Friday, July 5, 2013

Intelligent Kindness: Choosing a charity that's worth your donation

I'm also posting this today at The Kindness Project.

It seems simple.

But it turns out to be complicated.

I'd like to think we live in the kind of world where good-intentioned people could donate money to a cause that's important to them and that money would actually go to the people in need.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take much of a google search to find that this is not the case.

A little investigating shows that not all charitable organizations are worth your hard-earned dime.

The Tampa Bay Times (TBT) and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) have produced a series of stories on the worst charities in America. It made my stomach turn.

There's the family that has worked together on a network of Cancer charities, and have in the past raked in over 250 million dollars in funds, only to net out a mere $400,000 in payments to cancer patients.

The TBT and CIR wrote one story about charities that earn far more for corporate fundraising machines than they do for the people they claim to help.

A third story describes how a lack of regulation and low penalties keep offending charities in operation.

Another example of the muddy waters of donations and giving is Breast Cancer Action's Think Before you Pink campaign, which fights against "pinkwashing". Pinkwashing is when a group promotes a pink-ribbon campaign while also producing a product that is cancer-causing. Or when a group gives the impression that a portion of the sales of any pink-ribbon product will go to a cancer foundation, when this is not the case. Check out their website

So, what's a kind person to do?

Here's a quick guide to finding the BEST charities and avoiding the WORST.

First-- be wary of what you hear through "the grapevine". I know what you're thinking. You're rolling your eyes and saying, "Katharine, it's not 1999. I know that most of the emails forwards I get from Great Aunt Edna are rubbish."And I hear you--- but those kind of stories/urban legends are persistent. My go-to source for determining the veracity of any email forward is Here's a page they have that gets to the bottom of those pesky confusing forwards from Aunt Edna.

Now you're thinking-- "But wait, Katharine, you're telling me to not trust what I hear through the grapevine... but reading about this on a blog is kind of like hearing it 'through the grapevine'".

I agree.

Don't take my word for it. 

Here are some tools that can give you the information YOU need to decide what charity is right for you.

The Tampa Bay Times and Center for Investigative Reporting have several tools as a part of their series, including a database of the charities that have received disciplinary action from state regulators, and a page for reporting questionable charities.

My favorite tool is Charity Navigator. They provide consistent information about charitable organizations, including financial metrics, transparency, and accountability. The only problem I've ever run into on their site is that small, local groups aren't typically included.

Though I haven't used it myself, the Guidestar system allows charities to update their own information and thereby "share" it with the public.

Pro Publica has a non-profit page where you can explore the tax records of these groups.

In addition, the Better Business Bureau has created the Wise Giving Alliance which can lead to a seal of approval from the BBB for a charity. That being said, the charity has to OPT IN to the program and also PAYS for the seal (if and when they meet the requirements). That gives me a bit of an icky feeling, but I guess that's the way the Better Business Bureau works?

Use these tools to explore how to make the most of your donations!

What about you? Have you had especially great or horrid interactions with a charity or non-profit? What has been your experience?


  1. Wow. That's crazy that so many well-known charities aren't as great as they seem. I will definitely make a point to research any charity before I donate to them!

    1. True, Ghenet-- and I think many of the ones in the Tampa Bay "worst" stories are charities that purposely select a name that sounds similar to a really well known and respected charity-- to take advantage of people. Ug. Shameful!

  2. my husband works for a charity -- it was eye opening for me, the things he has told me about many charities (all legal stuff, but just different to the impression you have) -- also my son did the 40 hour famine when he was ten (went 40 hours without any food) and raised over $300, of that $300 he raised NONE went to kids/programs. All of it went to covering the admin and advertising of the 40 hour famine (the entire event is basically just to raise awareness, it doesn't actually raise funds to help children). I didnt tell Sam that -- he loved the idea of his hunger helping another kid...

    anyway, my husband always likes to show his charity's score on charity navigator and also show diagrams, charts, etc, outlining exactly where the supporters money is going. i think it's really important!

    1. So true, Nomes-- and WOW that's an amazing challenge for any person to accomplish. What a feat. But, poor Sam! I wouldn't have told, either. If he could alleviate the admin costs so other donations went right to kids-- then that's great, too. But, yeah, I think there are charities out there that take advantage.


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