Transparency: What’s a 990?

Our website now has a link to the easy to operate 990 finder here…

Donors would like to believe their money is going to organizations that take the least amount of money out for administrative purposes and utilize the majority of it to directly meet real charitable needs.  How can we know?

The IRS form 990 is a good start.  Among its good points:  donors can know the salaries of all of the board members and the highest paid individuals in the organization, how much the highest paid independent contractors are making, what countries grant money may be going to, whether or not the organization is funded by public donations or just a few wealthy individuals, how much they are spending on travel, how much on housing, etc., the detail list is long.

Every non-profit in the country except churches and church related organizations have to file the 990.  Traditionally, mainline denominations have maintained reasonable oversight over their member churches for the most part, but as religious non-profit organizations run by a single person or family at the top have multiplied, there is little to no accountability and zero transparency.


Where opacity exists, the temptation also exists to bend and break IRS guidelines.  Independent mega-churches and ministries calling themselves churches in this single person/family category have spread around the globe and as they proliferate, the large mansions, private jets, luxury cars, and opulent lifestyles have mushroomed.


Opacity comes in many different forms:  shell corporations, gated communities, requiring staff to sign non-disclosure agreements, for-profits feeding off of non-profit orgs owned by the same ones running the non-profit, and the most ironic—church status.


Not having to file a form 990 or reveal any other financial information of any significance (except salaries to the IRS privately) is a huge opportunity for profiteering, luxurious living using the organization as one’s own piggy bank, and even money laundering.


We could provide hundreds of examples but one will suffice to illustrate the piggy bank scenario.  When she was alive, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) vice-president Jan Crouch resided a long while at #1 Yorkshire, Newport Beach, CA, an opulent mansion purchased for $5.6M by the Trinity Christian Center of San Marcos  (TCCSM), listed as the TBN corporation’s church— but in reality, another shell company operated by TBN’s founding family (we tried for years to find an actual church with that name but never could).


Churches have the privilege of providing tax-free housing for their pastors, who traditionally have received more meager incomes than most and could use the extra boost, but it’s unknown whether the palatial mansion was used as Jan’s “parsonage” (tax-free housing) and no public financial information is available, because the actual owner, TCCSM is a church.


Believers might do well to remember what Jesus said about transparency, “For nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing concealed that will not be made known and brought to light.”[1]

Forbes Magazine’s Peter Reilly recently reported on a petition and a book by Reverend Frank B Jones the pastor of Pentecostal Temple in Compton, CA calling for churches to start filing the IRS form 990, which exposes salaries and where the money goes in general. The book, Stop the Prosperity Preachers, takes aim at the lack of financial transparency by churches.

Filing the 990 can be a difficult task that can take weeks to complete but it’s a step toward transparency that we encourage larger churches and ministries to take.




[1] NET version, Luke 8:17