Charity Data FAQs

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Frequently Asked Questions topics include:

Which charities are included?
Why do charity EINs matter?
What are charity (NTEE) codes?
Dollar amounts and rounding.
What does “SGO to do” mean?
What do the Money and Ratios “Status” and “Overall” Symbols Mean?
Spending on programs %.
Largest program % of spending.
Highest paid person % of spending.
Highest paid contractor % of spending.
Reserve ratio.
Fundraising efficiency ratio.

Which charities are included? We include U.S.-based organizations that are public charities tax-exempt under IRC Section 501(c)(3) and have recently filed either a Form 990 or a Form 990-EZ information return with the IRS. For more information about our listing requirements see Charities found here.

Why do charity EINs matter? While two charities may have very similar names, no two charities will have the same federal employer identification number (EIN). Because each charity has its own EIN, EINs are a great way to avoid confusion among charities.

What are charity (NTEE) codes? Taken from the classification system (taxonomy) developed by the National Center for Charitable Statistics and the IRS, NTEE codes are used to categorize charities by the work they do. They are a good way to find charities doing similar work. Read our article on using NTEE codes.

Dollar amounts and rounding: We use only whole dollar amount (no cents) in the Charity Data, following the IRS Form 990 approach. That means that we drop amounts under 50 cents and increase amounts from 50 to 99 cents to the next dollar. Note: when entering money, don’t enter dollar signs, commas or decimal points — the database will take care of that formatting.

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What does “SGO to do” mean? You may see “SGO to do” on the Money and Ratios tab. It means that, once underlying information has been entered in related fields by a reporter or SGO staff, SGO will calculate and enter the “SGO to do” result. For example, once the “Total functional expenses ” and “Program service expenditures” have been entered on an organization’s Key 990 Data tab, SGO will calculate and enter the “Spending on programs %” for the organization.


What do the Money and Ratios “Status” and “Overall” Symbols Mean? All SymbolsThe symbols are a graphic way to depict how a charity measures up against five indicators:

  • Spending on programs %,
  • Highest paid person, percent of spending,
  • Highest paid contractor, percent of spending,
  • Reserve ratio and
  • Fundraising efficiency ratio.

As discussed below in this FAQs page, indicators have “appropriate” (green), “caution” (yellow) and “failed screening” (red) ranges — illustrated by a color bar.

In the Status column, theĀ  Green Circle(green circle or “acceptable”), Yellow Triangle (yellow triangle or “caution, discuss and obtain explanation”) and Red Octagon (red octagon or “failed screening”) indicate the individual charity’s status under the five indicators. The Black Square (black square) indicates that more data must be entered to determine the charity’s status.

The Overall column illustrates a combination of the five Status indicators. In the Overall column, there is a single symbol following this logic:

  • first, if any of the five Status indicators shows a red hexagon — the overall status is a red hexagon,
  • next, if any of the five Status indicators shows a black square — the overall status is a black square,
  • then, if all five Status indicators show a green circle — the overall status is a green circle,
  • then, if all five Status indicators show a yellow triangle — the overall status is a yellow triangle, and
  • then, if the five Status indicators show a combination of yellow triangles and green circles, the overall status is a Triangle Within Circle (combined green circle and yellow triangle)

The symbols and indicators are screening tools. The symbols depict the results of five indicators for a single recent year of the organization’s operations. A single year does not necessarily represent the longer-term operations and results of an organization — the results for the single year may be unusual, being either more positive or more negative than the organization’s normal operations. Further, an organization showing all green circles is not necessarily an organization whose programs are effective; while an organization showing multiple yellow triangles could well be doing extraordinary work. In donating, go beyond the results of the indicators and get to know more about the organization. Investigate before you donate.

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How and why do you calculate the “Spending on programs %”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount spent on programs and the total amount spent, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we divide the amount spent on programs by the total amount spent, and multiply the result by 100. For example:if an organization reports spending $750,000 on programs while spending a total of $1,000,000, dividing $750,000 by $1,000,000 produces the decimal number 0.75, and multiplying that by 100 produces the result of 75%.

Why — we believe the spending on programs percentage is an indicator of the focus and management approach of an organization.

Spending on Programs %In our view,

  • a percentage between 60% and 80% is appropriate (green zone),
  • a percentage above 80% or below 60% (but not below 50%) might be reasonable in an organization’s specific circumstances, but should be discussed directly with and satisfactorily explained by the organization’s management before a donation is made (yellow zone), and
  • a percentage below 50% (red zone) means the organization failed to meet our screening standard.

Program spending percentages should not be used standing alone. They are part of an overall evaluation of a charity and its performance. A charity spending an apparently suitable percentage on programs, where the programs themselves accomplish little, is by no means an effective charity.

At times we’re asked why a program spending percentage above 80% should be discussed with the organization. If an organization reports spending more than 80% on programs, that means it is spending less than 20% on administration and fundraising. While an organization might be proud of minimizing administrative and fundraising costs, we believe that well-run organizations must spend meaningful resources on administration and fundraising. So, we suggest donors investigate further to make sure that the organization is not (i) having administrative or fundraising costs paid from an outside source, (ii) underspending on important parts of its operations or (iii) mis-categorizing administration or fundraising costs as program costs.

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How and why do you calculate the “Largest program % of spending”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount spent on the organization’s highest spending program and the total amount spent, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we divide the amount spent on the highest spending program by the total amount spent, and multiply the result by 100. For example:if an organization reports spending $600,000 on its highest spending program while spending a total of $1,000,000, dividing $600,000 by $1,000,000 produces the decimal number 0.60, and multiplying that by 100 produces the result of 60%.

Why — we believe the largest program percentage of spending is an indicator of the programs and activities being most pursued by the organization, and a way for a potential donor to see whether or not the organization focuses its work on matters that the donor cares about.

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How and why do you calculate the “Highest paid person, percent of spending”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount of compensation received by the organization’s highest paid person and the total amount spent, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we divide that amount of compensation by the total amount spent, and multiply the result by 100. For example:if an organization reports paying $150,000 in compensation to its highest paid person while spending a total of $1,000,000, dividing $150,000 by $1,000,000 produces the decimal number 0.15, and multiplying that by 100 produces the result of 15%.

Why — we believe the percentage of spending on the highest paid person can be an indicator of the focus and management approach of the organization.

Compensation %In our view,

  • a percentage of 5% or less is appropriate (green zone), and
  • a percentage above 5% might be reasonable in an organization’s specific circumstances, but should be discussed directly with and satisfactorily explained by the organization’s management before a donation is made (yellow zone).

Comment: if an organization reports that it spends nothing on its highest paid person — look further. Who manages the organization? Do they get paid? If so, who pays them? If not, does that mean the organization is totally volunteer-run? If it is totally volunteer-run, investigate its history and plan for continued operations (depending on volunteers may or may not be a viable long-term operations plan).

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How and why do you calculate the “Highest paid contractor, percent of spending”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount of compensation received by the organization’s highest paid contractor and the total amount spent, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we divide that amount of compensation by the total amount spent, and multiply the result by 100. For example: if an organization reports paying $150,000 in compensation to its highest paid contractor while spending a total of $1,000,000, dividing $150,000 by $1,000,000 produces the decimal number 0.15, and multiplying that by 100 produces the result of 15%.

Why — we believe the percentage of spending on the highest paid contractor can be an indicator of the focus and management approach of the organization.

Compensation %In our view,

  • a percentage of 5% or less is appropriate (green zone), and
  • a percentage above 5% might be reasonable in an organization’s specific circumstances, but should be discussed directly with and satisfactorily explained by the organization’s management before a donation is made (yellow zone).

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How and why do you calculate the “reserve ratio”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount of assets, liabilities and total amount spent, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we subtract the liabilities from the assets and divide the result by the total amount spent. For example:if an organization reports $800,000 in assets, $50,000 in liabilities and $300,000 spent, subtracting the $50,000 of liabilities from the $800,000 of assets produces a result of $750,000, and dividing that by $300,000 in spending produces a result of 2.5.

Why — an organization’s reserve ratio is an indicator of whether its financial reserves are smaller than needed, appropriate or greater than needed. An organization with inadequate reserves may be in danger of failing, while an organization with very large reserves may not need your support.

Reserve RatioIn our view,

  • a ratio between 0.5 and 2.0 is appropriate (green zone),
  • a ratio below 0.5 or above 2.0 (but not above 5.0) might be reasonable in an organization’s specific circumstances, but should be discussed directly with and satisfactorily explained by the organization’s management before a donation is made (yellow zone), and
  • a ratio above 5.0 (red zone) means the organization failed to meet our screening standard.

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How and why do you calculate the “fundraising efficiency ratio”? How — (i) a reporter or SGO staff member enters the amount of revenues, total amount spent and amount spent on programs, based on the organization’s latest 990 or 990-EZ return, then (ii) we subtract the amount spent on programs from the total amount spent and divide the result into the revenues amount. For example:if an organization reports $1,000,000 in revenues, $900,000 in spending and $600,000 in spending on programs, subtracting the $600,000 of spending on programs from the $900,000 of spending produces a result of $300,000 (spent on other than programs); dividing the $300,000 into the $1,000,000 of revenues produces a ratio of 3.33.

Why — the amount an organization raises compared to the amount it spends on fundraising and administration can be an indicator of the organization’s efficiency (or inefficiency) in raising funds.

Fundraising Efficiency RatioIn our view,

  • a ratio between 3.0 and and 5.0 is appropriate (green zone),
  • a ratio below 3.0 (but not below 2.0) or above 5.0 might be reasonable in an organization’s specific circumstances, but should be discussed directly with and satisfactorily explained by the organization’s management before a donation is made (yellow zone), and
  • a ratio below 2.0 (red zone) means the organization failed to meet our screening standard.

Note: If you divide the fundraising efficiency ratio into $1.00, you get the amount the organization spends to raise $1.00 (examples in the following table):

Fundraising Efficiency Ratio Amount Spent to Raise
$1.00
10 $0.10
8 $0.125
6 $0.167
5 $0.20
4 $0.25
3 $0.333
2 $0.50
1 $1.00

At times we’re asked why a fundraising efficiency ratio above 5.0 should be discussed with the organization. A ratio above 5.0 means that the organization is spending less than 20 cents per dollar raisedĀ  on administration and fundraising. While an organization might be proud of minimizing administrative and fundraising costs, we believe that well-run organizations must spend meaningful money on administration and fundraising. So, we suggest donors investigate further to make sure that the organization is not (i) having administrative or fundraising costs paid from an outside source, (ii) underspending on important parts of its operations or (iii) mis-categorizing administration or fundraising costs as program costs.

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7 Comments

  1. Nancy Davis
    June 29, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    This information is great but I’m not sure I really understand how to read it. I have been making contributions to World Vision for several years and want to be sure this is a legitimate, well run organization. It appears they are very well funded (wealthy). For World Vision, I believe this information indicates their “fundraising efficiency ratio” and “reserve ratio” are not in the recommended or healthy range. The other indicators seem OK. Can you please interpret or confirm this information for me. Thank you!

    • Edward Long
      June 30, 2013 @ 10:45 am

      Nancy — We looked at “World Vision” in the SGO database, and are assuming that you are asking about the group with the EIN (employer identification number) equal to 95-1922279. Charity names can be confusingly similar, so to make sure we’re talking about the same group we always refer to its EIN. No two groups have the same EIN.
      ** The Money and Ratios tab for that group shows a Reserve Ratio of 0.14, and displays a yellow caution symbol.
      ** A Reserve Ratio of 0.14 indicates that a donor should investigate further because the group may have financial reserves lower than needed.
      ** Clicking this link will take you to the full explanation of what a Reserve Ratio is and what our yellow caution means.
      ** The other ratios (including the Fundraising efficiency ratio) for that group have not yet been calculated (that’s why they show the black box symbols). That’s because, with our limited resources, we have not yet been able to track down and enter its latest data.
      I hope you find this helpful. — Ed (aka Serious)

  2. Eve Roberson
    November 11, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    Your colored line equals what you recommend so how do I know it is not just an illustration of what you recommend, rather than an example of what the criteria is of the Humane Society of the United States?

    • Edward Long
      November 12, 2013 @ 9:30 am

      Eve –
      ** This FAQ page explains what our screening criteria mean, and what we believe are acceptable ratios, etc. It applies to all 300,000 charities included in the SeriousGivers.org database.
      ** For how a particular charity stacks up under the criteria you would go to that charity’s individual report and look at the Money and Ratios tab. Here’s a link to the latest Humane Society of the United States report: seriousgivers.org/report/?id=530225390
      I hope you find this helpful.
      Ed (aka Serious)

  3. Marc Bolh
    November 16, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    I find your website quite extensive but very difficult to read. IE: I was trying to find out how much the highest person gets paid per year and only found a graph indicating 5% or less. On revenues of close to $1 billion it seems like meaningless information.

    There are only 3 numbers that matter to me and many of my friends who are consistent donors:
    1). What percentage of what is collected goes to administration and fund raising?
    2). What does the CEO earn?
    3). What is the total amount collected?

    Please explain

    • Edward Long
      November 17, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

      Hi Marc –
      Thank you for your comment.
      A few thoughts for you, using Animal Welfare Institute as the example.
      Here’s the SGO report on Animal Welfare Institute: http://seriousgivers.org/report/?id=135655952
      Focusing on the three items you listed,
      ** If you look at the Key 990 Data tab of the report, you’ll find its highest paid person’s title and the amount paid.
      ** If you look at the Money and Ratios tab of the report, you’ll find its total revenues and its spending on programs percentage.

      Our list of upcoming tasks for SeriousGivers.org includes simplifying and reorganizing the tabs — and your comments are quite helpful to me in doing that.

      Note: We recently did a more in-depth Charity of the Day report on Animal Welfare Institute, which you can find at: http://seriousgivers.org/2013/11/animal-welfare-institute-charity-day/
      Also note that, due to a lack of resources, we are unable at this time to do complete reports on many of the 300,000 charities listed at SeriousGivers.org. We do invite users to sponsor data entry for a specific charities (to move them to the top of the queue). Here’s more information on the sponsorship program: http://seriousgivers.org/question/why-sponsor-data-entry-for-a-charity/

      I hope you find this helpful,
      Ed (aka Serious)

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