Your Guide to Finding Reputable Charities in San Luis Obispo County

Philanthropy In San Luis Obispo

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Finding Reputable San Luis Obispo Charities

If you’ve decided to get involved in philanthropy at any level, you’re likely considering various options. While major organizations like the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders do incredible work, you might feel that your contributions could have a more significant impact locally. So, how do you go about finding reputable charities in San Luis Obispo County that align with your values and goals? Here are some steps to help you in your search.

Become a Temporary Volunteer

Becoming a “temporary volunteer” is an innovative way to vet a charity. This approach provides firsthand experience and a deeper understanding of the charity’s operations, impact, and culture before making a financial commitment.

Volunteering offers an insider’s view of the charity’s daily operations, showing how resources are used and how effectively goals are met. Direct involvement helps assess the charity’s real impact on the community and beneficiaries, providing more insight than reports or marketing materials. Volunteering allows you to build connections with staff, other volunteers, and those served by the charity, reinforcing your decision to support the organization. Being on the ground lets you evaluate the charity’s transparency and accountability practices, ensuring your donations are used ethically and effectively.

To become a temporary volunteer, start by identifying charities that align with your values through online resources (see below), charity watchdog sites, and personal recommendations. Reach out to these charities to express your interest in volunteering, explaining that you want to understand their operations before making a donation. Arrange a convenient time for your volunteer stint, aiming for at least a few days to get a comprehensive view of their work. Immerse yourself in the experience, participate in various activities, ask questions, and closely observe the organization’s practices. After volunteering, take time to reflect on your experience, considering how the charity operates, its impact, and alignment with your philanthropic goals. Use your insights to decide about your potential donation, feeling confident if you are satisfied with what you observed.

The California Attorney General Charity Registry Search Tool

The Registry Search Tool enables you to search the Registry’s database to confirm if a charitable organization or fundraiser has met the Attorney General’s registration and reporting requirements. You can also access and download records and public filings submitted to the Attorney General’s Registry of Charities and Fundraisers. These records include annual registration renewal forms (Form RRF-1), IRS Forms 990, raffle reports, and fundraising reports available in the Registry’s database. The information is updated in real time, but data and statuses may change throughout the day as filings are processed.

In other words, you have a plethora of information at your fingertips, more than you would find anywhere else, and browsing through the charities may take you a while.  The downside is that you have to sift through it yourself and there is no 5-star rating system.

State of California – Office of the Attorney General – Charity Registry Search Tool 

The tool’s query design can be as broad or narrow as you wish. For searching for charities in San Luis Obispo, be sure to only fill out the county field and any other criteria, but not the City. I advise against limiting your search to Registry Status: Current because certain charities that are not current (see list that follows) may still operate or solicit for charitable purposes: Current, Current – Awaiting Reporting, Current – In Process, Current – Probationary Registration, Current – Reporting Incomplete, Registered – Corporate Trustee, Exempt, Exempt – Facility Financing, Exempt – Form 990-PF Required*, Exempt – Religious.

Religious Charities Are Special

Religious corporations are not obligated to register or submit annual reports to the Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts under the Supervision of Trustees and Fundraisers for Charitable Purposes Act (Gov. Code, § 12580 et seq.) or with the IRS. Consequently, those classified as religious by the Secretary of State are exempt from these requirements. Nonetheless, some religious corporations may choose to register and report voluntarily to enhance transparency for their donors.

Group Rulings. A group exemption letter by the IRS (‘group ruling’) allows a central organization to have its affiliated subordinates recognized as tax-exempt without each applying individually. These subordinate organizations do not usually show up in the IRS databases, although this appears to be changing.

This administrative convenience benefits both the IRS and organizations with many similar subordinates.

To qualify for a group exemption, the central organization must demonstrate a defined relationship with its subordinates, ensure they are affiliated, under general supervision, and exempt under the same IRC paragraph. The process includes submitting specific information such as uniform governing instruments and descriptions of subordinates’ purposes and activities. IRS Group Exemptions.

It is not very easy to find out the official status of a subordinate organization that may (or may not) be covered by a group ruling. The respective parent organizations often have information on how the status can be verified; see, for example, the respective instructions by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search

In April 2024, the IRS had records on 1.9 million charitable organizations, not all of them current, The IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search tool can only be queried by city, not county, so you will have no luck finding San Luis Obispo County charities. Also, the data are limited to information tax returns, Form 990. The California Attorney General Charity Registry Search Tool contains more information.

Third-Party Charity Ranking and Information Sites

To allow for some comparability, I will report my observations about searching for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, a mature and well-reputed charity with a long track record. For full disclosure, I am a current Board member, but this does not affect my reporting.

Charity Navigator

Charity Navigator provides ratings for thousands of charities based on their financial health, accountability, and transparency. Remember, though, that the IRS records 1.9 million charities.

The San Luis Obispo Symphony has earned a Three-Star rating (out of 4)  from Charity Navigator, scoring 80% overall based on their accountability and financial health. This rating signifies that the organization is well-managed and trustworthy, allowing donors to give with confidence. The Symphony excels in governance, boasting 100% independent board members, and strong policies for conflict of interest, whistleblower protection, and document retention.

Financially, the Symphony demonstrates responsible management. Its liabilities to assets ratio is 15.84%, and its program expense ratio is 68.84%, indicating that a significant portion of its expenses is directed towards its programs. Despite some areas needing improvement, such as posting financial statements on its website, the Symphony maintains a solid reputation for financial efficiency and transparency.

GuideStar by Candid

To access this site, you’ll need to create a free account. If you do, like me, you’ll receive frequent emails, but you can opt out at any time. Once you are in, you can look at the San Luis Obispo Symphony entry. You will find some useful info, but ultimately, to get to the financial reports, you need to subscribe to Guide Start Pro. Obviously, GuideStar does not have anything beyond the publicly available financial reports which you can get for free from the California Attorney General (see above).

BBB Wise Giving Alliance

Unfortunately, the San Luis Obispo Symphony is not listed. Doctors without Borders is listed but not accredited by BBB. It appears that you have to pay an annual fee for listing.


Sadly, CharityWatch also has no entry for the San Luis Obispo Symphony. In fact, there do not appear to be any Symphonies listed.

How to Give

Hopefully, you have narrowed down your choices for the organization to give to. Charitable giving strategies are beyond the scope of this guest post, but they are important. There are so many options that can benefit the donor in different ways. If you’re interested, I recommend reading Smart Ways To Give To Charity.

As an estate planner, I have a particular interest in charitable giving, including charitable trusts, and I welcome your questions and consultations. I collaborate closely with your financial planner and tax adviser to ensure seamless coordination for the best overall results, keeping everyone informed and avoiding any surprises. Please visit my website to get in touch or email me at

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