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?


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?