those challenges. The willingness to take creative risks is key to finding new solutions to the problems we've faced since the dawn of humanity. It's up to this generation of donors to change the world, for good.

Want to learn more about the work we do at Charities Review Council? Come to our SmartGiving Open House on Thursday, November 7 from 3:30 to 7pm. We invite you to tour our new collaborative workspace, learn more about our work and renewed focus, eat some delicious appetizers, and have a good time with us as we debut our new home along the Green Line in nonprofit alley!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What You Need to Know for Give to the Max Day 2013 – an Interview with Dana Nelson of GiveMN

Three weeks from today is Give to the Max Day—the fifth anniversary of the one-day statewide fundraising campaign. Last year, 4,381 organizations raised $16,391,905 from 53,339 donors in 24 hours, setting Give to the Max records in dollars raised as well as donor and organization participation. The magnitude of donations on Give to the Max Day, when coupled with informed giving decisions, makes for a wonderful opportunity for Minnesotans to help usher in the chance they’d like to see in our state.

We chatted with Dana Nelson, Executive Director of GiveMN, to find out what’s new for Give to the Max Day this year, what the best practices are for organizations new to Give to the Max Day, and who her dream celebrity endorser of Give to the Max Day is. Here’s hoping for a wonderful Minnesota Give Together in 2013!

What do you think has made Give to the Max Day so successful in the past?

A huge part of the success is owed to the nonprofits across Minnesota that take such great ownership of Give to the Max Day.  Every year, more and more organizations build it into their end-of -the year development plan and come up with crazy, zany ideas to promote the day and really have fun with it.

Also, I think we’re all wired to be really competitive, even if we don’t want to admit it. There’s something about the competition of giving—people give more than they might usually, because the get to see their favorite organization climbing up on the leader board. You get to see the impact of your donation alongside the thousands of other donations being made that day.

It’s also a great day to get people involved in giving that maybe don’t normally give, or may be first time givers to charity. A huge goal with Give to the Max Day is to get folks involved that don’t normally give or aren’t normally asked to give.

What resources can organizations access on the GiveMN website to prepare for Give to the Max Day?

We have tons tools for nonprofits and for schools on our website. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for organizations to participate. We have templates available for email campaigns, direct mail campaigns, letters to the editor, radio PSAs, and press releases.

Watch the Everything You Need to Know about Give to the Max Day 2013 webinar – you can skim through it because its pre-recorded. We also have webinars on our website on all aspects of marketing, including maximizing email campaigns, social media, and creating visuals for the web.
To make preparing for the day as easy as possible, we also have a preparation checklist.

Is there anything new GiveMN is doing for 2013 that smart givers and strong nonprofits should know about?

We’ve changed a few parts of our prize structure this year. We have a new leader board just for greater Minnesota, for organizations outside of the metro area. We also have “power hours” this year, which are specific hours throughout the day at kind of crazy times: 2am, 5am, 5pm, 6pm, and 11pm. The concept is that the organizations that raise the most during those hours will win an additional thousand dollars. This is great for organizations that feel like they can’t sustain raising money for the full twenty-four hours, and can just hone in on one of these power hours. 

We’ll have our headquarters at the Mall of America again this year, where we’ll have live streaming coverage that shows up on our site. We’ll interview participating nonprofits and schools throughout the day.

Last year we had principals ride the orange streak roller coaster in Nickelodeon Universe for hours at a time as our little stunt. This year, principles will be swimming with and feeding the sharks in the Sea Life Aquarium!

What advice would you give to smaller organizations running their first Give to the Max Day campaign?

If it’s your first campaign, decide on a realistic goal, and know who you’re trying to reach. You may be reaching different than in your current fundraising. Maybe you have twenty volunteers who work with you on a regular basis, but you’ve never asked them to give. Give to the Max Day is a great excuse to ask new donors for a donation. It’s also a great day to get your board involved in giving, if they aren’t already.

We have some really wonderful and creative campaigns for Give to the Max Day, but if you’re a first timer, you don’t necessarily need to go all out.

Also, don’t forget to steward the donor relationships you get! Sometimes online donors come so easily on Give to the Max Day, but you can’t forget that this is a real relationship, just like a donation you got face-to-face, or from a check in the mail.

If you could get any celebrity to star in the next Give to the Max Day PSA, who would it be and why?

That’s a tough one, but I really like the Hot Cheetos & Takis kids – Y.N.RichKids! I would love for them to do our next PSA! I’ve also always wanted Prince. Maybe a combination of Walter Mondale and Prince—two very different Minnesota icons, together. But I love this year’s PSAs with Janel McCarville and Jeff Locke.

-Matt Beachey, Engagement and Communications Associate

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Five Out of the Box School Fundraising Ideas

 School fundraising has become a necessity for many schools to stay afloat. In order to maintain literacy programs, extracurricular activities, and classroom supplies, both public and private schools run fundraising programs in which their students participate. Traditionally, these fundraisers involve students selling candy, popcorn, or other items either through catalogues, door to door sales, auctions or raffles. According to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers (AFRDS), each year, non-profit groups net approximately $1.7 billion by selling products. Some parents are beginning to grow weary of helping their children sell unwanted or unused products and ultimately buying these products themselves as a method of supporting their children’s schools. Although school administrators recognize that school fundraising is not ideal, they also understand that it is a necessity to keep the schools running smoothly and effectively.

Fundraisers that simply involve selling candy or candles may generate money, but they don’t necessarily add much value for communities or the students involved beyond the money they raise. Furthermore, if you’re buying something you don’t really want, you’d be much better off making a direct donation, where 100% of the money you gave goes to the school and you don’t end up collecting unwanted teddy bears. If you’re tired of your kids selling things that your neighbors don’t really need, try suggesting some of these ideas for your school’s next fundraiser:

Plant Trees: Ask a nursery for seedling donations and then ask additional donors to sponsor a tree. This is a great opportunity for kids to learn a practical skill, and has the added benefit of beautifying your community.

Walk-a-thon: Plan a route and a date, and ask for pledges from donors for each mile walked. Walk-a-thons foster great conversation with your fellow walkers and are a great way to get active.

Cleanup Fundraiser: Choose a community to cleanup, and ask donors to give an amount for specific goals. For instance, they could donate a dollar amount per pounds of trash picked up, number of parks cleaned, or distance of road side cleaned.

Sell Rock Salt or Toilet Paper: It may still be door to door sales, but these are things that people will need to buy anyway, so you don’t have the guilt of pushing unwanted trinkets. Rock salt can be especially valuable to your community in winter, as it keeps your sidewalks dry and safe. With that in mind, you could also include a shoveling and salting of buyers’ driveways and sidewalks with their purchase.    

Dodge Ball Tournament: Set up a tournament bracket and have a registration fee for teams to sign up and participate.     

Allie Wilde, Engagement and Marketing Intern, Matt Beachey, Engagement and Communications Specialist  

Friday, October 11, 2013

What We Can Learn From Tyrone Freeman

One of the more straightforward-sounding standards we steward at Charities Review Council is our conflict of interest standard. In short, the standard reads as follows:

A board’s deliberations should be independent and free of bias from board members or key employees who may have a personal interest in the outcome.

Sounds pretty simple—basically, don’t make decisions that put your financial interests in the place of your organizations. Most conflicts of interest that arise in nonprofits are relatively minor issues, like a board member refraining from recommending a contractor who happens to be a personal friend.

A recent high-profile case involving Tyrone Freeman, the former president of California’s biggest union local highlights the importance of a strong conflict of interest policy. Freeman steered tens of thousands of dollars from the Service Employees International Union Local 6434 to the affiliated organization he led, California United Homecare Workers.     

This certainly isn’t a typical case, and generally we don’t look for punitive stories to cover in this blog, but this situation is one that could easily have been averted with stricter conflict of interest policies in place.

If you serve on a board, you aren’t likely to run into this extreme of a situation. But without a conflict of interest policy in place, you could unknowingly put your organization at legal risk.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What the Shutdown Means for Nonprofits

In wake of the current government shutdown, an important question arises: how are nonprofits affected by the shutdown and what can donors do to help? Many charitable groups rely on federal funding or federal grants, so a prolonged shutdown could have dire consequences for nonprofits.

When funding for federal programs that provide social services such as food stamps, housing vouchers, and veterans’ services stops or slows down, the people who are affected are forced to find alternative channels for support. This creates a higher demand for services, putting a larger strain on organizations that are already faced with less funding and staff support.

Meals on Wheels is one of the most prominent organizations affected by the shutdown. “We budget less than half a million dollars a year to run our entire organization which is for food costs, vans, staff, fuel and everything else. We get about $250k from the fed government so it’s more than half of our budget,” said Alison Foreman, the executive director of Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels. If this major source of funding is gone for an extended period of time, nonprofits face the tough decision of cutting expenses wherever they can: staffing, program services, or facilities.

So, the most important question then is, what can donors do to help nonprofits in this critical time of need with little to no federal support?

Donors can respond by recognizing organizations that are most affected by the government shutdown and attempt to help their local communities. One of the most significant areas that will be affected is food, either through lack of access or mobility to meals, food stamps or food scarcity. Donors can search for organizations that address hunger and meet Charities Review Council’s Accountability Standards here.

Nonprofits that work with housing needs will also be affected by the shutdown. Federal programs that address homelessness through housing vouchers and shelters may be severely cut down or reduced, and nonprofits that address these issues might be similarly affected. Donors can find organizations that address homelessness and meet our Accountability Standards here.

Allie Wilde is a junior at St. Catherine University and is a History and English double major. She just started in early September as the Engagement and Marketing Intern for the Charities Review Council. She is from and currently lives in Minneapolis. In her spare time, she likes to play, think, watch and talk about soccer.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Can Charities Be Run Like Businesses?

I’m finishing out my second week working with Charities Review Council, and I’m very excited to propel our mission of building up the nonprofit sector. Being relatively new to the nonprofit world, I've been spending a lot of time reading various thought leaders' takes on where the sector is going, what needs to be changed, and what practices are downright broken. One big hot-button issue right now is “the overhead ratio,” or the ratio of money a nonprofit spends on its mission versus employee salaries and other operating fees.

My colleagues here at Charities Review Council have written a great deal in our blog about the overhead ratio, pointing out that the overhead ratio is generally just a data point; it is a poor measure of a charity’s overall performance or effectiveness when taken alone.

One of the loudest champions of overhead ratio reform right now is Dan Pallotta, whose recent TED Talk illustrates how investing in leadership the way for-profit companies do can create unparalleled results in nonprofits. He goes beyond the argument that overhead isn’t an effective measure for nonprofit performance, suggesting that donors should accept charities taking on large risks in fundraising projects the way for-profit companies do. Recently, Pallotta has seen a barrage of backlash from respected leaders in the field.  

One of Pallotta's biggest critics is Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, who recently sounded off in opposition at Huffington Post. “Fact is, donors have a legitimate interest in understanding what proportion of their dollars ends up in the hands of for-profit fundraising professionals,” Buchanan says He worries that charities under Pallotta’s model can become “little more than shells for for-profit fundraisers.”

Pallotta argues that fundraising professionals should have every opportunity to make a fortune as their peers in the for-profit world. He promotes a meritocracy of fundraisers, where the most effective fundraisers get paid a competitive market wage. It’s easy to see how donors are wary of this mentality, especially with some of the more extreme cases of recent charity fraud—CNN reported this year that Florida-based Kids Wish Network spends less than three cents per dollar raised helping dying children and their families.  

Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator said in Huffington PostWe believe his message has gained tremendous popularity for one simple reason — he ultimately is arguing that charities should be held to virtually no accountability standards.” They don’t believe he has explained in enough detail how to measure the success of a charity, and whether the gains were worth the amount of donations expended.

It’s also arguable that Pallotta’s ideas on charity have become popular because of the current reality of the nonprofit landscape. Organizations have been faced with increased need and decreased funding, so it’s easy to see the appeal of a charitable model that promotes capital growth on par with for-profit companies.

As this conversation continues, debate will likely center around something along the lines of “can a charity be effective and responsible while taking greater risks and providing increased personal gains for individuals?” The answer isn’t necessarily cut and dry. The increased capacity of a charity run like a business comes with unprecedented barriers of donor trust. If Pallotta’s vision, or something like it, is ever to become a reality, it will require innovative standards of nonprofit performance that foster relationships between donors and charities. If Pallotta truly wants to change the way we think about charity, his first concern should be donor trust.  

Matt Beachey joined the council in September 2013, working on marketing and engagement. He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2010, and has since been living in the Twin cities. Matt served in AmeriCorps with the nonprofit Hunger Solutions and interned with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity in their Marketing and Communications department. He also volunteers as the managing editor of Pollen, and as a blogger for FINNEGANS.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Welcome Our New Fall Intern!

Welcome Madeline Severtson, who joins us this fall as the Development and Communications Intern. This spring, she graduated from St. Olaf College with majors in mathematics and religion. Read on to learn a bit more about her.

1. Where are you from?
I grew up in St. Anthony Village, which is a very small first-ring suburb of Minneapolis located between NE Minneapolis and Roseville. A surprising number of people in the Twin Cities don’t know that it exists.

2. How did you end up as an intern for the Charities Review Council?
During my last year or two at St. Olaf, I started exploring career paths in the nonprofit sector. I was intrigued by development work, so I was excited when the opportunity arose for an internship with the Charities Review Council. I had not heard of the organization, but I believe the Council plays an important role in the sector, both for nonprofits and donors.

3. What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
A beloved Christmas tradition in my family is to eat copious amounts of See’s chocolate while opening presents on Christmas morning. Last year, I was on a semester-long study abroad program that had me spending Christmas in China. My parents surprised me by sending a box of See’s, and it meant so much to me to be able to continue the tradition even though I was far from home.

4. If you could go back in time or leap ahead to the future, which would you choose and why?
I would choose to go back in time because I am always curious about the way things used to be. Books, photographs, and other historical documents and records help to some extent, but they can never fully communicate what life was like in the past. I have often thought about the possible consequences of time travel, and I think it would be best if only observation were possible. It might be tempting to interfere in certain historical situations, but it would be impossible to know whether that interference would cause more harm than good.

5. What are you currently reading?
I’m reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell, which is a biography of the six Mitford sisters. They were prominent in England during the early- to mid-20th century, and the family was divided when each sister chose a different political ideology. I’m also rereading one of my favorite books, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, because it contains beautiful passages about religion and the nature of God, and the story as a whole challenges the definition of truth and reality.

6. What are you most excited about learning/experiencing during your internship?
So far, I have enjoyed experiencing the inner workings of a nonprofit organization in general, and I look forward to learning more about the development process. I am also excited to understand more about the issues surrounding nonprofit accountability.

7. Do you have a favorite cause that you support?
I am passionate about interreligious dialogue because I believe there is a deep need for understanding and acceptance in American society. I have not yet determined what role this cause will take in my life, but I hope to help create a culture in which all religions are valued and celebrated.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Paying Tribute on Patriot Day 2013

Twelve years ago today, the tragic events that transpired in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. led to a collective American response of passion, bravery and hope. There was a clear call to action, and the American people responded with an outpouring of support. More than 1.4 billion dollars was donated to 9/11 charities in the aftermath of the attacks.

In the years since, Americans have further developed a tradition of community service and philanthropy as a tribute to the victims, survivors, and volunteers who responded to the tragedy. In 2009, September 11th was federally recognized as a National Day of Service and Remembrance with the goal of uniting Americans across the country in service. This recognition highlights the value of donations of all types, including community service and monetary gifts.

Now, twelve years after the attacks, it is not always obvious where to direct commemorative donations so that they will be of the most help. For those wanting to make a 9/11-specific donation, look for an organization that directly benefits survivors, first responders, bystanders, and their families by providing support with ongoing physical and mental health care costs, as well as scholarships to fund college education. The September 11th Families’ Association maintains a list of organizations that provide this type of support.

Additionally, countless veterans of the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need assistance with housing or health care. Many nonprofits work with veterans in our community to ease the transition back to civilian life. For example, the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans aids veterans affected by homelessness, and the Minnesota Veterans Medical Research and Education Foundation conducts research on physical and mental health conditions in order to improve veterans’ quality of life.

Another approach to commemorative giving is to address an issue raised by the attacks and their aftermath in your own community. For example, the timeline of events and number of people involved highlight the importance of disaster-preparedness, and incidences of racial profiling after the attacks reveal the need for cultural awareness and diversity education. Here in Minnesota, many organizations work in the areas of health care, emergency response, and diversity awareness. Some of these organizations include:

Health Care
Emergency Preparedness and Response
Diversity and Cultural Awareness

Today marks a day of remembrance and honor. It’s important that we all take a moment to reflect on what happened on September 11, 2001, but consider taking it a step further this year by supporting those nonprofits working to help victims, survivors, veterans, and our own communities.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Back to School: How You Can Help Make It a Successful Year

The smell of freshly-sharpened pencils is in the air. Back to school season is upon us as children all over the country pack their backpacks with brand new notebooks, crayons, folders, and glue sticks. But some kids enter their classrooms on the first day of school without these necessary supplies.

This time of year often presents a financial challenge for low-income families. Many parents have to make tough decisions; school supplies or breakfast? Pencils or bus fare? Though school supplies might seem like a trivial expense that doesn’t fall under the necessity category, the long list of supplies can be overwhelming and impossible to fulfill for some, leaving kids feeling inadequately prepared for learning. Just like at a job, having the tools you need to complete a task are imperative to successful implementation and completion.

Many nonprofits recognize the implications that come with ill-prepared students and seek to equip children with these necessary items by holding school supply drives and collecting donations. Several of the organizations on our list of the Most Trustworthy Nonprofits work to ensure that every child’s school year starts off on the right track.

Here’s how you can help:

Union Gospel Mission has backpack drop off sites all over the metro area. Simply fill a backpack with items from their list of supplies and drop it off at the location most convenient for you.

St. Louis Park Emergency Program (STEP) distributes school supplies to St. Louis Park children. According to their website, “Our goal is for every St. Louis Park child to have a fresh start to the school year by providing a new backpack and grade appropriate school supplies.” In 2012, STEP provided supplies for 451 St. Louis Park students! To help with this year’s effort, drop items off at their St. Louis Park office.

Keystone Community Services holds a school supply drive each year. Though the official drive dates have passed, Keystone accepts school supply donations all year at their St. Paul office. They provide a list of the most-needed supplied to make your shopping easy.

Community Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP) is a community-based program that helps meet the basic needs of families living in the northern part of the Twin Cities. Every year CEAP hosts a Supplies for Success event, matching children in need in Anoka County, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, and East Champlin with age appropriate school supplies to help them in the coming year. In 2012, CEAP distributed 1,400 backpacks filled with supplies to children in need! CEAP invites community members to host a Supply Drive or make a monetary donation.

C.R.O.S.S. serves individuals in Northwest Hennepin County. They provided school supplies to more than 800 children in 2012 and are collecting supplies this year in Rogers and Maple Grove. You can also purchase tickets from the Rotary Club of Northwest Hennepin County for $20 to provide a backpack filled with school supplied to one child in need.

Even though school has started for most, all of the nonprofits listed above welcome supply donations throughout the year and gladly accept cash donations, as well. It’s never too late to help provide school supplies, as needs often arise throughout the year. Check out our list of trustworthy and accountable charities for more ways to help families in need.

Donating school supplies is a simple, tangible way for the entire family to get involved in giving back to the community. Next time you find yourself at Target or Walmart, pick up a few extra boxes of markers or spiral notebooks for those children who don’t get to pick out their own. A small donation can make a big difference for students in need this school year.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lunchtime Conversations

As an office full of self-proclaimed “nonprofit nerds”, it should come as no surprise that our lunchtime conversations often turn to the latest nonprofit headlines we see on twitter, hear on NPR, or read about in the Huffington Post.

The past few weeks have been no different at the Charities Review Council, as we’ve been provided with a plethora of lunchtime fodder. Here’s what we’ve been talking about lately:

When Peter Buffet, son of the infamous Warren, took to the pages of the New York Times to express his take on philanthropy and the wrongdoings of the sector, his words sparked conversation in lunch rooms, news rooms, conference rooms and Facebook feeds across the nation. Buffet explains that philanthropy is actually feeding the cycle of inequality in our world and to combat it, we need “a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up.” He goes so far as to say that there is a “crisis of imagination” and whole-heartedly disregards the notion of ROI in the nonprofit world.

While most reactions were quick to criticize, Chronicle of Philanthropy columnist, Phil Buchanan, made sure to point out some of Buffet’s valid arguments that we shouldn’t outright dismiss. The Chronicle ran a summary of many of the responses from thought leaders around the country. Mr. Buffet himself has continued to participate in the discussion and has responded to criticism by clarifying some of the points he made in his original piece.

This American Life, the weekly show broadcast on National Public Radio, recently featured a story about an unusual sort of charity – one that provides money to those in need, instead of building houses, digging wells, or providing animals. GiveDirectly was founded in 2008 by a group of Harvard and MIT economic development students looking for a vehicle to send monetary donations directly to the poor, allowing them to decide how to best use it. Even with the explosion of mobile banking in developing countries, the founders realized that very few nonprofits were utilizing these tools and directly addressing the need with no-strings-attached financial assistance.

According to its website, “As a non-profit created by donors, GiveDirectly is focused exclusively on giving to the poorest possible households at the lowest possible cost. Its leaders have no personal financial stake in the success of the organization, as their time is all volunteered.” GiveDirectly recently completed an in-depth report on their work in Kenya, expansion into a second country, and the long-term outlook of the organization. Listen to the NPR story here, and tell us, do you think giving money directly to those in need is an effective way to address poverty?

There you have it – a sneak peek into our lunch room. Though these conversations often happen spontaneously, they always leave us with a new sense of inspiration and motivation to work harder and think more innovatively. What have you been talking about lately on your lunch break, around the conference table, or at the water cooler?