025 DGM – How to Find the Charity’s Program Focus — in 3 Minutes

How to Find the Charity’s Program Focus — in 3 Minutes

Welcome. This is the podcast that helps you do good even better — regardless of which charities or causes you support. 

This is Ed Long. Each week on this podcast I talk about charities and provide actionable tips to help donors and volunteers to take their philanthropy to the next level and do good even better.

Give smart from your heart, because doing good matters.


We’re building a community of caring people who want to make the world better. And are willing to spend time and energy to make it happen. And to find and support strong charities doing solid work.

You can Join the Community now. Last week Bob in Charlottesville, VA, became member #240. This week we welcome more than 40 new members, including Herbert in Wake Forest, NC, who became member #250, Brandon in St. Petersburg, FL, who became member #260, “C” in Willimantic, CT, who became member #270 and Ed in Lakeland, FL, who became member #280.  Will you become member #290 or even #300?


SeriousGivers and its websites depend on donations to keep going. Please donate now. View our latest supporters page.


Episode sponsor

  • Today’s sponsor is the number 145,697.
    • Our sponsors don’t pay us anything. But they give us a way to talk about a different charity-related concept each week. And help you and me grow our understanding of nonprofits and charities
    • 145,697 is the largest number of nonprofits recognized by the IRS located in one state (California). That’s as of March 2014. Second place goes to Texas with 94,843 and 3rd place to New York with 92,209. Wyoming has the fewest, with 4,356.
    • At CharityCheck101.org you can find the location and tax-status of every nonprofit recognized by the IRS.

Main topic

  • How to Find the Charity’s Program Focus — in 3 Minutes
    • Background
      • In DGM Episode #6, we talked about focusing your giving on charities that focus on what you care about, where your heart and passion are.
      • If you found a charity you are interested in, it’s time to find the charity’s program focus — where it spends its efforts and the money entrusted to it.
      • It’s time to go beyond the charity’s name and mission statement.Charity's Program Focus
      • You might be surprised.
        • Eye-opening example: I always thought of American Red Cross as disaster relief and emergency response group, and its mission statement is focused on emergencies. Its largest program, however, involves blood and blood products, where it sends 67% of spending.
        • Eye-opening example: What would you guess the #1 program of Food for the Poor would focus on? Food? Wrong. It applied 58.8% of spending on healthcare and distribution of medicines and medical supplies. Food shows up only as part its second largest program.
      • Form 990 and Form 990-EZ show a charity’s biggest programs and their related spending.
        • In DGM Episode #20 I showed how to find a charity’s Form 990 in 3 minutes
        • In the Form 990, under Program Service Accomplishments on page 2 the charity should describe its largest programs, including how much it spent on each program.
        • See page 1 for total expenses on programs and everything else.
    • How can you find the charity’s program focus in 3 minutes?
      • It’s time for another 3-minute thrill.
        • Start with the charity’s Form 990. See DGM Episode #20 for how to find a charity’s Form 990 in 3 minutes.
          • Go to page 2.
            • Review the Program Service Accomplishments, lines 4a, 4b, 4c and 4d. See which shows the greatest amount of spending (see the Expenses number at the top of each section). That’s the charity’s top program focus.
            • Copy the description to your Sherlock Notes.
            • Enter the amount spent on that program in your Sherlock Notes.
            • Compare the amount spent on that program to the charity’s total expenses from page 1 of the Form 990. You’ll see what portion of spending goes to its top program focus.
        • Does the top program focus match what you care about, how you want to focus your giving and efforts?
        • Is the portion of spending high enough? My personal guideline is if top focus spending is not at least 50% of total spending, I will look for another charity.
        • Unfortunately, charity program service accomplishments are described so poorly that you can’t really tell what the charity does. To me, that can be a reason to look for another charity.
  • Your smart and easy assignment for today
    • Find the top program focus for a charity you care about. And figure what percent of spending goes to that program. Time yourself. You can beat 3 minutes.
  • A big part of giving smart from your heart is knowing how charities you support focus their efforts. 
  • Had experiences? Have feedback? Share your thoughts  in the Reply / Comment section at the bottom of the page. Or email me at ed[@]seriousgivers.org

Southern Poverty Law Center reviewed

Community member Jackie from North Carolina wrote in and asked “I was going to [give to] Southern Poverty Law, but I read a very discouraging review. What do you say?”

So I took a look, and wrote a review and posted it at SGO. My conclusion: “Overall: Given its very high reserve ratio (reserves greater than 7 times annual spending), Southern Poverty Law Center does not appear to need donated support at this time. Also, its relationships with outside fundraising organizations raise troubling questions.”

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I’d love to hear from you. I read every comment and email.

  • Send a voicemail using the black tab on the right side of any page.
  • Use the reply / comment box below.
  • Send me an email at ed[@]seriousgivers.org.

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About Ed Long, the podcaster

Podcaster Ed Long has been preparing more than 40 years to do this podcast. He knows charities and the rules that apply to them. He’s analyzed charity finances and operations.  He’s founded and run charities, and volunteered for them. He’s helped the public and law enforcement fight fake charities, and has served as a philanthropy educator and coach. Before all that he worked as a partner with a major Wall Street law firm. Ed is the founder and CEO of SeriousGivers, which itself is a charity. Ed knows the great work that strong charities can do with the resources entrusted to them, and is passionate about helping others find and support strong charities.