On behalf of Charity Navigator, I was proud to have participated in the review of the Money section of the book Spirit of Service. We believe that the book can open the door of your heart, into new worlds of service to others. It is a good place to begin, renew or expand what we hope will be a fulfilling, life long journey for you to help others and our world. However, before you walk through that door of service, we have some advice for you to consider.
Sometimes a charity can provide you with a compelling story about what they do, but there may be little more than that when you look deeper. In other words, they have little or no evidence that they are truly helping others. Worse still, some charities may be helping themselves or their leadership, rather than others! The many scandals that have occurred in the nonprofit sector are a testament to the fact that you need to use your head and get the facts, so that your heart is not broken in the process of trying to help others. The authors of Spirit of Service have done some checking to reduce the chance of these problems, but you should still conduct a little due diligence of your own when deciding which charities deserve your support.
If you find a charity in the book Spirit of Service that you are thinking of supporting with your time or treasure, we recommend you look at three critical dimensions of the organization before you act:
- Financial health –If a charity is not financially strong, how can you be certain it will be there for the long haul? Consult www.charitynavigator.org for free ratings of the financial health of 5,500 charities or use our link to the Foundation Center to obtain copies of the IRS form 990 for charities we do not yet rate. We also provide a guide for how to interpret them. The 990 provides a wealth of knowledge, including executive compensation, what types of expenses the charity is incurring, and what kind of assets the organization has on hand.
- Accountability – The best charities are transparent and accountable to the public. You should be able to see evidence of this in the information they provide on their web site. For example, do they provide a link to their financial audit? The media can also be a good watchdog in this area - providing reports on charities that have been found guilty of a crime or are under investigation - so check our News Feed tab for each charity you are considering or check for this info on sites such as Google News. The media also can help you learn about the accomplishments of a noteworthy charity (see #3). Remember, even if the finances and outcomes look sound, questionable accountability can be a warning sign of disaster on the horizon.
- Outcomes – Learn about a charity’s accomplishments, goals and challenges by reviewing its website, talking with staff or visiting its offices. They should be able and eager to tell you about the quality and depth of their results as well as their capacity to continue to get these results; not just: one compelling story or a count of the number of activities or people served. This is critical step. After all, the charity’s ability to bring about long lasting; meaningful change for the better in the lives of people and communities is the whole reason for your financial and/or volunteer investment.
In conclusion, we believe that if you do a little homework in each of these areas, you will find a charitable organization where your personal Spirit of Service will be incredibly rewarding for you and those served.