The Best and Worst Charities (According to Consumer Reports)
Wine chillers. Space heaters. Snow blowers. You name it, Consumer Reports tests it. And yes, "it" now includes charities.
On Monday, Consumer Reports released its "Best and Worst Charities for Your Donations" list. By no means as comprehensive as the magazine's robust coverage and hands-on reviews of cars, appliances and electronics, the list is intended as a snapshot for would-be donors, offering a CliffsNotes on this year's biggest charity scam, an overview of the three big charity watchdogs and tips on how to avoid charity scams. It's entry-level stuff, but sound information nonetheless—an accessible starting point for first-time donors.
A sample tip from the article: "Many scams also use the names and logos of legitimate charitable entities to trick you into giving money. So even if you see a heart-wrenching picture of a wounded warrior or a mournful-looking lemur, do not automatically click through to any link. Respond with your head, not your heart, by checking the organization out at the charity watchdog websites and assuring yourself that the email is legitimately connected to the organization you wish to help."
That's good advice!
But the main attraction is the list. It includes two examples each of high-rated and low-rated charities in 11 different categories—ranging from broad ("Health") to oddly specific ("Blind and visually impaired")—and was compiled using data from BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator and CharityWatch. Consumer Reports explained the process:
As part of of this report on the best and worst charities, we looked for agreement—on positive and negative traits—among the three major watchdogs. Because not every group is evaluated by all three watchdogs, we relied in some cases on agreement by just two. We also left out highly rated charities that CharityWatch says obtain a considerable amount of income from the government (such as Save the Children).
The criteria here are pretty vague—Consumer Reports doesn't specify what "positive and negative traits" it used—and there's no real explanation for why these particular 44 charities were chosen from the pool of 1.5 million U.S. nonprofits. That leaves us with some questions:
• Why did PetSmart Charities make the list both this year and last year as one of two "high-rated" nonprofits in the "Animal Welfare" category? The nonprofit has a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, but so do 150 other animal rights organizations. Several other nonprofits that made the list in 2014 also made it this year. Why so many repeat appearances on such a narrow list?
• Why was the American Red Cross selected as one of the two "high-rated" charities in the "Human Services" category despite an "A-" rating on CharityWatch and a three-star rating on Charity Navigator? These are by no means bad scores, but given the organization's current inner turmoil and the many other high-rated human services charities to choose from, why did the American Red Cross make the list?
• Why was Planet Aid included as a "low-rated" charity? CharityWatch slammed the clothing-collection organization in late 2014 for discrepancies in expense-reporting, after the watchdog found that Planet Aid's claim of 85 percent program expenses was more like 29 percent. While CharityWatch's argument—in short, that donated clothing collected by Planet Aid should be considered a fundraising expense rather than a program expense, and that the organization profits from the sale of donated items—is convincing, it is still somewhat subjective. Meanwhile, Planet Aid is listed as an accredited charity on BBB Wise Giving Alliance, meeting all 20 of the site's standards for charity accountability. Why does CharityWatch's assessment carry more weight than BBB Wise Giving Alliance's? Consumer Reports doesn't explain.
These issues aside, the rest of the list seems fair. It's tough to argue that Alzheimer's Foundation of America (97.13 overall score on Charity Navigator), Environmental Defense Fund (94.24), Farm Aid (94.91) or any of the charities on the "high-rated" list, really, isn't top-notch. And Consumer Reports is mostly spot on in its "low-rated" selections. American Association for Cancer Support is being investigated for ties to the four cancer charities involved in this year's $187 million scam. Disabled Police Officers Counseling Center, Shiloh International Ministries and Find the Children all also appear on the Tampa Bay Times' "America's Worst Charities" list. And Heart Center of America spends just 7.6 percent on program expenses. (So, yeah, it's probably wise to stay away from the "low-rated" bunch.)
View the full list here.