Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Journalist's Resource offers tips for investigative reporters covering nonprofits and charities

Journalist's Resource offers some tips for investigative reporters on how to tackle corruption in nonprofit organizations and charities. "Nonprofits are some of the nation’s largest, most powerful organizations such as hospitals, foundations, universities and churches. Like any other set of institutions, they are susceptible to corruption, waste and abuse," John Wihbey reports for Journalist's Resource.

"Journalists should know that nonprofit groups are subject to government rules that regulate the activities, finances and operations that justify their ongoing receipt of tax-exempt, '501(c)(3)' status—effectively, a government-endorsed subsidy," Wihbey writes. "Further, many nonprofits depend on donations from the public, giving them a special obligation to allocate these collective resources efficiently and effectively and uphold the public’s trust, especially when money is designated to help vulnerable populations."

"So, what’s a good starting point for such an investigation?" Wihbey asks. "Often accountability stories begin with and rely on shoe-leather reporting and interviews with former employees or whistle blowers. But when collecting background material for a story, a key document to review is a 'Form 990,' which nonprofits must file with the IRS every year. This record, which is publicly available, can provide a strong, factual basis for understanding an organization and its operations."

Wihbey offers some places for reporters to being their research:
  • In August 2015, ProPublica updated its Nonprofit Explorer data to include filings through 2013. 
  • The Foundation Center has a good database of 990s.
  • GuideStar has long been a paid tool for many journalists seeking information on nonprofits.
"These public records provide crucial information about finances, assets, investments and expenditures," Wihbey writes. "The 990 form also will list an agency’s board members and the salaries of top employees. From schools to hospitals to religious institutions, it’s always worth checking out the internal details of organizations."

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