by Angela Henderson, Executive Director
As a child, I was taught to listen to my elders, follow directions, and not question authority figures. Respect - for yourself and others - was modeled for me by my parents and all four of my grandparents. It was a shock when I discovered not everyone shared these same values. Even more disconcerting was the discovery that authority figures cannot always be trusted. When they embezzle, lie, break the law, and abuse their power, they shake everyone's faith in institutions.
The nonprofit sector has not been spared the indignity. Nonprofits are easy prey because they are managed by governing boards made up of good-hearted people who do not always understand their fiduciary responsibilities. They fail at times to ask the right questions and to hold the chief executive officer accountable for performance goals and measures.
As a long-serving nonprofit CEO, I believe transparency is the antidote. Transparency is like a clear glass window. Windows like these enable us to see both inside and outside the structure of the organization. The opposite of transparency is opacity. Opaque windows create a visual barrier, offering a measure of privacy. Nonprofit organizations who help vulnerable people should keep client information opaque and financial and governance information transparent.
Transparency works best when charitable organizations willingly proffer information and when donors are encouraged to ask appropriate, well-placed questions.
Any charitable entity organized under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code is required by federal law to have corporate records available for inspection by request during normal business hours. At CASA of Northeast Oklahoma, these records are kept in a binder so that they are readily available to the public.
Generous people who contribute to nonprofits work hard for their money and should be encouraged to ask questions of staff and board members. If nonprofit leaders seem impatient, express offense, or seem reticent to answer questions, donors should take note.
What information should donors expect to be made available in the corporate records?
IRS Form 1023. This form is the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is the initial paperwork submitted to the Internal Revenue Service seeking nonprofit status. It contains the original mission statement and describes the community issue the nonprofit proposes to address. Since this is one of the first documents the nonprofit files, it is sometimes not easy to find.
IRS Tax Determination Letter. This letter is one or two pages on IRS letterhead and states that an organization is recognized as a nonprofit organization under Section 501(c)3 of the IRS Tax Code. If the nonprofit cannot produce this letter, it is safe to assume they are not a nonprofit organization.
IRS Form 990. All nonprofits are required annually to file an IRS Form 990 or 990EZ. The 990 is the nonprofit equivalent of a business tax return. The 990 shows the total amount contributed to the organization and total expenses in three functional categories: program services, management/general, and fundraising.
Certificate of Registration as a Charitable Organization. All nonprofit organizations in Oklahoma are required annually to file for recognition with the Oklahoma Secretary of State as a registered charitable organization, in compliance with the Oklahoma Solicitation of Charitable Contributions Act.
Annual Audit or Financial Review. All nonprofit organizations should have some type of outside review of their financial records, such as a financial review or an annual audit. Donors should ask the nonprofit if there is a management letter or any significant findings discovered by an auditor or financial reviewer.
In addition, nonprofit organizations also should be able to provide: (1) a board-approved annual budget; (2) a governing board roster; (3) board-approved financial policies and procedures, including internal controls; (4) board-approved governance policies and procedures; and (5) a staff roster.
If the nonprofit organization has a physical location, it should have regular office hours and should be staffed. Be prepared to make an appointment, as some nonprofits restrict entry to their facility due to COVID-19 or client confidentiality. All nonprofit organizations should be able to provide a tour of their facilities during appropriate times when clients are not in the facility.
The Board of Directors and staff of CASA of Northeast Oklahoma are committed to transparency. While child-specific information is protected by law, all other information is available for public inspection. You are invited to visit our website to access the corporate records (www.casaneok.org) or during COVID-19, to make an appointment to visit the office and view the records.