By PARIS WOLFE
Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on the year’s successes. When those include available time, talent and treasure, it may be appropriate to give back or pay forward. Doing it with impact, however, requires planning. How does one choose a worthwhile charity with which to engage?
Author and national philanthropic authority Doug White has suggestions and they’re not what you may think. White is former director of the Masters of Fundraising Management program at Columbia University and the former academic director of New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. In October 2019 he published “Wounded Charity: Lessons Learned from the Wounded Warrior Project Crisis.”
The first question to consider when selecting a charity is who you want to benefit, White says. “What are your values? What do you care about most?”
It could be a specific health care issue, literacy, environment, arts and culture, education, animals, hunger, poverty or a combination of causes. “Know what is important to you and why,” says White. “Then choose your organization based on those values. If you want to help a category … say veterans … find the most effective organization, perhaps a local organization.”
“We have so many charities – maybe too many in some sectors,” he reflects. “It’s important to keep the local charities thriving. No one charity can do ‘the’ job because ‘the’ job is too big. For example, consider the local conservation group or dog shelter that is deserving of your support and make sure the money is being used well.”
That’s where the challenge arises … making sure time, talent and treasure are used well. “Most people choose a charity with their gut,” says White. He advises using both heart and head when being philanthropic. It may take a little due diligence but taking time makes a bigger difference in the world.
Do not, White cautions, send a check based on a phone call solicitation. And, despite its popularity – 11 million visits in 2018 – he says Charity Navigator has limitations.
Founded in 2001, Charity Navigator evaluates charities by examining their IRS 990 form, a self-reported, unaudited document that is NOT a tax form. Financial metrics used here include program expenses, administrative expenses, fundraising expenses, fundraising efficiency, working capital ratio, program expenses growth and liabilities to assets.
According to Charity Navigator’s website the “rating system examines two broad areas of a charity’s performance; their financial health and their accountability and transparency.”
These are accurate but White says they aren’t the entire measure of a charity’s success. “It tells nothing about the impact the charity is having. They give the impression that they’re evaluating the entirety. But they’re evaluating limited numbers. They’re a compiler of financial information.”
Likewise, he says, question the comprehensiveness of news stories about a charity. Evaluate the evaluation. And, again, look for outcome.
The first place to look for information is a charity’s website to see what they say about themselves. “A lot of information is a good sign,” says White. “They should have a link to their audited financial statements. That shows that they’re open about finances and gives deeper information. You don’t have to become an accountant to read it all, but the presence shows the organization is willing to be transparent about their financial situation.”
The next part of the information gathering process, when making a significant financial donation, is to talk to the people at the charity or, better yet, visit. To learn more about their goals, White says to ask, “What would happen to your community if you closed your doors tomorrow? Let them think about it. What if they didn’t exist, who would care? It’s a question everyone should ask. It demonstrates long-range vision.”
And, of course, collect information on program impact. These three steps can help fuel a more objective evaluation.
“Donating is more than transactional, it’s a sense of feeling that the charity is invested in their cause from a humanitarian perspective,” says White. “If you don’t feel comfortable with their information and purposes, there are many other charities.”
White believes in donating close to home philosophically and geographically. “I look for organizations that are making an impact; organizations that are doing a good job, need money, have good people, have a good board, are vibrant and doing their work,” he says. He supports his high school and college with financial donations. He shares his time as a board member of The FoolProof Foundation and the Secular Coalition of America.