UI builds ‘public trust’ in Iowa charities, but without oversight

School's 'Register of Accountability' operates on the honor system

The Old Capitol building on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa)

As part of an effort to build public trust in nonprofits, the University of Iowa maintains an online list of organizations that it says are committed to ethical practices – but almost any organization can be placed on that list.

The Register of Accountability is a publicly accessible and searchable list of 970 nonprofit entities in Iowa. It was created and is maintained by the university’s Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center.

The center tells Iowa nonprofits that “your listing on the register shows Iowa and the nation that your nonprofit makes a concerted effort to operate efficiently, effectively, and ethically.”

But officials at the center acknowledge they make no effort to review the nonprofits’ financial audits, tax returns, board structure, executive compensation or policies. If an organization has had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS, it might still appear on the Register of Accountability.

In fact, some of the entities that appear on the register aren’t nonprofits at all. They are for-profit companies, such as the Windsor Heights retail store Fitness Sports, and the consulting business Elizabeth Weinstein & Associates. There are also taxpayer-funded governmental entities on the list, such as the City of Council Bluffs, the Warren County Attorney’s Office, and Iowa Workforce Development.

On its website, the center says the register represents a “voluntary listing of charitable nonprofits that have committed themselves to continuous improvement by implementing the (recommended) principles and practices as general guidelines.”

And in a 2018 newsletter, the center stated, “Being listed in the register builds public trust and shows supporters that an organization is willing to go the extra mile to be efficient, effective, and responsible.”

According to the center, placement on the register can be achieved through six hours of training through the center; accreditation or licensing by some other entity; or by having a nonprofit’s board of directors pass a resolution affirming its commitment to the center’s recommended principles and practices.

Some of the entities on the list are there because one staffer attended training at some point in the past 19 years. The Bettendorf Public Library, for example, is currently on the register because its former director took six hours of training in 2006. She retired in 2008 and died in 2011.

Steve Bobenhouse of Sports Fitness said his retail store was apparently added to the register 14 years ago when he and his wife attended a training session while setting up a nonprofit organization that’s entirely separate from their store.

The resource center’s director, Paul Thelen, said he plans to soon begin purging the register of entities that haven’t renewed their application within the past three years. He said some of the for-profit entities and government agencies on the register might have been placed there in error or because they partnered at one time with an actual nonprofit.

Thelen said the center isn’t intended to be a “watchdog” over nonprofits and the register operates largely on the honor system in terms of whether the listed organizations are truly operating ethically.

The center has an annual budget of roughly $300,000, with $159,000 of that coming from state appropriations, Thelen said. The remainder comes from private funding and revenue generated by fees and other earnings.

Apart from the Register of Accountability, the center also helps Iowans establish and operate their own nonprofits and seek out grants for funding.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Windsor Heights store, Fitness Sports, which was previously reported as Sports Fitness. 

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.