Evaluating the (Nonprofit) Evaluators, Part I

02/05/2014 12:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014
  • Barbara Harman President, Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington and Executive Director, Harman Family Foundation

The Bad Guys Club

A recent HuffPost blog refocused attention on a 2013 Tampa Bay Times/ CNN report on "America's Worst Charities" -- a group of 50 bad guys in a club to which no charity seeks admission. Lists like these are, so the notion goes, helpful in alerting unsuspecting donors to the dangers of giving: these donors often don't know that some big charities with compelling-sounding names have massive armies of paid telephone solicitors, and... clients who barely benefit from the funds that are raised. Nader Salass from the Association of Fundraising Professionals chastised the makers of the list in a response, noting that most of the guilty parties are such notorious offenders that the list is hardly newsworthy. But Salass also admitted that there was some benefit in alerting donors to the importance of exercising due diligence.

Of course we should all exercise due diligence when making charitable contributions, but there is something disheartening about the focus on what doesn't work in our charity system. There are 50 charities on the "worst" list -- out of some 1.5 million nationwide. And while there are likely more than 50 that deserve to be called out, the number would still represent a small fraction of US charities. The truth is, most charities cannot afford to pay expensive solicitors, know that such solicitation is frowned upon, and wouldn't do it if they could.

Making a splash about how little money actually ends up in the right hands is a familiar story, and one that the press likes to tell. But it just confirms the belief that many Americans sadly hold -- that nonprofits take the money of well-meaning citizens and squander it on administrative expenses, while the people who should benefit go unaided. True in a small number of cases, not true at all in most. Wouldn't it be an interesting turn of events if stories about the best charities got the same kind of attention as those about the worst?

But how do we know who the best are? Who is doing the work of evaluating them? What is the basis of their evaluations? And do they really make sense?

Stay tuned for Part II.