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Guide to Research a Charity Before Donating
Why Research Before Giving?
Ever felt compelled to give after an emotional appeal? Anyone who has time or money to give has an important decision to make. No one person can effectively impact all organizations, so we have to choose. Too often, we give our time, money and talents to the organization which either gets to us first or has the best marketing strategy. How to make sure that your giving makes an impact? Do your research first. This article tells you how and links to the resources you need.
Summary of Article
Questions to ask.
Where to find information.
How to evaluate that information.
Where to find reliable statistics about problems.
Local and national charities.
How to Decide
My husband and I donate at least 15% of our income to charities. Most of the college students I teach are also involved in giving and volunteering. For the past five years, I've guided my students in evaluating charities and writing up their research. Here are some of the questions we ask:
- What is the problem the charity is trying to solve? Is this an important problem to solve?
- Do they have an effective program for addressing the problem?
- Is the charity organized effectively and efficiently?
- How well do they spend the money they get?
- Can volunteers serve a meaningful role in this organization?
- Do they have a way of measuring whether they make an impact?
Sources of Charity Information
what it tells you
advantages and disadvantages
history, vision, goals, program, success
information on the website is biased and aimed towards soliciting donations and volunteers
National Organization on that Issue or Problem
background of issue and different ways people have solved it, may have research and links to other similar organizations
not all issues have a national organization, may be biased
News or Magazines
current events and investigations into that organization and the problem it solves
may be biased for or against the organization, may not have full or accurate information
studies and reports on the effectiveness of an organization at solving a problem
many organizations do not have academic studies done on them, studies may be small, conclusions from studies may be limited, novel approaches are harder to study, studies can only measure tangible results like financial impact or better health
Financial Accountability Websites
how the charity uses money, whether they are transparent with finances and other information
data collected from the charity, small charities may not quality for accreditation
accountability of charity and evaluation of how well it solves problem
limited accessability to these journals without a subscription, only some charities (mostly larger,ones) are investigated
Site visit and/or Interview
you get a chance to see for yourself what the charity does and ask questions that are not answered on the website
not all charities welcome visits from researchers, some may not respond, charity may be difficult to visit if not close to you
Volunteer Interview or Blog
experiences of people working inside the organization
gives a closer look at the day to day operations, may be biased, only one person's perspective
Self Evaluation of Best Practices
criteria for evaluating that type of charity
not all charities have a group or organization which has determined "best practices"
Government and UN websites
statistics about a problem and overviews about a problem
information is reliable but may be broad, may not be able to find information about the problem your charity solves
Another important resource for evaluation can be a national organization for the problem your organization is working with. Often these national organizations have set standards for good practices and also provide evidence for research which might be linked to their site.
You can find these organizations by searching Google for "National Organization (or Agency) for (whatever the problem is)." "International Organization for (problem). Some of these organizations are government websites, which might be helpful; however, you are probably looking for a website which does not have gov.org. You may need to look through the Google search terms to see a better way to search or to look through a couple of pages to find what you are looking for. Here are some examples:
Criteria Based Evaluation: Some charities and research institutions or government agencies have done research to try to determine what is the "best policy" for a particular type of solution such as a food bank or mentorship program. If you find this sort of list it can help you develop a set of criteria for examining your organization. Below are a few examples. You can search for this sort of information for your charity's problem by searching "Evaluation criteria for..." or "How to evaluate a...."
Looking at an Organization's Website
- Examine what the charity does with the money they get. How much goes towards programs? How much is used in fundraising? How much goes to administration?
- Look at the salary of the CEO. Does it seem reasonable? If the salary is high, is it because the company is located in an expensive place or needs to attract a manager with lots of experience?
- Look at how well this charity matches up to standards set by the website and if it does not meet highest standards find out why. Do you think there are ways this charity needs to improve?
- Look at any comments made by individuals or the charity itself about goals, effectiveness, and accountability.
- In using these charity evaluations, you might want to check out the article "The Rating's Game" listed below which gives you the pros and cons of these charity rating systems and also provides you with other ideas for how to evaluate the charity you are interested in.
The Rating's Game: An article written by a Stanford professor which gives a good perspective on how these Charity Rating Services do and don't work to really evaluate the effectiveness of a non-profit. He suggests that some of these services focus more on financial accountability (which is easier to measure) than on how well the charity does what it plans to do, or how well the charity has analyzed the problem and come up with a solution which will work.
One of the important aspects of evaluating a charity is deciding how well they use the finances they get, and how they compare to other non-profits which do similar work. The following websites gather information from charities and other sources to help you do this evaluation. Some of this information is presented in graphs and tables.
- Charity Navigator: Probably the most-used charity evaluation website, Charity Navigator has some critics who say the site doesn't consider effectiveness as much as it does financial accountability. However, this is a standard evaluation site which should be considered if your charity is listed.
- Better Business Bureau Charity: One of the main reviewers of charities, the BBB gives financial information and how finances are used.
- Great Non-Profits: A helpful site which lets you search by your local area (on left of the screen it shows links for towns near you) for non-profit information. You can also submit your own review.
- Charity Watch: Evaluates charities and gives them ratings. Gives a list of top charities and gives A through F grades of charities.
- GiveWell: Includes a topical list of charities to search through. They give guidelines on how to evaluate a charity. These are sorted in a helpful way by the problem the charity tries to solve. Also gives the best charities in the U.S. and Internationally who try to solve that problem.
Along with looking at financial reports, it helps to find other sources which evaluate a charity. To do that, you can look through the following journals which report on non-profit organizations for the philanthropists who are seeking to decide what to do with their money.
How to Search Philanthropic Journals
- Look for the name of your organization to see if the journal has an article.
- Search for the problem your organization solves to find other organizations which work on that same problem. You might want to include a location if your charity works in a particular area or country (example: clean water Africa).
The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Excellent articles about different non-profits.
Philanthropy Journal: How to evaluate different non-profits. By New York State College Institute for Nonprofits.
Statistics about Problems
To understand the problem your charity is trying to solve, it is important to look at statistics and research studies. Luckily, this information is easily available not only through library resources but directly on government websites. Here are some excellent resources:
- U.S. Census Bureau: Gives facts about states and counties and compares one country to the national and state average in terms of income, poverty and other facts. See left-hand side of the page for looking at a map and quick facts.
- U.S. Government Information: Here is a topical list of publications, statistics and information compiled and provided by the U.S. government. You can look at information about public safety, environment, health, nonprofits, family and many other topics.
- United Nations: Check out the development section of the website for information, statistics, resolutions and an overview of the way the United Nations supervises and attempts to help issues such as housing, poverty, women's rights, water, sex trafficking, encouraging micro-enterprise and many other issues.
Texas Poverty Statistics
Household income less than $10,000
With Cash Public Assistance Income
Food Stamps in last 12 months
Median Income for workers
Families with children at poverty level
Many non-profit organizations are written about by newspapers and magazines. Often investigative reporters do an excellent job of explaining the organization, giving examples of how the organization helps and also evaluating how well they are doing their job.
Charity Website: One way to find news sources is to look at the website of the charity and see if they have links to newspaper, magazine or television reports on their organization. If these links are not published by the organization but by an independent news organization, they can make a good source for information.
Local Newspaper or NPR station: Frequently, the local newspaper of the town or the National Public Radio station may do a story on these charities. So find the local newspaper of the town the charity is located in and search for articles.
National News: Larger charities may be written about by larger newspapers and news magazines. Some of these news organizations have a section about non-profit work. They also might be a resource to find other organizations which do the same thing that you can use in evaluating your organization. Therefore, you can search for the name of your organization, but also search for non-profits working on that problem (example: non-profit clean water Africa).
- NPR: National Public Radio has many different topics relating to problems. They have both audio radio reports to listen to as well as many transcripts. NPR often tackles issues not discussed as often in traditional media.
- Christianity Today: Evangelical magazine which frequently profiles social justice work, particularly with poor. Often articles will lead you to other sources.
- World Magazine: Christian news magazine often focuses on charities and problems. World has an annual issue devoted to charities and gives awards for effective charities which are nominated by readers and investigated by reporters for the magazine.
- New York Times: major newspapers like the Times have sections devoted to investigative reporting on charities and other non-profits.
- Time Magazine: News magazines may have more in-depth portrayals of charities that they cover. Look mostly for larger national or international charities in this source.
Another excellent source to evaluate smaller charities is local news and government reports. Check out the local city government, newspaper, public radio station and private foundations. For example, here are some of the sources which have been helpful for looking at charities in my local community. You can use these as a guide for finding sources in your community
- 2009 Country Child Quality of Life Index: Report on Waco area and children in poverty.
- KWBU public radio offers many different articles on the Waco area, including some on different local charities.
- Waco Foundation: an organization which funds charity projects in the Waco area and has evaluation studies and statistics on the site.
- Greater Community Education Alliance—has a conference and publishes a yearly report on education in the area which is on the website
- Channel 25 News-Waco area resource. Use the “search site” function on top right-hand part of the page to look for articles on your organization or basic information about poverty and other issues in our community.
- KCENTV Waco TX: News station for Waco area.
- KWTX, Waco TX: News station for Texas area.
- Waco Tribune-Herald: The local Waco area newspaper.