Posts by Putnam Barber

Candy, ghosts…and year-end donations?

It’s that time of year! While many of us have been gathering treats for the goblins and ghouls who will appear at our doors tonight, fundraising and communications professionals at nonprofits across the country have been anxiously preparing their year-end fundraising appeals.

Why “anxiously”? Because the year-end appeal often makes the difference between a strong program next year and a struggle to achieve the mission. And because the sorry state and uncertain future of the economy is having an effect on public support for the work of nonprofits.


Freaky: the fact that every store is about to begin blaring holiday tunes. Not freaky: deciding which organizations to support with any year-end donations you make! (Photo: Micah Sittig, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Year-end giving is a tradition that brings satisfaction to many families year after year. But sometimes the number of requests can be overwhelming. If you receive envelopes or emails day after day, you might wonder, “Is this much fundraising really necessary?” or “How could this possibly be efficient?”

It is necessary. Donations are an important way for organizations to get the money they need for all the things that contribute to valuable programs – from the vegetables at the soup kitchen to research on the root causes of problems.

But it’s true that fundraising could be a lot more efficient. And often, attentive donors can help on that front. If you’re planning to donate this year, here are some tips to help make sure your year-end contributions do the most good.

  • Have a plan. Decide in advance how much you can afford to give this year and what causes or groups you want to help.
  • Take the initiative. If you already know the groups you want to support, make your gifts without waiting to be asked. You can send along a request that the groups you support not solicit you further; that’s a good idea at any time of year. But if you do get a year-end appeal anyway you can recycle it with a clear conscience…or pass it along to a friend who might share your interest.
  • Be clear. If you get a year-end appeal from an organization that’s not in your plan, let them know and ask that they not send you fundraising appeals. When you do send a gift, suggest that the recipient limit any future appeals to you. Helping an organization avoid the costs of making a pointless request is a small but real contribution to their work.
  • Consider volunteering. Many organizations offer special, expanded services at this time of year. Joining such a project adds a new dimension to the celebrations of the season.
  • And this year, if you can, maybe stretch a little. Nonprofits in every community are helping people cope with the effects of the bad economy. If you’re doing ok, do a little bit more so they can do their jobs better.

Let us know if you have tips to add – either from the nonprofit fundraising perspective, or the individual donor point of view (maybe both!). And happy Halloween!

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Idea File: CNN Hero saves lives with bars of hotel soap

Put Barber translated this post, originally written in Spanish by Elena Martin for


Image via The Global Soap Project. Click to learn more.

Two million children die every year just from a lack of basic sanitation. Meanwhile, in the United States alone, more than 800 million bars of soap are discarded annually after they have been partially used in hotels. Derreck Kayongo, an Atlanta resident—who happens to be a Ugandan refugee and the son of a soapmaker—recognized in these two extremes an opportunity. So he founded the Global Soap Project.

Derreck’s parents were displaced by the tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda, so he knows about the extreme conditions faced by the millions of people in IDP and refugee camps around the world. When Derreck came to the U.S. and first saw how much soap went into the trash after just one use, he asked “Is it like this in every hotel?” The answer changed his life.

In the U.S. today, volunteers in every part of the country assist by collecting bars of used soap and getting them to Atlanta, where they are cleaned, melted, and made into long rolls of soap. These are then cut, packaged in boxes, and distributed in many new countries with the support of other organizations. And now, more than 100,000 bars of reclaimed soap have been distributed to different parts of the world. Learn more about Derreck’s story via CNN Heroes.

Bubbling over with excitement? Visit the Global Soap Project to find out how you can get involved. Or search for keywords like sanitation, refugees, and hygiene.

What are your favorite examples of everyday people who, like Derreck, spotted a need and an opportunity, and found a way to do much more with the resources around us?

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Rescuing books from the trash in Bogotá

How one man’s idea to rescue books from the trash contributed to everyday life in Bogotá.


José Alberto in one of his many libraries

Recently my colleague Elena interviewed José Alberto about his success in recycling books for schoolkids in Bogotá, Colombia. (You can read her original post in Spanish at

In his work as a trash hauler, José Alberto observed usable books discarded by households throughout the city.

He knew that children in the low-income neighborhood near his home had difficulty getting the books they needed for their school work, there was no bookstore nearby, and the nearest library was a long way away.

So fifteen years ago, he decided to rescue them and make them available to the kids in his neighborhood. Starting in the ground floor of his own home, he has expanded the network of bibliotecas into eight neighborhoods of the city. As word of his project has spread, more and more Bogotános donate used books directly to him, avoiding the detour into a waste bin.

Elena says that José’s entire family has been involved in this never-ending project for 15 years now: “They don’t have a car or even a little motorbike, and frequently they cross the city after somebody’s call to pick up boxes of books that then they carry in buses all across the city.” By opening his own home as a place to find books, José Alberto started something that has changed the lives of thousands of children (and their parents) in Bogotá.

Did you know we have a Spanish site? parallels the offerings of Idealist with jobs, volunteer opportunities, and frequent updates on its blog. If you can point out a project or activity that should be highlighted for visitors to Idealistas, please let us know.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about nonprofits


Which way to turn? (Photo from will ockenden/Flickr Creative Commons)

Have you found yourself wondering…

  • How to write a nonprofit mission statement?
  • What’s the deal with nonprofit ethics and stewardship?
  • How to ask people for money to support a cause or program?

You can find answers to these questions and more in our Resources for Nonprofit Organizations info center.

The resource center got a makeover when we re-launched Idealist a few months ago. You can find it at or click the link at the bottom right corner of the screen when you’re exploring

Meanwhile, the Nonprofit FAQ (long a feature of the Idealist website) has a new home with the expanded offerings in the KnowledgeBase for and about nonprofit organizations at the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute. You can access the same familiar categories—organization, management, regulation, resources, and development—through this index.

We’re still refining and expanding our info centers, so if there’s a subject you’d like to know more about, let us know!

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Worse than we thought! 275k nonprofits just lost their status

There were 275,000 names on the list of organizations that have automatically lost tax-exempt status. Earlier guesses were that the list, published by the IRS on June 8, might have included as many as 200,000 names.

What happened?


At least you know you're not alone? (Photo: dingler1109, Flickr/Creative Commons)

In 2006, Congress passed a law requiring all tax-exempt organizations to file a report annually with the IRS. The new part was that for smaller organizations the law created a new form, called the “e-postcard” 990-N. Small organizations had never been required to file such a report before. And this new law said that any organization that failed to file a report for three consecutive years would automatically have its tax-exempt status revoked. The 275,000 organizations on the list the IRS released on Wednesday were ones that have not filed for more than three years, and missed many mailings and press releases (and, ahem, Idealist blog postings) about the new rules.

Is my organization on this list?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a searchable database of the whole list of online. I found 39 names in my Seattle ZIP code in just a couple of seconds. The IRS itself also posted the list, in the form of state-by-state Excel files that can be downloaded.

What happens now?

For organizations that aren’t on that list, nothing. To double check on exempt status for any organization, look in IRS Publication 78 or the corresponding online database.

For organizations that find themselves listed, the IRS has set up a special process to facilitate reinstatement. All the details are explained in an IRS statement about the process. Small organizations may be able to retroactively returned to exempt status for $100; larger organizations may find the process more difficult and more expensive.

The National Council of Nonprofits has a detailed Tipsheet [PDF] with advice about what an organization finds its name on the list when it shouldn’t be.

The takeaway

One lesson here is that very small, all-volunteer organizations need to take extra care to be sure legally required annual filings are taken care of – not just to the IRS but to state and local government reports as well. What strategies do you use to stay on top of this sort of do-or-die date on your calendars?

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Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.


Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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U.S. nonprofits: Monday is the deadline for lots of 990s


The clock is ticking! Photo via Flickr user Elaron (Creative Commons)

Nonprofits with a January to December fiscal year probably need to file a Form 990 with the IRS by Monday, May 16.

Oops…how do I know if it’s time to file?

The deadline for 990s is 5.5 months after the end of the organization’s fiscal year. If December 31 was the end of the year, then May 15 is 5.5 months later.

What happens if I don’t file in time?

If the last time a 990 was filed was in 2008, and none has been filed since, then the new three-years-and-you’re-out rule will apply this year. The IRS will automatically remove the organization from the list of recognized nonprofits when this year’s deadline is missed. If you’re responsible for your organization’s filings and you’re not sure things are up to date, then now would be the time to check! There are also penalties for just filing late even if the earlier year forms were filed, so getting on top of these deadlines has to be a priority.

How do I file?

Here are the thresholds that dictate which version of the Form 990 to file:

  • If gross receipts are normally less than $50,000 per year, then the form to use is the e-postcard called Form 990-N. You answer a few short questions online as explained at The Urban Institute contracts with the IRS to operate the website for filing the 990-N.
  • If gross receipts are more than $50,000 and less than $200,000 (and total assets are less than $500,000), then the form to use in the 990-EZ.
  • Larger organizations use Form 990.

You can also file the 990-EZ and the full 990 online using tools developed by The Urban Institute. This is free for organizations with gross receipts under $100,000; there’s a fee for larger organizations.

Filing online offers many advantages: less chance of errors; no fat envelopes to mail with return-receipt requests at the post office; quicker and more efficient handling for the IRS.

I need more time!

Unless the process got underway a while ago, it may be too late to get everything done by the end of the day next Monday. If you’re a little behind, there’s just one form needed for an automatic three-month extension! All you have to do is file Form 8868 online at

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Want to keep donors coming back? Pay attention.

Are the appeal letters you send to supporters a helpful reminder or a huge turn-off?


Flickr user Shane Adams purchased a cow through Heifer International. Photo: ishane/Creative Commons

Last week I wrote that the first thing I want when I make a donation is a simple, quick thank you. It’s the no-brainer, proven “donor retention strategy” every organization should follow.

Paying attention to what donors want in a wider sense is, though, a little more complicated.

One day I ended up sitting next to the charming ED of a large organization in my home town that I’ve supported in a small way for years.  I said to him, “You know, I send you guys a check every year, and almost before it lands in your mailbox, I get an appeal for additional support.  I’m at the point where I’d almost rather forget about making my gift if I get more than one reminder a year.”

His answer?  “Those systems are automated.  The only way I could make sure you only get one reminder would be to put your name and address in my tickler file and do it myself.”

I can’t remember my answer, but I do remember being astonished. I still get way too many reminders…and I still make a gift every year. I guess I value their services enough to put up with this familiar feeling that no one is paying attention.

Still, I’d love it if the organizations I support could operate their development departments efficiently and still pay attention to the requests that donors make about how they want to be treated in the future. Admittedly, those two goals are a little bit in conflict.  The most “efficient” way to handle the daily incoming mail is to open it immediately, record the donors’ names and gifts in some database, and deposit the checks.  The most respectful way is to examine the post-it notes and scribbles on the donor-response forms to see whether there’s any sort of message there, and then do as much as possible to honor any reasonable request.

In a busy organization, being able to honor requests depends on having systems in place that match what donors want, which takes us back to square one and then on to square two.  Say “thank you;” pay attention. That’s the “donor retention strategy” that has the greatest promise of success.

Has your development department found a way to balance both of these priorities?

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An easy way to get more donations

Wondering what donors want?

Well, what do you want – when you make a gift to a friend, a wedding couple, a grandchild, or a community organization?

The first thing I want is just a “thank you.” Often that’s enough. And if I want anything more, it’s to know that my gift made a difference was welcomed and put to use.

Penelope Burk is famous in fundraising circles for researching what donors want. As Guidestar reported last summer in its newsletter, Burk found that organizations where board members call key donors to say “thanks” see an increase in donations of 39% —without anyone doing any asking at all.


From vistamommy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Saying thank you—quickly!—is the proven “donor retention strategy” that seems to fall off the edge of the desk a little too often.  When coupled with a brief message about the difference donations make to the success of the organization, it’s about the best thing a nonprofit can do to keep the flow of donations coming.

Not every organization can use this exact technique.  But every organization can think about what donors want, which is probably the more direct route to getting what the organization needs – more donations.

Have you tried having board members call your supporters? What works for you?

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Nonprofits, government, and a financially sustainable future

The weak financial condition of many cities, most states, and the U.S. government is pretty generally recognized.  The quarrels over how to respond may be making the basic problem a little harder to see.

It is simply not possible to shift to a financially sustainable future without painful changes. No matter what paths are chosen to find a way out of this mess, familiar patterns are going to be disrupted and risky choices will have to be made.

As we take part in the national conversation around this challenge, here are some things people in the nonprofit sector need to be prepared to talk about.


Divide/Wisdom sign (photo: Julia Smith)

First, it is simply impossible for nonprofits to “take up the slack.”

Nonprofit organizations can and should do more to protect the vulnerable, tend to the sick, enhance the quality of life, and contribute to the debates about big issues.  But it’s a mistake to think that the nonprofits that serve America’s communities can somehow replace the critical services that governments provide.  When that suggestion is made, it needs to be firmly, politely, and publicly challenged as simply beyond any possibility.

Second, tax exemptions are a bargain for communities.

Because they can attract donors, volunteers, and other support, nonprofits deliver value to their communities that neither governments nor businesses can. Encouraging nonprofits by exempting them from some kinds of taxes means there are more resources available for their work.

Of course, the ways public services are financed vary widely. There may be some places where nonprofit organizations should, in fact, help to assure that the government has the resources required to protect the community’s health and safety. Negotiating agreements to recognize that will be tough…but it can be done.

Third, the bills have to be paid.

Sometimes governments respond to fiscal crises by changing the arrangements they have made with nonprofit providers abruptly, and for the worse. A recent study by the Urban Institute documents the ways this has been happening state by state.

Tim Delaney, President of the National Council of Nonprofits, urges the correct response is to point out how this hurts the entire community.

Fourth, let’s not knock each other.

Some nonprofits exist (at least in part) to challenge the ideas and goals of other nonprofits. And it’s natural—even necessary—to believe passionately in the specific missions of the organizations we work for or support. But it won’t help the U.S. deal with the financial crisis if people who love one nonprofit point to others as somehow “expendable.”

The country’s nonprofits deliver countless valuable services to people and communities every day. Beyond that, though, they also demonstrate the great range of deep and passionate commitments we have to finding solutions, helping people, and pursuing the good life. Each of us can play a part in preserving that diversity and creativity – even, or perhaps especially, when we disagree.

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