Rating Charities: Websites That Identify Quality Organizations

You don't need to comb through legal filings and financial disclosure reports. Several websites have done the work of rating charities for you.

| June/July 2009

Charitable giving declines when people have less money to spend, making it more important than ever to make every donated dollar count. The good news is, the hard work of assimilating information and rating charities has been done for you by such portals as Charity Navigator. With them you can find and compare the performance of thousands of North America-based charitable organizations.

Founded in 2001, Charity Navigator is a wealth of information on how charities spend their (your) money. The variables it evaluates are a charity’s financial efficiency (the amount they spend in order to make money) and financial responsibility (how much does it pay its executives?), and the charity’s potential to sustain its operations into the future. Charity Navigator uses a 4-star rating system to give you the lowdown on over 5,000 organizationss. One click will give you information on, say, the 4-star American Forests, or the 2-star Conservation Northwest.

The same is true of Network for Good and Just Give, both of which link to the Guidestar database of charities, which has been maintained since 1994. The Guidestar profiles encompass numerous small nonprofit agencies as well as the biggies, and you can quickly see if funding is up, down, or steady.

What if you have time to give, but not money? In addition to accepting agency-specific cash donations, the Network For Good database can link volunteers with agencies who need them. For example, when I searched for volunteer needs among food banks in Virginia, two clicks took me to a list of eight open volunteer positions in my area.

Even with the help of databases such as Charity Navigator, take the time to actually look at an agency’s website before you write a check, especially if you plan to give to a small, local group. “You want to see a board of directors of at least 10 people, which indicates a strong community base,” advises Roger Kienzle, vice president of finance and IT at United Way in Roanoke, Va. “There should also be several funding sources, which gives the agency financial stability.”

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .

Mitch Friedman_3
7/12/2010 12:52:51 PM

Charity Navigator provides useful information, but does have limitations. The low score it gave Conservation Northwest is due to a flaw in its model, which CN recognizes but hasn't addressed. Their model for "capacity rating" penalizes a falldown in revenue or assets, even if that reduction was planned and beneficial. Case in point: A part of a campaign, in the years from 2000-2005 CNW raised over $18 million in private funds to acquire and protect forest habitat in the Cascades. (See www.conservationnw.org/northcascades/the-cascades-conservation-partnership) But the CN capacity rating model docked us heavily by: 1) Interpreting the closure of the capital campaign as a drop in revenue capacity; and 2) Interpreting our donation of the acquired lands (to the US Forest Service) as a drop in assets. Conservation Northwest donated the last of these parcels--2,000 acres next to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area-- in 2009. In short, CN translated this huge mission success into a black mark on our record. You can read comments from supporters who value our efficiency and effectiveness at http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.comments&orgid=4245 Mitch Friedman, Executive Director, Conservation Northwest

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