I personally haven’t done much reporting in this area, but I aspire to follow the work done by other investigative journalists. There are plenty of resources and examples to follow, so I’ve curated some of my favorites here.
Investigation: America’s Worst Charities, via the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting. This 2013 data investigation looked at how much charities spent on raising money as a metric for deciding “worst charity”. The innocent-sounding Kids Wish Network made the top of the list for funneling $110 million of its donations to corporate fundraisers, leaving sick children with less than 3 cents of every dollar raised. The first story, America’s 50 worst charities rake in nearly $1 billion for corporate fundraisers, was published on June 6, 2013, after a yearlong investigation tallying “the cost of this parasitic segment of the nonprofit industry.”
Guide: Kids Wish Network Annotated Form 990, via the Center for Investigative Reporting - Reporter Kendall Taggart helpfully published this list of red flags to spot on a charity’s Form 990, such as where professional fundraising fees are itemized and how an organization might inflate their financial efficiency.
Data: Nonprofit Explorer, via ProPublica. An interactive database that allows users to “search over 1.8 million tax returns from tax-exempt organizations and see financial details such as their executive compensation and revenue and expenses. You can browse raw IRS data released since 2013 and access over 8.3 million tax filing documents going back as far as 2001.” The database can also be accessed via an API.
Data: IRS 990 Filings on AWS via Amazon Web Services. Electronically-filed Form 990 data since 2011 as XML, stored on a public Amazon S3 server. Carl Malamud, an open-government advocate who sued the IRS to provide Form 990s in machine-readable format, called the release “a huge victory.”
Guide: How to dig deeper into a nonprofit’s finances via the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Data: IRS 990 Forms, via the Internet Archive. Interested in the 990s as actual documents? The Chronicle of Philanthropy and Public.Resource.Org DVDs of the 990 forms as TIFF images. Carl Malamud said that the DVDs needed to store the filings from 2002 to 2012 weighed more than 98 pounds.
Guide: For Checking Out a Charity, Remember the Number 990, via the New York Times. This 2000 article describes the fun of 990s just as organizations began uploading them to the World Wide Web.
Data: Charity Navigator. An interactive database of ratings that can be useful for cross-referencing your own research and analysis.
Guide: Many Types of Nonprofits, via ProPublica. A helpful list of descriptions for all the kinds of 501(c) organizations, besides the well-known 501(c)(3) category.