You Don't Have to Be Big to be Accountable
In the days following the tragic Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, I appeared on television and radio nationwide, offering advice to compassionate, yet skeptical Americans about how they could find a charity that would spend their generous donations wisely. From Good Morning America to Geraldo, I offered the same basic advice to donors: “Stick with the large, well-known, long-established charities.”
I told everyone who would listen that after a disaster, when aid is urgently needed and time is of the essence, donors should not be unnecessarily adventurous with their giving. I advised donors to stick with large, national and international charities — organizations that have experienced people on the ground in the affected areas, are accountable to well-connected and image-concerned Boards of Directors in the United States, and have a sufficient infrastructure in place to ensure the aid truly reaches the victims.
While I still think this advice holds true during a crisis when there are immediate needs and where many donors are often inexperienced, I also recognize that many small or recently established organizations exist that could also help, if given the chance. In the wake of the tsunami disaster, many small, local and innovative organizations are searching for ways to show that they use donations efficiently and deliver programs effectively.
Although tsunami giving by Americans will reach $1 billion in 2005, this represents only a fraction of the total $250 billion Americans will give to charity this year. Most Americans will give locally and most will give to smaller charities. For these small, local or new organizations seeking to demonstrate their fiscal responsibility and value to the community, I offer the following advice:
Many of the visitors to our Web site in the days after the tsunami were seeking information about the largest and best-known charities in the world, such as the Red Cross, World Vision and Save The Children. These were first-time donors who wanted to help but were skeptical, even of well-known organizations.
If people are seeking unbiased, transparent data from a third-party source about the largest and most visible charities, it seems logical that donors to small charities likely crave it even more. Even if you’re too small for Charity Navigator to rate, you can give people useful, verifiable information. Don’t just display tragic photographs and list lofty goals. Tell people how you spend your money, how efficient you are, how well you’re growing, and how much your CEO makes. Make this information easy to find. Today’s charitable givers, especially those who give online, want data. Give it to them.
The organizations that did well in the days after the tsunami had proven track-records they could promote. They could tell their donors where they had done this kind of work before, how successful they had been, and why they were a good choice of donor funds in this crisis. Donors want to know if you’ve succeeded before. Tell them about it. Let people know the size of your impact, whether it be the number of meals served, acres preserved or animals adopted. Evaluate your success against quantifiable program goals.
Stick with what you do best.
Following the tsunami, I was impressed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which recognized that even though it was large and well-known, it was not in a good position to aid tsunami victims. So it referred people to other charities, even though people who gave to tsunami relief might not have money later in the year to support the NRDC’s own activities.
NRDC should be commended for this. Although there was easy money to be had, it did not succumb to the temptation. In the future, not only will donors be likely to reward NRDC for its honesty, other organizations will be likely to refer donors to NRDC when a donor’s wish matches one of its programs. Unfortunately, not every organization was as true to its mission as NRDC. Sadly, there were many charities that were seemingly ill equipped to work in Indonesia trying to raise money for tsunami relief. This is foolish and greedy and will only serve to turn off donors in the long run.
Promote, don’t harass.
Many of the complaints we receive about charities concern unsolicited phone calls and unwanted mail. Telephone solicitation not only irritates and alienates many donors, it also makes little financial sense for charities. A telephone solicitor that keeps 25 cents to 95 cents of every donor dollar is not helping anyone but itself Find a way to get donors to your charity, to get your work known in the community and to connect donors to your recipients, but stay off the phone. In the long run, you’re turning off an entire generation of donors and ensuring that the public stays skeptical and cynical.
Your organization’s Web site is the most effective means of non-invasive self-promotion. The growth of online giving, especially during the tsunami disaster, shows the importance of maintaining a professional, informative, and up-to-date Web site. An organization’s Web site is often the first place a donor looks for information about a charity. If your charity’s site is amateurish, disorganized or out of date or it doesn’t contain relevant information, donors will come away with a negative impression of your organization, no matter how positive an effect your programs have on the community.
A charity that earns the trust of donors can succeed no matter how big its, how long it has existed or how well its name is known. Charities can earn donors’ trust by being transparent and accountable, setting measurable goals and demonstrating results, avoiding the activities that do not align with their mission, and promoting themselves without intruding on donors’ privacy.
Trent Stamp is the executive director of Charity Navigator, the largest charity evaluator in America.