September 10, 2012

Charity Rating and Review Sites – Part 1: Information Sources that Present Information About YOUR Organization?

There is a lot of talk these days about impact-based giving. Donors, with good reason, want to give to the organizations that will produce the most good-per-dollar donated. Foundations and consulting groups have worked for years to determine how to best assist donors of all types in making informed decisions to ensure that their resources are used to support the most effective organizations.

To this end, a broad range of organizations supported Hope Consulting, a firm dedicated to identifying issues in the social sector, in the first research reports since the 1990’s to examine in detail donor behavior, motivations, and preferences for charitable giving, including impact-based giving preferences. The 2011 report, Money For Good II, Driving Dollars to the Highest Performing Nonprofits, followed up on earlier findings that, while most donors say it is important to fund high performing nonprofits, few actively spent time researching which organizations achieve the greatest results. This report found that only 35% of all types of donors reported conducting research prior to giving. However, fully 98% of foundation and 97% of donor advisors engage in some level of fact finding prior to giving.

This is where the online listing/rating services come into the picture. They provide the first, and in many cases, the only line of information being presented to potential donors. What are these sites saying about YOUR organization? This is an important aspect of relationship building with donors that needs to be attended to before you submit a proposal. Your organization can be high performing and you may write the most effective proposals in the world, but if your external profiles and reviews do not reflect these strengths, your organization may not be able to secure awards and you may not know why.

Given the important role these rating sites often play in donor funding decisions, the next question is: What input can you have into the information accumulated by these services and presented in YOUR organization’s profiles? As it turns out, a lot! In many cases, you can actually build and maintain your organization’s profile.

Organization profiles and site ratings come from three main sources:

  • IRS records;
  • the organization’s own input on a listing service’s site; and
  • external reviews.

You can impact donor research by telling compelling stories and presenting information that clearly charts your organization’s impact in your community and your innovations in your field of endeavor.

Types of Listings

There are different types of agnostic information sources. The two main ones are:

1)     Listing, rating, and evaluation services are generally for-fee services geared primarily toward providing information on nonprofits to donors, but also provide other resources to the nonprofit community. They work like the Foundation Center in reverse. Many service sites have recently added a reviews feature to help authenticate an organization’s real-world impact. A few of the major players in this arena are highlighted below. These services are generally publically and member-funded and the roughly 30 that I researched are all currently free of marketing by sponsors.

2)     Innovative database systems are just emerging. They provide free information geared toward a more complete overview of the landscape of issues and related community stakeholders. Their goal is to bring players together to be more productive, efficient, and effective. This is more like the Center for Effective Philanthropy in reverse, presenting material in a platform that allows you to share information on policy, advocacy, funding, resource sharing, tools, research, and on-the-ground work in highly accessible, actionable form. There are very few of these systems in place. Three of the ones we have used are highlighted below.

Profile and Rating Services

There are literally dozens of charity listing/rating watchdog services that provide IRS compliance assurance for the organizations that they list. Below are links to some of the main players popular with donors, along with the role they serve. Links to a number of additional services are provided on the Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNE) website and the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS).

  • Guidestar provides a fee-based listing and information service geared toward the nonprofit and giving communities. It has gained significant visibility and market share over the past five years. Basic organization profiles and 990’s can be viewed without a fee.
  • is a review site that partners with Guidestar on which reviews can be posted by anyone having firsthand knowledge of a charity.
  • The Better Business Bureau maintains a “For Charities and Donors” site, funded by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance offers national charities that meet the Standards for Charity Accountability the option of applying for a BBB national charity seal. Uniquely in this sector, this site provides a platform to make an inquiry or a file complaint about a charity.
  • Charity Navigator provides ratings, tips and resources, and articles. It will accept a request for fiscal review by organizations that wish to be included on the site. Four years of 990’s must be submitted with your request.
  • Charity Watch is funded by the American Institute for Philanthropy. The site provides listings and member benefits. The site will not accept organization requests for inclusion on its site listings, which are donor driven and typically include profiles for organizations that receive more than $1 million annually from public support.
  • NOZA is a subscription-only service that is considered the largest database of charitable organizations in the world. In addition to organization profiles, Noza provides fundraising tools, grant searches, resource development training, and mailing lists for donor acquisition.

Innovative Database Systems

There are a few innovative collaborations that maintain sites that do not just profile organizations, but also provide a view of the larger landscape of various issues and efforts, including resource maps and profile files.

  • SHAREnewmexico has been in the making for several years and was just recently released in beta form. The purpose of SHARE New Mexico is to combine all statewide resources into one quality-controlled directory that acts as a central library and resource for shared connections among stakeholders, including funders, service organizations and providers, policy analysts and policy makers. The data sets allow for resource mapping that is a unique collaborative approach to better gap analysis data and presentation. Many groups contribute to site content, including the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. The site provides a forum for funders and increases provider and policy maker visibility and awareness. While the site will grow in scope over time, the first three priority topic areas being populated on SHAREnewmexico are Early Education, Homelessness, and Hunger.
    • The ERIN Project is the Educational Resource Information Navigator Project, which the Laura and John Arnold Foundation launched in June of 2012. It is an interactive tool designed to analyze U.S. Educational systems through the specific ‘lenses’ of policy, research, working organizations, funders, and information technology systems in 13 subject areas across the educational landscape. The ERIN Project works with education experts to identify organizations that are active in public education. It draws upon publicly available information and coordinates directly with organizations to create profiles. The ERIN project works with NewSchool Venture Fund’s Education Technology Landscape Map to identify current classroom technologies.
    • Community Commons is an interactive mapping, networking, and learning utility geared toward the Livable Communities movement. This exciting organization provides access to a variety of datasets and allows you to create your own GIS maps for use in fund raising and gap analysis in a remarkably simple format. It also hosts learning and sharing events such as  Advancing the Movement (ATM), a network of leaders from all walks – private, academic, volunteer, and civic sectors.

By providing better information that is focused on your organization’s strengths, goals, and actual impact — and do this in a detailed, cause-audience targeted format through channels that donors frequently utilize, you can give your organization the leg-up it deserves to attract and maintain a strong donor base. In many cases, you can gain a higher ranking on a listing service’s website simply by providing important detailed information on your organization, which you want your donors to see when they review your proposals and letters of inquiry. Guidelines for ranking seals, such as that bestowed by the BBB, differ by provider. Some sites even allow you to activate a ‘donate now’ button on their site to link donors directly to your organization, again making it easier to connect with interested funders. Participating in these listing projects helps providers, advocates, and policy makers all increase their visibility and access to a wide range of funders.

In Part 2 of this series, we will explore the content of profiles and reviews with hints for preparing of your organization’s profile and tid-bits about charity reviews, as well as the ways in which you can use reviews to boost donor interest in your organization. In the meantime, you can start to review sites and see what they are saying about your organization and which sites you feel will make the greatest difference through your input.

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