How do I know I’m getting reliable nonprofit information online?

Erika Bentley Holland
December 14, 2021

Q: I’m trying to submit my annual report, but the website is asking me to pay for an annual subscription. What’s going on?

A: We’ve all become more aware of the dangers of misinformation. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is not exempt from scams, rumors, and false statements. Below are a few simple ways you can judge a website’s trustworthiness.

Check the URL

The ending “.gov” at the end of this web address confirms that you are on a U.S. government website.

URL stands for Uniform Resource Located, also known as the web address. Look at the address bar at the top of your web browser. Like checking the house number before you ring the doorbell, noticing at the web address can tell you if you are where you want to be. Often search engines show advertised websites at the top of the results page. Double check that the URL you are clicking on is appropriate.

The most common URLs are:

.govU.S. government
.edueducational institution
.orgnonprofit organization
.comcompany/commercial

Many countries have their own codes, like .uk for United Kingdom. By ignoring the address, you could inadvertently find information for another country. For the curious, here is a complete list of top-level domain names maintained and assigned by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

It’s possible for hackers to spoof legitimate web pages to trick you into giving them sensitive information. This is one type of phishing scam that can lead to identity theft. Before you enter passwords, credit card numbers, or other personal information, ask yourself why the page needs that information. If the webpage seems fishy (pun intended), double check the URL.

Bonus: Notice whether the URL starts with https or http. The “s” stands for secure. Some older websites have not moved to https yet, but the “s” can be an extra layer of assurance. Your browser may also show the lock icon. If you click on it, you can see the website’s certificate. The name on the certificate should match the domain name of the website.

When you search, scroll past the ads

The top three search results are typically paid, often from websites that are selling a product. For example, you can complete your annual report online through the Secretary of State’s website, but there are companies that will charge you more for that service. The Office of the Secretary of State will not pay for ads, but those for-profit companies will.

Likewise, many pages that offer access to 990s for a cost. The Secretary of State’s office and the IRS allow you to view a nonprofit’s public records for free. (Notice that the Secretary of State and IRS websites are a .gov, while a page offering the similar service for a higher fee will typically be a .com.)

Go to trusted sources first

When you’re thinking of making a major life decision, do you seek out a friend whose opinion you trust? I like to bounce ideas off a couple of people to get multiple perspectives. Going to familiar sources can help cut through the overwhelming amount of available information. You also become familiar with their point of view and area of expertise.

As the state association for nonprofits, we pride ourselves on providing accurate information.  Here is a list of other sources we frequently refer to, in alphabetical order:

501 Commons is a capacity-building organization that provides free information and referrals. Their Nonprofit Resource Directory vets consultants and other practitioners. Located in Seattle, their services are available statewide.

Blue Avocado is a free, online magazine sponsored by the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance. Their articles are a great source of information on leadership and risk management.

Candid is a well-known source for philanthropy, fundraising, and grant programs. They provide some information for free, but their products can be pricey. You may have known them as Foundation Center and GuideStar.

Communities Rise specializes in legal support for nonprofits, community-based organizations, and small businesses from a social justice standpoint. They publish the Washington Nonprofit Handbook, which puts nonprofit law into plainer language. They are located in Seattle and serve organizations in Washington state. Formerly known as WayFind and NAC.

Nonprofit Quarterly is a magazine that publishes well-researched articles on the nonprofit sector. Some of their articles are available for free, while others require a paid subscription.

NTEN supports better use of technology through articles, webinars, and an annual conference. They are located in Portland, Oregon.

Washington Nonprofit Institute our anytime learning portal with document vaults for all of our free courses. We also offer affordable, on-demand learning packages.

Your local community foundation. They work in your area and may be able to give you insights or referrals to resources near you.

Your local library! The Seattle Public Library and the King County Library can connect you with local resources in the nonprofit field, such as free classes and grant databases. Your local librarian is probably knowledgeable about resources for nonprofits.

This is intended to serve as a starting point, not a comprehensive list. Who do you go to for information and advice? Let us know. And if you found this article informational, share it with someone!

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