Sites like Charity Navigator are helpful in showing you what percentage of your giving goes to support the mission of the nonprofit, as opposed to administrative expenses. Some nonprofits may have quite a bit of overhead, but if they are spending more than 33.3 percent of their total budget on overhead, the organization is simply not meeting its mission.
How Does Your Favorite Charity Measure Up?
The following charities are hugely popular with donors and appear on Charity Navigator's lists of most viewed charities. Do you know how much money they spend on actual programming?
American Red Cross
The do-gooders at the American Red Cross do a good job of spending your money when you donate. They manage to keep administrative expenses at less than 5 percent of their total overhead, and they spend about 91 cents for every dollar donated on actual programs that benefit the community. Whether it's teaching CPR or managing a crisis during the aftermath of a disaster, the Red Cross puts your money to good use.
Approximately 85 percent of income donated to World Vision goes to help stamp out poverty around the world. While they are still well below the 33 percent benchmark, they tend to spend more on fundraising than other highly-rated charities in this category. Nonetheless, if stamping out poverty is your passion, World Vision does a good job with your money.
Doctors Without Borders
These brave folks at Doctors Without Borders go into the most deplorable conditions to bring healing to others. Your money here is well spent. According to their website, about 89 percent of total revenue goes to supporting their programs.
St. Jude's Children's Hospital
St. Jude's Children's Hospital is known predominantly for their widespread fundraising campaigns. They pair celebrities with children who have cancer to talk about the great work they do. The hospital itself is a research hospital that specializes in childhood cancers and other life threatening diseases. No one is ever turned away for their inability to pay, and the hospital covers travel, housing, food, and treatment for the families whose children are patients there. Perhaps more remarkable, the hospital spends about 27 percent of its income on fundraising and administrative costs. Considering this is a hospital with significant expenses, the fact that St. Jude is able to exceed the 33.3 percent benchmark is impressive. Overall, they do quite well with your donated dollars.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is focused on protecting and conserving water and land across the globe. They work on every single continent to address issues of environmental significance. The organization holds themselves to the highest standards of accountability and ensures 71.2 percent of their income goes towards science-driven programs, according to their website.
Great Charities That Spend Their Money Well
While these might not be the most popular nonprofits, the following charities know how to get the most bang for their bucks. With less than 10 percent overhead, these charities will spend 90 percent or more of the money you donate on actual goods and services that support their missions.
- Greater Chicago Food Depository, as its name implies, distributes food to the hungry in the greater Chicago area. They distribute some 200,000 pounds of food daily.
- Oregon Food Bank distributes meals through traditional food pantries, supplemental meal programs, and congregate meal sites. In addition, they seek to use education to promote food security by teaching people how to cook, how to garden, and how to support community efforts. They take both monetary and food donations.
- The Conservation Fund works with a variety of initiatives to conserve land, water, and other natural resources. The Fund works in all 50 states.
- Give Kids the World is a resort village in Florida that provides week-long vacations, free-of-charge, to families who have a child facing a life-threatening illness.
- UNICEF uses a variety of programs, from emergency response to education, to support children. They work in over 190 countries to improve the lives of children through a variety of initiatives.
Charities With Lots of Overhead
To be considered a charity that spends its money well, at least 60 percent of all donations should go directly towards programs that support the charity's mission. While these charities fall well within this guideline, they do tend to accrue more overhead and administrative expenses than some others. The following popular charities spend 20 to 30 cents on the donated dollar for overhead and administrative expenses.
- Oxfam America seeks to end poverty. They focus on four areas that address both immediate intervention (such as natural disasters), as well as long-term solutions like public education and advocacy for social justice.
- The American Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) focuses on two key issues: animal homelessness and preventing animal cruelty. Charity Navigator notes they spend about 75 percent of their income on overhead like administrative costs and fundraising.
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is dedicated to promoting contemporary art and artists. It does its work through world-famous museums, which house educational outreach and various artistic collaborations.
- American Jewish Committee is an organization that works across the globe to advocate for Jewish communities, as well as to promote human rights and democratic values for everyone.
Charities That Have More Overhead
If you care deeply that the bulk of your money goes to benefit people directly, these are charities you may want to investigate further before making your donation. The following charities spend at least 30 cents or more for every donated dollar on things like overhead, administrative costs, and fundraising.
- George Bush Presidential Library Foundation is a foundation dedicated to preserving the historical events of George H. W. Bush's presidency, (not to be confused with his son, George W. Bush.)
- American Printing House for the Blind works towards building independence for visually impaired people by creating products to help the blind at work or home.
- The Edible Schoolyard Project focuses on building a curriculum in which students learn to produce and cook their food. The goal is, first and foremost, to teach kids sustainable practices, but the project also envisions a free lunch for all kids. The FAQs section of the site says one-third of their money goes directly to support an organic garden at a school in Berkeley, CA.
- America SCORES uses soccer, combined with writing, creative expression, and service learning to help urban kids. Their unique program is aligned with standards for English, service-learning, and physical education.
- LaLeche League International helps support breastfeeding women through education, certification for lactation consultants, and support groups where women can come together and offer advice and tips for solving common breastfeeding issues.
Whether your passion is art or tapirs in the rainforest, there is a charity that would like to put to use your hard-earned dollars. Choosing a charity can be a hit or miss, though, if you don't do your research. Fortunately, not only are there charity watchdog groups, but charities are also required to file certain documents for public viewing.
Charity Watchdog Resources
In addition to Charity Navigator, there are several other impartial groups who simply collect information and present it for donors' consideration. Any of the following resources is a good place to start when you're considering giving away your money:
- CharityWatch - The American Institute of Philanthropy puts out this website that rates hundreds of charities on their financial dealings. If you know the name of your charity, searching will be much easier.
- GuideStar - GuideStar collects 990 forms and other public financial data for many charities. It focuses on a community interface that lets you leave commentary about specific charities, as well.
- Give Well - Give Well reviews hundreds of charities in addition to giving you guidance in reviewing nonprofits they may not have reviewed yet.
Questions You Can Ask
If you find the charity you want to give to has not yet been rated on any watchdog sites, you can do the legwork yourself. Ask the following questions when you're researching to help guide you on your giving:
- Is the nonprofit actually a charity? You can find this out by searching for its 990 form. This information is typically found on a charity watchdog site; however, you can also visit the Wise Giving Alliance at the Better Business Bureau to see if anything has been filed for your charity. Note that religious institutions, such as churches and synagogues, typically do not have to file a 990.
- Are there complaints against the charity's practices? Again, this information is found easily on the Wise Giving Alliance website.
- Do the charity's marketing materials clearly state the problem and explain what they are doing to help? Be wary of charities who drone on about the problem but fail to state what they are doing to help it.
- Ask the organization what percentage of donations go to actually support the programs in lieu of overhead and administrative costs. Be wary of a charity that says 100 percent of donations go to support the cause. After all, there has to be at least some overhead.
Making informed choices is the best way to make sure your dollar goes to support causes you deeply care about. To further ensure your money is well-spent on a cause that you are passionate about, consider volunteering your time and talents so you can see first hand what happens from donation dollar to the delivery of programs and services.