Five IRS-safe tech tips for nonprofits

Summary:If you're considering starting a nonprofit and want to sail through government approval, here are five tech tips (and a few bonus ideas) that will make the process as painless as possible. This article is certified politics-free.

In honor of the "ripped from the headlines" headlines about the emerging IRS scandal targeting conservative nonprofits, I thought it would be helpful to provide some proven IRS-safe tech tips for nonprofits.

Given that most government articles go from zero-to-Obama in four comments or less, I've decided to steer far away from actual political discussion and simply discuss practical suggestions.

Some of you may know that I volunteer my time pro-bono to a 501(c)3 nonprofit known as the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute. I was heavily involved in its creation and the process of getting IRS approval as a nonprofit.

The process itself is not easy, and not all that cheap. There are a ton of forms, and quite a bit of IRS interaction. All told, it took us almost two years to go from proposal and filing of our initial application to being granted 501(c)3 status.

Before I start with the tech tips, I'll give you one additional tip. Rather than retaining a general-purpose attorney, we retained a company that works specifically with the process of getting IRS approval, the Foundation Group.

They weren't cheap, but they probably cost less than an attorney. More to the point, when the IRS examiners came back to us with some baffling gov-speak questions, the folks at the Foundation Group knew how to interpret those questions and prepare full and complete responses. I can't recommend them enough. They were incredibly helpful.

Okay, so now some quick tips.

Free hosting

Outreach is incredibly important for a nonprofit, and while Web site hosting isn't terribly expensive, it's nice to be able to get it for free. If you've got your IRS determination letter, a number of hosting companies will provide you with either free or discounted hosting. One such host is the one one USSPI uses, DreamHost.

Google for nonprofits

Google has a number of services and even a grant program for nonprofits. Once again, you have to be an established 501(c)3 with your determination letter, but once you are, consider applying to Google for Nonprofits.

Scan everything

These days, there's no real excuse to have a pile of paperwork. Nonprofits need to run lean and mean. Rather than filling an office with file cabinets, buy yourself a scanner like the Fujitsu ScanSnap (I own two of them).

When I bought the device, it came with both a free copy of Adobe Acrobat and a year of Evernote Premium. Evernote is an ideal tool for operating a nonprofit, since you can share out notes or notebooks to just board members, or to the entire organization -- making everything immediately available online quickly and easily.

Hold meetings online

Board and stakeholder meetings are a critical part of nonprofit operations. If you run a national nonprofit, like I do, you'll find that you have participants scattered all over the country.

When you want to keep costs down, the last thing you want to do is incur a lot of travel expense (and the time is a big drain, as well). Instead, consider putting everyone into a Google+ Circle and using Hangouts as a quick way to bring everyone up to speed, face-to-face.

File your IRS reports online

Probably the most important activity for any nonprofit (at least in the eyes of the IRS), is filing your paperwork. The IRS now offers e-filing for charities and nonprofits. Just point your browser to the e-file home page and tell the IRS all your secrets.

Volunteer

I find my work for public charities and nonprofit research organizations to be incredibly fulfilling. If you're not helping out a nonprofit, consider volunteering. It's not only good for the country and your community, it's actually good for you as well.

Topics: Google, SMBs

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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