How Agents of Social Change Can Shield Themselves With Good Intel

Agents of Shield

(Minor spoilers for Agents of SHIELD and Captain America: The Winter Soldier follow)

As the weather gets warmer in Chicago (relatively speaking, of course), efforts to raise funds for non-profits begin to appear with greater familiarity. However, the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and last night’s episode of Agents of SHIELD show an increasing distrust of organizations, and focus on how hiding behind information can be detrimental in building trust. So in that spirit, we’re offering some resources and guidelines for making a smart, well-informed decision.

(Some may believe that this is highly critical, that having anything that is detrimental to the Chicago non-profit/social change field may have adverse effects. As someone with strong professional experience in the field, I am firm believer that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that providing resources for potential donors and volunteers only helps strengthen us as a field, and that opponents may be engaging in a form of gatekeeping.)

So without further adieu, here are some tips and guidelines for finding information in order to make an informed decision:

  • Since many 501(c)3s are required by law to make specific financial records (most notably tax returns or “Form 990s”) public, a great first step is to visit Guidestar and Charity Watch and perform an initial search. It sounds very basic (and both allow you to create a free account), but looking over an agency’s tax records can help you determine the organization’s fiscal health, as well as get an overall sense of where it spends its money. (A good example – after looking up a former employer in another state, I discovered that when I had worked there, they were operating in the red by a significant amount, and most of their expenses were in administration).
  • In Chicago, the Donor’s Forum provides a wealth of resources into funders, foundations, and companies that provide money and backing. (Online, you can visit the Foundation Center, although there is a membership feeCaptain America: Winter Soldier involved).
  • For more local charities, using the Illinois Secretary of State’s site can help you in determining their business status. (If it’s an out-of-state organization, knowing where the organization operates can lead you to similar online resources.
  • Using a search engine like Google or Bing can give you a preliminary glimpse into their online presence, and using “Search Tools” to limit it within the past year/month/week can help you pinpoint any negative/recent news (as well as obvious SEO tactics like posting the same press release under different, seemingly random domains).
  • On a social media front, looking at channels like Twitter and Facebook – and the frequency/type of content posted – can often be a clue as to how (if at all) they are presenting themselves (For example, knowing how nonprofits like PAWS Chicago or the Chicago Red Cross do it well can help you not get slizzered by social media.
  • One really good resource is Linked In, not only to investigate organizations (via their Company Pages), but when looking at both workers and consultants to determine their professional strengths and areas of interest. (Some come from the corporate sector; others may have “grown up” professionally in non-profits).

This is, obviously, not a complete list of online resources…but here’s something to consider: funding dollars are decreasing and becoming harder to find. Many social enterprises are emerging that blend a strong business mission with a very practical social mission – and focus on making a direct impact. Non-profit organizations are increasingly finding themselves rushing towards the challenge, and potential donors need to make well-informed choices. Hopefully, this week’s post is a great first step towards greater insight into where those dollars should be spent.

Are there any other great resources you can suggest? Please leave them below in the comments – we’re always eager to have a conversation. If you wish to contact me personally, you can find my e-mail and other important information on this blog’s About page. And as always, thanks for reading!

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