Descriptions of Charity Programs: What the IRS Wants

Among the best ways to evaluate a charity is by the services it performs. The Internal Revenue Service instructs charities to describe their services on the Form 990 using narrative text and quantitative measures. We place these descriptions on the front page of each organization’s profile. We strongly advise you to read them and use them to help make your giving decisions. If you find descriptions of program service accomplishments to be inadequate, let the charities know.

Excerpts of IRS’s instructions for authoring this information are as follows:

Each organization must separately describe each of the three program areas on which expenditures are highest. Fewer than three areas may be described if only one or two exist. The organization can also report program areas in addition to the three most costly, but in less detail. For each program service reported the charity is required to:

• Describe program service accomplishments through specific measurements such as clients served, days of care provided, number of sessions or events held, or publications issued.

• Describe the activity’s objective, for both this time period and the longer-term goal, if the output is intangible, such as in a research activity.

• Give reasonable estimates for any statistical information if exact figures aren’t readily available. Indicate that this information is estimated.

• Be clear, concise, and complete in the description.

Links to program descriptions.

Chai Lifeline follows IRS instructions in describing its program accomplishments, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research describes its activities but does not provide quantitative measures of its performance, American Friends of the Israel Museum grants the Israeli Museum tens of millions annually, but describes its accomplishments in the same 16 words each year, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger describes its large number of programs in a single unreadable paragraph of over a thousand words, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit describes programs of its Israeli beneficiary without ever mentioning its own programs.