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GuideStar and charitable donors

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The success of a charity often depends on more than the number of gowns and black bow ties parading at a fundraising gala.

The success often depends on the data that gets churned up by the savvy analysts at a nonprofit group such as GuideStar. GuideStar combs through charity filings to produce reports on how groups spend their money, and that information is closely followed by donors who are trying to decide where to give their time, talents and treasures.

Donors don’t just want an analysis of IRS filings any more. They want to give to charities that make a palpable social impact, a quality that’s not always easy to measure. And to stay useful, GuideStar needs to develop new yardsticks.

President and chief executive Bob Ottenhoff recently announced that he is stepping down from GuideStar and making way for Jacob Harold, a 35-year-old foundation leader who has served on GuideStar’s board since 2010. After studying literature and ethics in college, Harold worked for environmental organizations including Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network.

During that time, Harold became familiar with the aggressive ways that often mark community activism. In a protest stunt against Ford Motor Co., some of his colleagues rappelled off of a building in downtown Detroit to hang a 50-foot banner. Harold bailed them out of jail that night. The next day he found himself in a suit speaking at the car manufacturer’s shareholder meeting about the need to build clean cars.

“To have the sort of impact that I think the world needs, I had to figure out how to wear a suit and multiply my impact,” Harold said. So he decided to go to business school. “A business approach is not fully translatable to the nonprofit sector … but there’s no doubt that both sectors have a lot to learn from each other,” he said.

He spent a summer in India working on climate change and in China studied the science of complex systems. Suddenly the world of philanthropy with all of its moving parts — donors, nonprofits, social impact — seemed a bit more understandable.

Harold couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bridge the world of big data to philanthropy.

— From a Washington Post article by Vanessa Small