Finding a high-performance charity
December 30, 2007 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Looking to donate by New Year's. I know lots of charities' names/elevator pitches but nothing about who's good. Help?

Every time I've asked this question before, I've gotten a bunch of one-liner answers saying things like "Heifer International is amazing." That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a charity that:

-Directly helps those in need (not looking for arts/political advocacy/etc.) - probably in developing world

-Is GOOD at it (and there's some evidence of this)

All the websites I've seen just have huge lists of charities with some basic financial data/ratings. I'd ideally like to hear from someone who has put some time into examining/comparing charities and can recommend someone who's good. Any ideas?
posted by geremiah to Shopping (15 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: fake question posted to promote givewell -- mathowie

Direct Relief might be what you're looking for.
posted by vers at 8:42 AM on December 30, 2007

Lots of good stuff here. But what it comes down to is that other people (especially total strangers on a website) cannot tell you what you should give to, it's ridiculous. Do your friends or relatives volunteer anywhere? Do you attend a religious institution-- and do they have a sister charity or mission? Is there an issue that excites you? For goodness sake, if you don't know these things about yourself, and feel able to make a decision based on that, you are hopeless.

Everyone on this site-- will you all please stop worrying about who is a "good" charity? The vast vast vast majority of charities--local, national, international, small, medium and large are "good" charities that use their money as wisely as they know how and do not exist to defraud people. As I've said before, if you're really concerned about knowing that every blessed dime is being used for services, then give locally (this goes for local groups that do international work as well). If you want to give internationally, then choose one of the well-known higher profile groups like the Red Cross or Red Crescent, Christian Children's Fund, UNICEF, OXFAM, etc.

No one can guarantee you that your money will be used well, as witness the recent debacle in Chad. However, are we talking about $10,000 here, or a couple of hundred? If you give unwisely, and learn about it, just don't give there again. I don't know quite how to put this, but who do you think you are? Bill Gates needs to worry that his money is used wisely. You need to relax.

Please don't pester development directors unless your gift is at least $500. We're really busy at this time of year.

Just a word on protocol-- you don't have to give by January 31. Just date your check Jan 31 and you can deduct it in the current year. In fact, you can deduct a gift posted AFTER Jan 31 to 2007 as long as you don't deduct it again next year. Let the charity know which year you want to deduct it in and ask them to send an acknowledgement stating that. For US charities, they are required to send you this acknowledgement if your gift is at least $200.
posted by nax at 8:43 AM on December 30, 2007 [8 favorites]

ll the websites I've seen just have huge lists of charities with some basic financial data/ratings.

So I'm guessing you've already checked out Charity Navigator? I actually find the efficiency ratings and the breakdowns of how much money is spent on compensation for the directors & recruiting donations vs. how much is directly spent on action benefiting the intended recipients to be pretty helpful. It's a decent good indicator of where the charity's priorities are and how good they are at making real use of the funds donated to them.
posted by tigerbelly at 8:44 AM on December 30, 2007

Best answer: Geremiah, all of the comments above are associating "good" with "responsible, not a fraud, doesn't spend too much on overhead." If that's what "good" means to you, use one of them.

To me, "good" means "helping people as well as possible." As with any organization trying to do difficult things - whether helping people thousands of miles away or selling refridgerators - "not a fraud" is a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of being good. I hope the intent of your question is to demand the best deal you can get, as you do with every other purchase, rather than settling for a "double-check" that your money isn't being lit on fire. If that's what you're looking for, I recommend

which may or may not fit your philosophical priorities, though if you're looking for developing-world direct aid, it probably will.

As for the "you're not Bill Gates" comment, Bill Gates is a drop in the bucket compared to individual giving (see this chart) - if we all demanded the best deal we could get, that would accomplish more good than Gates can dream of.
posted by Holden0 at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Doctors Without Borders has a high rating from Charity Navigator, a won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. They provide direct medical services to those who need them most in the world.
posted by kimdog at 9:57 AM on December 30, 2007

If you want to help someone directly, you can't do much better than Modest Needs (though not third world).
posted by null terminated at 10:48 AM on December 30, 2007

Nothing But Nets just gives people mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria. The spread of malaria is a really big problem. It is recommended by my aunt who spends a month in Africa with Habitat for Humanity every summer, so she's definitely concerned with what will actually directly help people.
posted by salvia at 11:35 AM on December 30, 2007

Every time I've asked this question before, I've gotten a bunch of one-liner answers saying things like "Heifer International is amazing." That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a charity that:

-Directly helps those in need (not looking for arts/political advocacy/etc.) - probably in developing world

-Is GOOD at it (and there's some evidence of this)

Okay, well, Heifer International meets those criteria, so with what you've given us in the question, it should be a best answer.

I agree that it's ridiculous to ask us. It sounds as though you are avoiding doing any homework or self-searching. It would be more helpful if you more clearly define the kind of difference you want to make in the world. You then want to find a charity that does this efficiently, and, it sounds like, directly. I would guess you would rather see your money go for direct purchase of food, for instance, rather than micro-loans for small businesses in developing countries whose payoff may be more long-term but less independence-building.

Think of your charitable donations as you would an investment. That is what they are, investments whose returns will not come to you, but to some other person or project. If you are concerned about making a donation for tax purposes, it seems likely to me that you make other financial decisions well. Why not this one?

People who give money in substantial amounts need to be as serious about it as they are about any other financial outlay. As a non-profit employee, I completely agree that paranoia about fraud and embezzling is dramatically misplaced. As noticeable as the few scandals have been, they are a miniscule fraction of the waste, inefficiency, and criminal conduct that go on every day in the private sector, and that does not scare investors away from the entire sector, does it? Nonprofits are generally incredibly efficient and very sharp financial managers and program deliverers. We have to be - we are more accountable than private industry and have fewer resources to work with. As you would if you were supplying venture capital to a company, examine the organization you plan to donate to carefully. I would suggest a process like this:

1. Identify a cause of concern to you. Think about what has made an impact on your own life (scholarship money? Donations to schools, colleges, youth programs? Job training programs? Arts and cultural organizations? Medical research?) Think about the things that worry you about the future, what your children may face. Think about what makes you saddest - is it disease, poverty, lack of education or opportunity? Think about places in the world you would like to have an impact - here at home, in a specific foreign country, anywhere in the developing world?

2. Once you have a cause, that narrows your search considerably. Charity Navigator will let you search by category (environment, animals, public benefit), by region of the world, or by title.

3. Once you've identified a few of interest to you, read their summary reports and their form 990s. Since you are into direct relief, you probably don't want to give to any organization that spends more than 20% on administration. Administration is important, mind you, but an organization delivering direct relief needs to devote the bulk of its resources to program services. However, understand that talented, efficient staff and global resources are not cheap, not for profit-making corporations and not for non-profits, so don't balk at adminstrative costs as long as they are reasonable. Charities need to be run by skilled, qualified people, and those people need to be compensated appropriately.

If you still can't make your decision, then try
-asking someone you know personally and trust who they donate to
-donating to your local community foundation, which will disburse your gift among organizations working in your own region to better public life.

Holden0, you're right that individual giving is important, but it's also true that talking to development directors about small gifts is a prime example of a way to make a nonprofit inefficient. Individual givers are vital, but the more nuanced data available through a study like the monumental GivingUSA shows that the vast majority of those individual donations are in the form of contributions to churches, followed at a distant second by donations to 'education,' which usually means alumni donations to colleges and parents' donations to their children's private-school annual funds. When those are factored out, individual donations to other types of nonprofits show as a far smaller slice of the pie. They are still vitally important, obviously, but do not offer the same power as a single Gates donation, especially since they are widely spread. Then, too, what development staff have to contend with is donor service cost. For every donation received, time and money were spent servicing the donation - cultivating it, writing, printing, and sending a request, sending membership and thank-you letters, reporting it in the budget and on tax information. Obviously, working with a single large donor is more cost-efficient than hundreds of small donors when these donor-service factors are taken into account. That is why development staff spend time on larger donors. Smaller donors do the most good when they simply write a check, rather than asking for prospectuses, time to have coffee, and so on. The ultimate good done is simply not worth it by the time the adminstrative time is absorbed. Charities have member programs and annual funds exactly for this reason - as a catchall for smaller donors that is somewhat more cost-efficient than individually soliciting donations.

In the end, I would simply say to the OP: If you can make a request like "I want to help improve the educational achievement of children in Western Africa - can you name some reputable charities who deliver direct aid?" you will receive more useful answers than you will if your question remains general. You have to do your homework, and if you're going to give, give to make a change you want to see in the world.
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on December 30, 2007 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: Mike, did you bother to look at what Holden0 linked to? Granted, they don't look at enough causes, but they did a bunch of work to figure out who's good and published it. That's what I'm looking for. Telling every individual donor to go to mounds of research, or to forget it because they don't count enough, seems stupid and wasteful if there are websites out there (and there should be) doing the legwork and sharing it.

If anyone has more sites along the lines of, please share.

If I'd asked for help buying a car, I'd hope responders would have linked me to, instead of waxing philosophical about how difficult it is to choose a car and suggesting that I work as hard as possible on evaluating different cars while warning me that I should try to minimize my demands on car salesmen's time. (I spend about $20,000 on a car every 4 years or so and I'm giving $5,000 to charity ... so they're pretty comparable and "You don't count enough to treat this as a tough decision" isn't doing it for me.)
posted by geremiah at 1:01 AM on December 31, 2007

Sorry I struck a nerve-- I'm talking from inside the bubble here. At this time of year, I get so many calls from people giving me $100 who want to be treated like, for instance, Bill Gates. Unfortunately, especially at the level of local organizations, we have to do a kind of triage with donors. I am not being facetious when I say, as a development director, that every single gift is precious and deeply appreciated. It is. But I have about 1,000 donors to manage, and I am going to get a lot more mileage for my time if I spend it with the $5000 donors than with the $100 ones. So that's all I mean. I'm sorry if that offends donors, but it's reality.

At a $100 level you have to close your eyes and take the plunge. I am very very sorry for this, but the staff of any given organization just doesn't have that much time for you, and you are better off giving your money to a cause with which you are somehow personally involved, rather than spending a lot of time researching. Your car analogy is a good one-- you're going to spend a lot more time figuring out how to spend $20K on a car than you are on how to spend $100 on groceries.

Unless I know how much you're giving (and I understand that this is personal info you may not want to share) I can only make these points crudely, and I stand by my statement.

Still, I think that the advice above about how to identify a charity that would interest you holds. Talk to people you know to identify individual charities, THEN go to the websites to read about those specific charities. Websites are your second step, not your first. Asking "what's a good charity" and then dismissing the ones that people suggest is pointless. Maybe the person suggesting Heifer Int already did all the research and is saving you some time? Also, at $5,000 you can certainly pick up the phone for any charity and ask to talk to senior management in program, admin, or development; trust me they'll talk to you.

I realize this doesn't answer your specific question, nor am I that familiar with the vetting sites, as my need is to research the foundations rather than the agencies. however, I'd be interested in hearing how your search goes and what vetting sites you eventually find useful.
posted by nax at 6:49 AM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

Another idea: I can't tell from your profile where you are, but you should see if there is a donor service organization in your area. Here in Chicago, the Donors Forum is a specialty library both for agencies and for donors. They're librarians, so the staff loves loves loves to help. If there isn't an organization like this in your area, I say call the Donors Forum, tell them what you're trying to do, and I'll bet they'll have some great suggestions.

Larger organization, national scope, again more oriented to seekers than to givers, but they might also be able to help you: Foundation Center.
posted by nax at 6:56 AM on December 31, 2007

I'd hope responders would have linked me to, instead of waxing philosophical about how difficult it is to choose a car and suggesting that I work as hard as possible on evaluating different cars

Charity Navigator is the of charities. The analogy stands - once on, what do you have to do? Define your priorities, identify options, and compare them. That is exactly the kind of research I'm talking about in choosing a charity to support. It's not at all out of the question, and it's what responsible donors do.
posted by Miko at 10:14 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

I would suggest Habitat for Humanity. I volunteer locally on weekends to help build houses because I don't really have much money to donate currently. They are very reputable and been setting families up with homes around the world for many years.

Also, microloans through is an interesting concept - you directly loan money to people in developing countries in order to help them start their small business up. Definitely worth checking out.
posted by Carialle at 10:33 AM on December 31, 2007

Also (I didn't realize you were talking to me, because my name isn't Mike) I did look at the GiveWell site, and I'd be wary - it is as worth every bit as much research as anything else. For one thing, it is not a direct aid charity; it is a foundation. It collects your donations and then disburses them to charities of their own selection. The charities they select have to apply for grants to receive that money, which of course increases their administrative costs, reducing the direct impact of your donation. They claim they are "in the process" of writing up their criteria and making their analysis available - it isn't yet. They are too young an organization to have filed a 990, so they have no public records yet. Their board is extremely small and with very narrow experience, almost none of it in the public sector, and their founders are extremely young. The only charities that can apply are those that are invited, suggesting the possibility of favoritism and cronyism. Three out of five of their program service areas have no charities listed at all -- only a page with "Research in Progress" at the top and a form to suggest a charity. They lack any guiding philanthropic vision, asserting that they will find "the best charity" in your area of interest - that's hard to do, given the fact that opinions differ on the type of aid that is 'best' in many situations (for instance, is it best to house the homeless, or give them vouchers to find their own housing?) Also, when giving to foundations, you may find they make grants to charities you would not support on your own. For instance, GiveWell supports Catholic Charities. Depending on your feelings about

Ultimately, they might be on the up-and-up, and they might have a good idea, but they lack a lot of experience and haven't been road-tested. Time will tell whether their approach, philosophy, and ethics make any sense. And, as always, you will need to do your homework. I don't care if you're donating to the local church-sponsored thrift shop or to the United Way, if your donations are important to you, you need to do your own footwork, read the information the charities provide, read the 990s, watch their activities, and get to know what they're doing if you want complete confidence. In the end, I feel a lot better making direct donations to organizations I know well, from the inside out, and support personally than trusting a large, distant foundation or vetting group to do the work for me.

Not to mention, the user Holden0 posting his answer appears to be the same Holden who is the founder of the organization. Looks like a setup - MeTa time.
posted by Miko at 10:38 AM on December 31, 2007 [51 favorites]

posted by Miko at 10:47 AM on December 31, 2007

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