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Questions To Ask Charities Before Donating

Tips For How To Investigate A Charity's Results


The purpose of any charity is to fulfill a mission that provides some public benefit. Therefore, it is critical to know whether charities are meeting their mission by getting results by providing meaningful change in communities and people’s lives. To determine if a charity is getting good results, you can begin by learning about a charity’s programs, accomplishments, goals and challenges. You can do this by reviewing its website and/or talking with their staff.  While few may be able to provide extensive detail about the results of their work, they should be able to talk about how they believe their programs lead to results, and any steps they are taking to verify their thinking by reporting on results. 

The latest dimension that Charity Navigator has added to its evaluation process (though this factor is not yet incorporated in our star rating system, and won’t be for some time) begins to look at how a charity is meeting its mission by the quality of how they publically report on their results.  The questions that we are asking to determine this include:

  • Alignment of Mission, Solicitations, and Resource Allocation.  Does the charity actually do those things that it tells you about in its solicitations? Following a “truth in advertising” principle, look for signs that the charity dedicates both money and staff time in ways that are consistent with what their stated mission is, and with how they represent themselves when seeking donations.

    In a full 990, on page 2, Part III: Statement of Program Service Accomplishments, charities report their largest programs, and the funding allocated to them.  You should determine if the funding allocation reported here seems properly aligned with what the charity says they do on their web site (especially their Donation page).
  • Clear logic for achieving results.Does the charity clearly explain what the problem is it intends to address and how it will do so? There are four simple questions to consider here.  Does the charity’s statement of how their work leads to results seem plausible and reasonable to you?  Do they talk about how much of their service is required in order to produce the results?  Do they show any evidence that demonstrates that their approach is effective?  Do they tell you what data will indicate that their program is working, and have a plan for collecting that data?
  • Information from external validators.  Has the charity’s approach been reviewed or written about by an objective third party?  If they have a report from an organization that focuses its attention on results, that could potentially provide a vote of confidence in the organization.
  • Constituent Voice.  Does the charity receive feedback from its constituents (those people it serves - clients, consumers, beneficiaries, etc.) and use it to improve the quality of services? Look to see if there is any sign that the organization collects and publishes feedback from its primary constituents (beneficiaries, clients, end users, consumers… etc.)   For many direct-service organizations, the primary constituents are clear; for others, the relevant parties may be peers, related parties, policy makers, etc.  Who they are is something that you should be able to determine based on the organizations logic for achieving results.
  • Published evaluation reports.  Does the organization have an independent third party formally evaluate their efforts with some regularity (at least every 5 years) and make those results publically available?  Do they explain what they learned from the evaluation and what, if anything, they are changing as a result?

For additional reading on how we are exploring this third dimension, Results Reporting, you can click here to read our Concept Note.


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