Boosting transparency and accountability within the charitable sector were among the biggest goals of launching an online charitable registration system
in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office a year ago. And with information for 30,000 charitable organizations now publicly available for the first time, those goals are on the way to being met.
Peter Thomas, chief of the AG’s Charitable Law Section, said the new functionality allowing members of the public to research information about organizations registered in Ohio has been popular.
“For the first time, we are able to share the information that is provided through the registration process with the public, and we are planning to continually expand the information that is available,” he said.
Thomas acknowledged that whenever there are significant changes to major systems, there can be some rough spots.
“Unfortunately, some of our constituents had some technical problems. We believe that our IT department has helped iron out many of those glitches,” he said. “But many constituents have provided comments about how intuitive and straight-forward the new system is, and we are particularly proud of that feedback because that is how we tried to design the system.”
Thomas noted that the statutory language surrounding charitable filings is not intuitive, so an important goal of developing the system was to try to make it easier for charitable constituents to comply with their responsibilities. Leaders no longer need to worry about which of two different statutory registration schemes might apply to a particular organization because the system makes that determination automatically based on the data provided, he noted.
Thomas said the new system allows multiple users to have accounts connected to the data for an organization. Everyone connected with an organization will receive reminders about filing deadlines, confirmations on activities, and notices whenever anyone makes a change to the information.
“This helps us identify when fraudulent filings are made since everyone connected with the organization will know and can contact us when suspicious activities take place. This kind of transparency wasn’t possible with paper filings,” Thomas said.
The system was also designed to accommodate users such as accountants and lawyers working with multiple organizations who can complete parts of the filing and have clients review the information within the system before submitting it or paying fees.
Most states have some sort of charitable registration requirements in place, and Ohio’s system dates to the mid-1950s. Thomas said some in the charitable sector fail to understand that there is a dual system of oversight between the IRS, which grants tax-exempt status and has rules surrounding use of that designation, and the state’s responsibility to ensure that charitable assets are properly used.
“Our duty to stand in the shoes of those intended to benefit from charitable resources dates to the Middle Ages,” he noted. Based on statistics, there is higher chance that charities will hear from Ohio regulators than from IRS officials about the activities of a charity. The Charitable Law Section has broad authority to investigate and can file litigation to recover assets and work with local law enforcement when criminal activities are involved.
Prior to adoption of the online filing system, the Charitable Law Section did not have the resources to convert information from hard-copy filings into a usable database. In addition to being able to now share information online, the section can also generate reports, analyze data, and conduct other tests to further examine the information provided in the filings to identify possible red flags, he said.
The Charitable Advisory Council, a group of individuals throughout the state that helps the section define some of its goals and programs, worked with staff in developing the online system. “We had accountants, lawyers, and representatives of big and small groups working with us on the process of designing the system, and we were appreciative for their help in steering this project,” Thomas said.
The Attorney General’s website includes resources to answer questions users might have about the online registration system. Orange question marks are scattered throughout the pages of the online system and indicate additional information for users. A guide is also available online. Charity representatives can also register for a monthly webinar
on the system, which is held at noon on the third Wednesday of each month. Staff members are also available to field questions at 800-252-0515 or by e-mail at CharitableRegistration@OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov