How do you evaluate a charity or social welfare group? Start with GuideStar's Tips for Choosing a Charity. Then use GuideStar's searchable database of not-for-profit organizations to locate a financial snapshot and recent IRS filings, if any are available. Free registration is required for access to the Form 990's.
Many Form 990's are also available through the Foundation Center's 990 Finder, and no registration is required for access. Rutgers users can take advantage of the Foundation Directory Online (Rutgers-restricted).
Another good site for tracking not-for-profit organizations (but fewer than at GuideStar) is Charity Navigator, with its comparison charts with similar organizations.
The American Institute of Philanthropy also provides advice on giving through its Charity Rating Guide which must be ordered by mail. Top-Rated Charities are listed online but details are only in the printed Guide.
Of course, you should be aware of fraudulent charities; consult the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's Avoid Charity Fraud page, which lists some organizations currently or previously under investigation in various states.
To see if a charity or not-for-profit organization is tax-exempt (and your donations therefore tax-deductible), consult the Internal Revenue Service's online Search for Charities. The New Jersey Attorney General's Office maintains a Directory of Registered Charities in this state; agencies in other states may be located through the National Association of State Charity Officials.
Two sites that facilitate secure online donations are JustGive and Network for Good. Both offer searching by location and type of charity, and both link to summary descriptions from GuideStar, if available.
If your interest lies beyond our shores, the United States International Grantmaking has links to Intermediary/Partner Organizations around the world. The USIG is a project of the Council on Foundations and facilitates effective and responsible international grantmaking.
Finally, you can consult the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, which evaluates local charities and funnels grants to them. The CNJG Directory lists members alphabetically as well as by type and by county.
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