Ask a Librarian

Charitable Organizations

December 6, 2008

Question: I'm thinking of donating to a charity but would like to do some research on their organization. How do I know if a charity is legitimate and if they spend their funds appropriately? I heard that some of their completed tax forms are available to the public. Is this true?

Answer: Good questions! You heard correctly and that's a great tip for research! The form that is available is the IRS 990 form which gives the financial data you'll need along with details on services and programs the charity provides. On the 990 form, you'll find who the organization receives funds from and how much they have received. You'll also see how the organization spends their income — how much is spent on management expenses vs. program expenses.

There are a couple of places online where you can find these forms. One place you will find them is on the Foundation Center's website at The Foundation Center also has some helpful guides on their site on how to interpret this form. Guidestar at also has 990 forms available. Another great resource for charities here in New York is New York State Attorney General's homepage at The Attorney General's site lists 990 forms for charities based in New York.

To do research on larger, national charities the Better Business Bureau is another excellent resource. The BBB established standards which each charity is evaluated by such as how much of its finances are spent on programs, how it is governed, and how it measures its effectiveness. You can search for charities on their Web site at

As the economy struggles, some of your favorite charities may feel the effects. It's a great time to consider giving, but to maximize the impact of your donation, it's important to do your research! Good luck and kudos to you on your generosity!

Today's question was answered by Cassandra Shortle, a reference librarian at Tompkins County Public Library. Send your questions by e-mail to, or call 272-4557 or visit the library at 101 E. Green St.

Page last modified May 3, 2012