Choosing a Nonprofit 101

So you know you’ve got to do something, but now you’re thinking, okay, so I want to support a charity. The question is, what charity?  There are SO MANY nonprofit organizations out there, over 1.5 million to be exact. So how can you know which one you want to put your voice and money behind?

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There are several things I look at when I discover a new nonprofit:

What are they doing?  Well, this is one is pretty basic, but what is this nonprofit doing in the world? If I’m using my time, my prayers, my money directed at something, I want to know enough about them to tell someone else confidently why this organization is important.

Who are they doing it with?  It is super important to me that organizations I support work with the local community and not for the local community. I heard it best described as this: any community is basically an ecosystem. When you introduce something foreign to that ecosystem, it creates a shock and has consequences. For instance, in America, what happened when packaged food came onto the scene in the 1950s? It changed the way America ate. In a developing country, aid given to a community irresponsibly can actually hurt the community. If an organization is working with local citizens in community development and listening to what locals are saying, it just makes more sense.  It’s also important to make sure in marketing materials that the organization is respecting the dignity of those whom they are serving. For me, that means not having a picture of people crying and sick and not showing any of the joy, intelligence, and love of the people.

Who doesn't wanna love that face?

Who doesn’t wanna love that face?

Why are they doing it?  For me, I want any social justice initiatives to be partnered with the Gospel. Any other form of charity is not going to give anyone what they actually need. Again, check out the pictures in their marketing materials. Are there more pictures of the leader than the people he or she is helping? That might be an indicator of something…

Do they actually need help? Here’s the thing: most nonprofits need money. But checking to see how a nonprofit uses it can tell you a lot about if they need your money to further their mission. A quick check on Charity Navigator or Guidestar can give you a quick summary of how an organization is set up. It can tell you a few things:

  • How much money they take in vs. how much they are spending
  • What percentage of their money goes to administrative and fundraising expenses
  • See if their board members are independent voting members (that means they can hold the organization accountable without a conflict of interest, i.e. the Senior Vice President is not the Board Chair)

Here's a sample Charity Navigator profile of a nonprofit

This is really really important, but I do want to point out something: overhead doesn’t count for everything. Yes, 100% of all money given going to programs is great, but I have seen some great organizations that have 0 money going overhead get to a point where they are so overwhelmed with worry about how they will make a living and how to keep quality employees that they are crippled and eventually hit a wall barring their growth. In the opposite realm, I have seen an organization with a higher overhead percentage be able to provide truly great services to the people they serve.

I know it’d be easier for you if I just gave you a number, but this is where research becomes really important! If you see a nonprofit you really like but see a weird overhead number, just call and ask. Really. I’ve done this before, and, yes, it kind of throws people off, but it also gives me the opportunity to get to know the heart of an organization better than what a black and white number can do.

Are there opportunities to go deeper? Can I go and visit the work I am investing in? Can I write a letter to the child? Can I talk to someone at the charity when I have a question? Can I learn more about the issue or volunteer with the organization?

 A nonprofit that doesn’t provide you chances to grow deeper isn’t interested in you—only your money. They may not have that quote up on the wall in their office or anything, but think about it. Don’t you want to be more than just a check? Don’t you want to truly invest both your money but also a piece of your heart into bettering the world?

(Shoutout to Compassion International, who does an INCREDIBLE job of grabbing supporters and pulling them to go deeper with letter writing, volunteer opportunities, gift guides, and sponsor trips)

If you can’t find the answers to these questions on the website, CALL AND ASK. Really. It’s important to know these things and know where your time and money is going. You aren’t being a bother, you are being a wise co-laborer.

I love learning about faith-based nonprofits and what they are doing in the world, but to cross the threshold from general interest to fellow Kingdom investor, these are the things I look for first in a nonprofit.

What are things you look for when you research to be generous with your time and money?

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On World Vision

 

One time, when I was in middle school, I had one of those morbid assignments to write my own obituary (why, English teachers, why???). My middle school self wrote about me becoming a woman with a loving husband, two kids, a glamorous job as a magazine editor (ha) and when I died I donated all of my money to the Christopher Reeve foundation because at the time I was obsessed with Smallville and Superman (hahahaha).

Anyways, my teacher read over it and very nicely told me the Christopher Reeve Foundation did stem cell research, and I nodded, proud of my future humanitarian self.  Then my teacher told me stem cell research uses aborted babies to do their research. Oh…

Lesson learned—research charities before I jump on board just because a celebrity endorsed it.

Well, friends, It’s the statement heard ‘round the internet, issued by World Vision, a child-sponsorship nonprofit:

The organization previously required its some 1,100 employees at the American branch to abide by a policy that required fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside of marriage, and only recognized heterosexual marriages. However, now World Vision is allowing gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be hired as well as gay Christians who follow their policy of abstinence outside of marriage.

World Vision’s senior director for media contacts, Cynthia Colin, shared a letter from Stearns to World Vision employees with The Huffington Post. Stearns explained, “I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue. We have chosen not to exclude someone from employment at World Vision U.S. on this issue alone.” (Huffington Post)

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(Source)

The firestorm that happens after debates like this in the Christian world sometimes kills me. Personal attacks are made. People tweet faster than they can think. Feelings are hurt.

Some bloggers and figures I deeply respect have staked their claims on sides of the issue. Some are burning the books, calling for a boycott, demanding Christians cancel all sponsorships and support.

Others say people shouldn’t care because WV is loving all and the kids would be hurt if you pulled out.

It’s hard because I agree with part of this latter statement (I’ll talk about the former in a bit). The kids and families are the ones who are hurt. I hate seeing people so blasé about cancelling their sponsorships. Boycotting World Vision means kids are not getting help they need. Not saying that is the wrong position to take, but let’s not oversimplify things by putting them in the strictly “right” and “wrong” categories: pulling out means the community isn’t getting that money. Let’s not take our first knee jerk reaction (which may be right or wrong) and pray. I don’t know what God will tell you about it—that’s between Him and you.  Please, friends. Do what you think is right, but for goodness sakes, please don’t forget you aren’t sticking it to WV, you are hurting the communities they help.

BUT.

And it’s a huge but.

I would NEVER want anyone to consider giving to a charity without first looking at what they are giving money to. What are they teaching the kids in their program? How much of your money is going to overhead costs vs. to those in need? Is the charity saving or empowering? Are they in debt? Do they have a board in place? Where is the accountability? (Check out Charity Navigator for a great resource for this!)

You have the right to know. In fact, I’d say it is your responsibility to find out. If you are merely throwing money at a good cause to make yourself feel better without researching the organization and the work they do, well, that’s not helping people in need, it’s helping yourself.

But when you look at the charities you want to sponsor, you do have the right to pick one that aligns with your beliefs. One that spreads the message of Jesus if you so choose. You have the right to cancel a sponsorship or donation when an organization does a 180 or does something you think is harmful to the work you supported.

In the same breath, Christians, we have the responsibility to do it with love and understanding. In our speech, in our actions, in our typing on social media. Knowing the world’s eyes are on us. Knowing there are believers who struggle with sins of all kinds. Knowing Christ has loved us all at our very worst. And He has and can and will save those jwho repent and believe.

I sponsor with Compassion, and I personally want to know if they are sharing the Gospel with the children in their program. I want to know how much money is going to the community and how much is going to the president.  I do want to know their stance on gay marriage, because that effects what they teach the kids. I can’t tell you what I would do if Compassion followed suit. I love the kids Chris and I sponsor, and I truly believe in the work Compassion is doing, but I also want to know the kids were being taught what I believe the Bible says.

So, basically, I have no answer. Just ALL THE FEELINGS. What are your (respectful and loving) thoughts?

Update: World Vision has reversed its decision following advice from sponsors and leaders and a reported loss of 2,000 sponsored children.