Happy Small Lights Friday, everyone! As promised in our last Small Lights post, I’m dedicating today to sharing everything I know about being a well informed donor. In honor of our month-long contest I thought we could educate ourselves and make the most out of our monetary donations by being armed with information! Who doesn’t love weaponizing knowledge? Maybe add that to your weapons inventory, original Doom II on DOS.
Let’s take a moment to review the contest rules! Winner is being announced June 25th. We got a lot of entries already but I bet we can get even more!
Memory refreshed? Awesome! Let’s go!
Where To Start?
Where to start is the most important question in almost every endeavor we embark on in life. Informed donations are no different. Not all nonprofits are created equally, and sometimes a donation you make goes towards different expenses than you intended to support. We’ll get a chance to look at some great charities, and then one REALLY bad one, just for fun.
So, what are your passions? What does your heart bleed for? For example, anyone who knows me knows that my heart bleeds for just about everything. I’ll be using one of my favorite charitable organizations, Amnesty International USA, as an example in this post to guide us on how we can be smart contributors.
I love Amnesty International USA and it’s one of the very few organizations I contribute to monthly (I’m not made of money, go ask Jeff Bezos for more. Oh wait, you can’t, because he’s going to space). Here’s a quick overview of what AIUSA does around the globe. Now, do keep in mind, if I were to list everything this organization does, this blog post would go on forever until you find yourself in a vintage painting and realize you’ve actually been here all along. Here are their top priority campaigns right now:
- Freeing people from ICE Detention Centers
- Ending gun violence
- Refugee and Migrant Rights
They are also working to abolish the death penalty, combat police violence climate justice, and defend the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, just to give you another small sample. Are you in love with this charity yet? You can sign up to be a sustaining donor here! Every year I get a pamphlet from AIUSA advising what my contributions helped pay for, who they were able to release from detention, and much more. But hey – this isn’t a pitch for AIUSA, as much as it may sound like one.
So how did I decide I wanted my money to go to this charity? Let’s get into it.
CIVIL RIGHTS NERD ALERT
In another life, I fundraised for different nonprofits, so I had a bit of a head start when I finally had enough money in my own budget where I could eke out an extra $15 a month. (Bezos? Can you hear us from space? Send money). I knew I liked Amnesty International USA, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to contribute monthly. Once you know what cause you want to support with your dollar, you have to ask yourself: is the money I’m sending going to the programs and services provided by this nonprofit? Where, exactly, is my money going?
Let’s check out Amnesty International USA’s front page:
There’s a LOT going on here – and their main page is a slide show, so there’s even more going on than I could grab in one screenshot. Let’s take a closer look at their menu:
Once you follow the link to their financials, you will be taken to a page where you can download all of their reports, their audits, and their 990 forms. They’re so transparent you can actually see through your entire computer when you look them up. Try it, it’s absolutely true.
Most nonprofits have very similar menus on their website. See the ACLU main page:
If you don’t have the time to download and read an entire financial report, I’ve got news for you: nobody does! The only time I ever dig this deep is if I’m deciding whether or not I want to make my contribution monthly.
While it’s always best to get your information straight from the source, there are much quicker ways to find it. Let’s stick with Amnesty International USA as our example.
Show Me The Money
There are a number of websites you can go to that rate charities based on their financial performance, their transparency, and more. My personal favorite is charitynavigator.org; it’s the one I use most often and I’m familiar with the layout. You can also use givewell.org or charitywatch.org. These sites do the heavy lifting for you.
For our journey today, I am utilizing charitynavigator.org for my source, and all data has been pulled directly from the site. Let’s take a look at AIUSA’s overall score:
Looks pretty good to me, better than any report card I’ve ever received anyway. While there are 4 star charities that score higher than AIUSA, they are still my favorite organization because of the work they do, and because of their fiscal transparency.
Let’s take a little swim through their expenses. You’ll notice 77.3% of their expenses are for the programs and services they provide. There are organizations who’s percentages in this category are measurably higher, but before you balk at the number, take a look at the second highlighted portion. 10.3% goes towards their programs’ growth. Not bad at all, especially when you take a peek at their administrative expenses. And let’s not let the transparency score of 97/100 go unnoticed! For me, transparency is a huge indicator for whether or not I choose to donate.
What I love about this website is that you can click on every metric and it will lay out the formula used for calculating their numbers. You can also search for charities on this site, filtering by cause, rating, size, and more.
Alright, now that we’ve covered how to research our contributions, and provided a couple examples of some stellar nonprofits, I think it’s vital we take a look at a low scoring nonprofit. Not just because it’s important to know how to spot questionable financial reports or other red flags, no, there is far more to it than that. We need to look at this low scoring nonprofit because I hate Citizens United.
How To Spot a Bad Apple
Citizens United v. FEC, everyone’s favorite SCOTUS case. For those unaware, Citizens United v. FEC is the case that defined money as free speech. It is currently playing a huge role in dismantling our democracy, but that’s a story for another time.
Let’s take a look at their home page.
So far, so good. Let’s see what happens when I hover over “About”:
Notice the drop down features “Who We Are,” “What is Citizens United,” “Fulfilling Our Mission,” “CU V FEC,” “Contact Us,” and “Internship.” I perused this entire site for the sake of this week’s post (you’re welcome), and I could not find a single financial report, audit, or 990 form. That is not to say they aren’t available on the site, perhaps I just didn’t know where to look. But if the information is on the site, it is incredibly difficult to find. So, let’s check it out with our charity navigator tool.
Now that, my friends, is what I like to call a Big Yikes. CU spends over half of their budget on fundraising expenses and only 40.3% of their programs. What are their programs? It’s hard to say – visiting their site was like walking into a Hollister at the mall. I left almost immediately because the smell was giving me a headache. I then became lightheaded and needed a pretzel. Literally two completely identical experiences.
I now understand why this information is difficult to locate on their website. Let’s take a look at their overall score:
TAKE THIS EVERYWHERE
Take this knowledge with you everywhere. Your deep dives don’t have to end with nonprofits. Journalistic integrity is being challenged now more than ever, and false narratives are being passed as official news. We need to work together to arm ourselves against misinformation.
The best thing we can do is to simply check our sources. You can utilize mediabiasfactcheck.com, a nonpartisan website dedicated to fact checking news organizations and journalists. I use this every time I visit a website I don’t already trust. Or maybe you trust the source, but want to go further? Who wrote the article? What are their expertise and what other publications have they contributed to? Do some digging of your own and find out for yourself.
Another way to spot misinformation: If something is misspelled in an article, that‘s a big hint to you to do some independent fact checking. If someone isn’t proof reading their work, their integrity can come into question. Of course, do not write off every article with a comma splice, or perhaps a misspelling of the word lieutenant. No one is perfect, and no one can spell lieutenant. However, if you see something like, “The Unitted States of America,” you’re going to want to do a little research. And yes, we have seen errors that blatant.
And finally, the best way to get your information? It’s the same way you’d get your nonprofit financial information. Go straight to the source! Seeing a bunch of headlines about a controversial or complicated bill? Don’t wait for a journalist to tell you what to think about it. You can go to the house website and read the bill yourself!
The truth is always available, and it’s usually a lot more boring.
You are empowered. You got this! Share your knowledge with those you love, take care of your people and provide them with these tools. The world will be a better place for it.