Supporting a charity is a noble cause, but it should also come with a sense of responsibility. You can push for real change and progress with your donations, but it is important to choose the right causes to support. No one can answer the question of which charity is the best for you or even which is the best in a given area of philanthropy. People have different expectations for how their money will be used and even what kind of organization they want to help. Some people prefer to donate to large organizations that leverage a lot of money to fund impactful work, while others would rather support niche nonprofits devoted to a very specific issue. Here are some questions to ask while looking at potential charities to support.
What is the link between the charity’s program and the change it wants to make?
Charities are masters of marketing; they’ve gotten very good at tugging at our heartstrings and letting us know what change they want to see in the world. Before donating, however, it is critical to look at what programs the organization has actually created to work toward that change. Ideally, the organization maintains transparency about how it spends money and what impact it hopes to achieve with it. For example, Heifer International gives goats and cows to those in need as part of its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty. These animals produce dairy products that families can both consume and sell at a profit. Other organizations may not have such tangible results, however. A charity called Give Directly provides unconditional cash transfers to alleviate poverty, but judging the impact this has on the problem is impossible without looking at third-party evaluations.
Does the charity invest in evaluation and sharing findings?
Philanthropic organizations only know how good of a job they are doing when they invest in self-evaluation. When charities demonstrate a commitment to evaluation, they show donors that they want to grow and improve their programming. However, evaluation also plays another important role: creating a body of knowledge that can be shared with the larger community.
Sharing helps other organizations doing similar work learn from the triumphs and failures that have already happened so that money is not wasted making the same mistakes. From a fiscal perspective, investing in organizations that share their findings with other philanthropic initiatives means that the donations will have an impact beyond the immediate organization and the people it serves. At the same time, self-evaluation leads to more overhead and less money from donations going directly to programming.
What are the short- and long-term goals of the organization?
Most charities have a clear idea of the larger change that they want to enact in the world, but it is important to have both short- and long-term goals. The short-term goals serve as milestones on the path toward the long-term ones, and show that the current methodology is working. Organizations focused only on the long-term goals may have erratic programming that does not seem to make much sense. Other charities could have the opposite problem. Effecting easy yet important changes in the community is important, but changes should be adding up toward something larger if the organization wants to make a real impact. Charities that do not clearly state short- and long-term goals may lack direction or vision.
Who is leading the organization and guiding development?
Some of us may not look at the leadership of an organization before making a donation, but seeing who is in charge can say a lot about where the charity is likely to go in the coming years. Those with business backgrounds will push the charity in different ways than those with legal backgrounds or even those who have primarily worked in public service. However, having businesspeople in charge is not necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, looking at the salaries of people in charge does not tell the whole story. Sometimes, donors feel like their money goes into the pockets of the executives if they see that they get paid well, but people who get paid well earn that money for a reason and are likely responsible for more fundraising and growth than the charity could achieve on its own.
Does the charity show a desire to evolve and experiment?
Experimentation is a double-edged sword for businesses and charities. Taking chances opens up the possibility of real progress and innovation, which in turn can lead to a more impactful use of donations. At the same time, there is always the chance that the experimentation may fail and the money amounts to little real impact in the community. Some donors prefer organizations that take a more conservation approach so that they know the money will make a difference. Other donors are happy to fund experimentation and help organizations push boundaries. Before making a donation, you should have a clear idea of what you are comfortable with and where the charity stands on experimentation and evolution.