Connecting generosity with need

Wednesday, July 20, 2005 at 12:00am

For Penny Carroll, accurate information on nonprofit organizations is essential.

Carroll is the director of the CBRL Group Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, which gave $400,000 in grants in fiscal year 2003. When nonprofits request funding from the foundation, it is her job to assess the application materials and financial reports they provide. But she often doesn't have an efficient way to verify the information.

Now, however, with The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee's launch this spring of www.GivingMatters.com, she does.

"It's pretty amazing," she said.

The Community Foundation, whose mission is to "provide flexible and cost-effective ways" for individuals and companies to contribute to their community, created GivingMatters to give donors greater access to information about charitable institutions. The Web site's database provides detailed financial and operational information about Middle Tennessee nonprofits and the programs they offer.

Currently, GivingMatters has about 400 nonprofits on its Web site and hopes to expand that number in the future, said Director Kaki Friskics-Warren. Access to the site is free and open to corporations as well as the general public.

"The reason being that we really believe that rising tides float all boats," Friskics-Warren said. "If we provide this information to people, more people are going to give because they're going to feel confidant enough about the nonprofit organizations that they are giving to."

That confidence, Friskics-Warren said, results from accurate financial information as well as other data relating to the nonprofit, like who's on its management team and board of directors.

On the Web site, the nonprofit listings are broken down topically to guide corporations that want to donate to a specific interest, such as housing or the environment.

But while the site gives corporations direction on giving, GivingMatters doesn't grade or recommend nonprofits.

"It doesn't say this is a five-star, this is a two-star," Friskics-Warren said. "We're really just trying to provide people the information" to make their own decisions.

The information is collected through interviews, profiles, audits and government tax documents, or 990s. Providing the information is a very time consuming process for nonprofits, taking between eight to 20 hours, Friskics-Warren said.

That's not the only strain on nonprofits, some of whom expressed initial reservations about the level of detail on the site.

"They said to me, 'You're asking us for some pretty intimate information and you're laying it out in such a way that makes it available at people's fingertips,'" Friskics-Warren said.

"[But] the nonprofit community is aware that GivingMatters contributes to transparency and they are willing to participate," she said.

Greater disclosure comes at a time of increasing accountability for nonprofits, said Mary Pat Boatfield, executive director of the Nashville Humane Society.

"I think donors expect organizations to use their funds appropriately to effectively impact their mission in the community," Boatfield said. "I think in years past, there'd been a tendency to not like your 990s publicly disclosed."

But disclosure is becoming more necessary as the number of nonprofits in the area grows. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, nonprofits have increased in number by 17 percent in Nashville in the last five years.

With more nonprofits requesting funding, the task of evaluating them has grown more complicated. First Tennessee Bank receives many requests for donations from nonprofits, and can't fulfill all of them, said Mike Edwards, president of the bank's Nashville region.

GivingMatters has eased the burden, Edwards said.

"It's a way to do research and get information and also validate that they're an active nonprofit in the Nashville community," he said. "It's a great tool for us to use."

The Community Foundation hopes GivingMatters will provide that research solution for the entire corporate community.

"Connecting generosity with need has to do with meeting the donor at the donor's interest level," Friskics-Warren said. "What does the donor have passion about? Because there is a need out there for that passion, and we are the connection to that."

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