What does the charity really do?
Do they provide services for specific groups of people? Do they award grants for research? Do they lobby governmental organisations on behalf of the cause? Maybe they do all three, and more — like big health charities, the American Cancer Society and the British Heart Foundation; just know what it is before you give them your money, so you’re not disappointed that they’re not providing support for cancer survivors when actually what they do is support cancer research.
Does what they do really work?
Just because something is “for charity,” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (Susan covered this admirably before). The charity may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that what they do is useful or the best way to approach the issue they’re concerned with. For example, there is an Irish charity called Bóthar (it means “road” in Irish, and is also a pun on “bó,” meaning “cow’”) who fundraise to give farm animals to families living in poverty — the animals provide food and extra income, thus enhancing the health, food security, and prospects of the families who receive them. However, the animals are often sent from Ireland to where they’re needed — not particularly environmentally friendly, or sustainable, and it doesn’t support the local economy. Other organisations who have similar schemes, such as World Vision, make a point of buying the animals that they give locally, thus ensuring they’re suitable for the local environment as well. Though they don’t solicit public donations, one of the reasons I admire the Gates Foundation is that they insist on value for money and rigorous evidence for the effectiveness of the projects they support, hence their support of the GAVIAlliance and vaccines. If the charity works directly with service users, how are those service users treated? Are their needs listened to? Some people abhor the thought of homelessness charities providing free accommodation for people who drink and use drugs, but often doing that is the best way to begin to help them to move away from addiction and towards independent living.
For larger organisations, I also want to know that they’re working towards the root causes of the problems they tackle: like Oxfam’s GROW campaign. Also, are they local, independent, or part of an international group, and how does this restrict or enhance the work they do? Bottom line: charities should have evidence to support their work and their approach, and be willing to respond to the changing needs of the people they support.
Are they properly run?
Check if your charity is registered as such. In the U.S., this usually means they are a 501(c) organisation; in Ireland, they should have a charity number e.g.: CHY 12345; in the U.K., a charity number (issued separately for Northern Ireland and Scotland) or a HMRC charity number. In the U.K. they, should also be registered for GiftAid, which enables them to claim the tax back on almost any donation, no matter how small, by a U.K. taxpayer. This makes it more likely that they’re run according to the law and they’re making the very most of your money. My one exception to this would be for local charities who have been set up very recently — but they should be actively pursuing the proper registration. The U.K. has other exceptions for very small charities and some voluntary organisations, detailed here.
Secondly, you may think it’s great that all the staff of your favourite charity are volunteers. More money to spend on the cause, right? Beware: non-profit work is work; the people who do it for a living are professionals; they deserve to be paid for their expertise. I’m not suggesting that everyone at a non-profit should be on Nancy Brinker’s salary, and absolutely many charities rely on their volunteers to get everything done — board members in Ireland are often unpaid — but I am saying that when you pay for amateurs, you most often get amateurs.
For example, I can absolutely get behind the work of Medicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders in the U.S.) and would love to support their Irish branch — but I won’t, because they recently advertised for volunteers to process their donations and invoices. Is that volunteer aware of the intricacies of Irish tax law as it applies to charities, and the Data Protection Acts? My guess is no. I want a professional managing my money, so I won’t give to MSF Ireland while that’s the work they expect of their volunteers.
Do they have a particular religious ethos, and what effect does this have on their work?
Some organisations are very upfront about this e.g. Christian Aid and Trócaire, the latter’s major fundraising drive is a collection box during Lent. Some are not. Some Christian organisations, for example, fundraise for maternal and infant health care (fistula repair, maternity clinics, etc.), but won’t fund full-spectrum reproductive health care like contraception and abortion despite the well-known unmet need for these services in developing countries (in the U.S., USAID and its grantees are restricted in terms of abortion care, though less so than previously). You may support a charity’s particular ethos; you may think it doesn’t matter in the context of their work; or you may weigh up what they do in other areas and decide they’re still worth supporting despite that, but you should know about it.
Where do they get their funding from?
Many non-profits, especially those involved in overseas aid, get a substantial portion of their income from governments (in Ireland, the governmental body that does this is called Ireland Aid; in the U.S., USAID. How inventive). Some others get all their funding through public fundraising. Given the choice between two similar organisations, you may choose to support one which relies entirely on public fundraising, or you may feel that the sometimes stricter terms imposed on charities by acceptance of government funding is a good thing.
How much do they spend, and what do they spend it on?
This information should be in a charity’s annual report, and easy to find on their website. Do look carefully at this, but don’t automatically run if you see what you think is a high figure for fundraising. That old adage “You have to spend money to make money” absolutely applies to charities. They have to spend on marketing and fundraising to (a) keep their existing donors giving and (b) attract more new donors. If you see an article saying they’ve spent $20,000 on an ad campaign, you might think that’s a huge amount: but over five years they may make five times that in donations from people who responded to that campaign. Put that $20,000 in the context of their other spending, and their funding, it might not be such a crazy figure.
A few charities, like charity:water and the Against Malaria Foundation, are able to fund their overheads (staff costs, rent, marketing) through private trustees and donors, and thus are able to promise that all of your money goes directly to the cause. This is great, but most charities aren’t able to do this: don’t hold it against them. As a very rough guideline, though, I’d look more closely at a charity that spends more than 10-15% of their income on items unrelated to their cause.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s enough to get you asking questions and making sure your chosen causes are doing the right thing with your money. Keep an eye out for another post on what you can expect from a charity once you donate to them. Also, I’m writing from an Irish perspective so if I miss anything pertinent that’s specific to the US/UK/Canada/etc., please chime in with other resources and information in the comments!
You can also look at the following sites for independent reviews and donor reactions to charities, though none of them are foolproof: