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Tips on Researching Non-Profits

If you're researching a non-profit organization in your community, there are a number of Internet sites you can tap to find information on the group's finances and executives.

The GuideStar Web site has a database of more than 700,000 non-profit organizations in the United States. These are groups that have registered with the IRS as '501(c)(3)' organizations, so donations they receive are tax-deductible.

Some of the information in the GuideStar database is supplied by the non-profits, including links to their Web pages. But the database also contains 'Form 990s' that non-profits file with the IRS that detail their officers and directors and revenue and expenditures. Non-profits with annual revenue of $25,000 or more must file the Form 990s, and GuideStar is digitizing and putting online about 200,000 of the forms.

Note: religious organizations are exempt from IRS filing requirements, so you probably won't find information on a church group.

To see if an organization is listed in the database, you simply type its name into the search box at the main GuideStar page.

The search engine supports 'Boolean' searches using connector words like and/or, phrase searches and the use of asterisks (*) as wildcards for letters. For more information on how to search check out the Guidestar Help Pages.

You also can search by a city or type of organization by clicking on 'Advanced Search' at the GuideStar home page.

The information retrieved from the database varies widely, depending on what information a non-profit has supplied to GuideStar and whether a form 990 is available. In most cases GuideStar provides an address for the organization, a summary of the group's finances and a list of key executives.

If a Form 990 is online, you can view it in PDF format (you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader). The Form 990 provides detailed data on revenue and expenditures and a list of the non-profits officers and directors and their compensation. In some cases the non-profits may voluntarily disclose the names of specific donors.

If you don't understand a term used in one of the reports, you can consult GuideStar's online glossary.

In some cases GuideStar will note that the organization has filed a form 990, but it is not yet available online.

If that happens, keep in mind that under IRS regulations all groups that file a 990 form must make copies available for public inspection. So you can go to the main office of the non-profit and ask to look at its most recent 990 filing, and the non-profit is required to provide it to you.

For an explanation of what a non-profit must disclose, check the IRS' 'Exempt Organization Public Disclosure Requirements FAQs.'

There are a couple of other Web sites that provide information similar to the GuideStar database on non-profits:

Action Without Borders' Idealist Web page has a smaller database - 20,000 non-profits - and less information than GuideStar. But it includes organizations from 150 different countries that may not be in the GuideStar database. The Internet Nonprofit Center has a database of IRS information similar to GuideStar, but unfortunately the electronic files were damaged and it currently isn't operational. But you might try it in the future to see if it gets back online.

Finally, many state governments have special agencies that regulate charities and also require the filing of reports similar to the IRS Form 990s.

In California, for example, the Registry of Charitable Trusts requires charities and other public benefit organizations to file Form 990s, and those are available online. That database, can be searched by the name of a charity.

For the names of agencies that regulate charities in other states, check the list maintained by the Maryland Secretary of State's Office.