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In the name of charity: Investigating nonprofits

By Gwen Girsdansky

Investigating a nonprofit often boils down to checking whether it is keeping its promises.

What was the original mission statement when the nonprofit submitted its required tax form (known as the 990) to the Internal Revenue Service? Kendall Taggart from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Kris Hundley from the Tampa Bay Times, who recently reported the project “America’s Worst Charities”, said that some of the best nonprofit stories show how an organization hasn’t folloiwed through on its mission.

Beyond tax forms, other helpful practices include keeping track of press releases, emails and letters from recently established nonprofits that emerge as the result of a disaster. A list of promises can be kept in a spreadsheet and then after six months or a year, you can look back and start checking to see if they were followed through on.

But on the flip side, if you find a person who says they are a survivor who has not been helped by a nonprofit, make sure they are who they say they are. See if they have documentation, if  they have a connection to the disaster and make sure they haven’t committed fraud in the past.

Taggart and Hundley used a spreadsheet to keep a record of what people and businesses were connected to each charity. Patterns and trends can emerge when you start seeing a person, and their entire family, involved in four or five different charities.

To learn more about Taggart and Hundley’s reporting, check out their Google Hangout last week with IRE.

Gwen Girsdansky is a journalism student at the University of Missouri

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