Rich Cowles, executive director of the Charities Review Council since 1999, announced his resignation Monday.

Cowles has been the leader and public face of the council, one of the key players in Minnesota's nonprofit and philanthropic communities.

The council provides information about charities and nonprofits to Minnesotans who want to donate to a cause and offers "accountability standards" that nonprofits can meet to receive its seal of approval.

Cowles, 65, said he will leave in June to spend more time with his family and enjoy "real life."

Under Cowles' leadership, the direction of the council shifted from that of a "traditional charity watchdog to what's been affectionately called a charity guide dog," said Heidi Neff Christianson, a St. Paul attorney and chairperson of the council's board of directors.

Instead of taking complaints about charities and investigating them, the council evolved over the years into an organization that helped hundreds of nonprofits meet strict accountability standards, so that donors could write out checks with peace of mind.

"In a way, we had the stick: Now we have a carrot," said Cowles. "Our role has been more of an educator and evaluator [for nonprofits], not as an 'outer' of mismanagement."

Cowles said he tried to bring more diversity to the council's work. He said he was particularly proud of the council's help for the growing number of immigrants starting nonprofits in Minnesota, allowing them to be considered for more lucrative, mainstream funding.

A search committee has been formed by the council's board of directors to find a new leader. The executive search firm the Chandler Group will carry out the search.

Prior to his work at the council, Cowles held senior management positions with the Minnesota Hospital Association, Minnesota Health & Housing Alliance, and Opportunity Workshop (now Opportunity Partners).

He joked that he is now the same age as the council, which opened its doors in 1946. "But I'm retiring -- and it's not."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511