If you’re in a position to donate, you really want to make sure your dollars go to work. And if you are perhaps spreading your finances thin by donating, then you also really want to make sure it’s for good reason. No matter where you’re coming from – comfortably donating thousands or giving out $20 because that’s what you can spare – you want to make sure you aren’t taken advantage of. Or, furthermore, you just want to make sure you fully understand how your dollars will be put to use. There have always been thousands of causes that need donations, but it feels in recent months, those have doubled. Between a pandemic and horrific social injustices, a lot of people need help, and help in the form of money goes a long way. But with so many non-profits and charities asking for your donations, choosing the best one for your money can be overwhelming. How do you know who is legit? How do you know who just keeps 80% of donations for personal gain? How do you know which ones are affiliated with movements you actually don’t want to back? I’ve made the mistake in the past of donating money, only to learn that my dollars helped move forward initiatives I don’t believe in. That stung. I don’t want it to happen to you. Here are ways to vet non-profits before donating.
Always do some vetting
First off, always, always do some sort of vetting. Do not decide to give just because a non-profit solicits you. Do your own research. They should be fine with that. If you say you’d like to do your own research and they pressure you to just give now, walk away. But really, sometimes you can detect several red flags instantly by doing a five-minute online search.
Ask friends for recommendations
If you have friends who are active donors whose values are in line with your own, ask them where they like to give, and what they like about the organization. It’s always nice when someone else has already done most of the research for you. You could also donate to a friend’s non-profit, if you have a friend you trust who is trying to do some good out there. Remember those smaller ones often need more help getting off the ground than the well-known ones.
Look up the history
Look up the charity’s history to see how long they’ve been around. It’s great to find a long-standing track record of good work out there. But if you can’t find any history, beware. They could just be new, but if that’s the case, you’ll want to dig deeper into how they’re organized, since there is no history to look into.
Find news articles
Look up the non-profit in the “news” portion of Google. Anywhere else, you may just find articles that the non-profit generated themselves, to make it seem like people are talking about them. What you’re mostly looking for in the news articles are any posts that are negative about the company, accusing them of misusing funds or not being honest.
See who has backed them
Sometimes you’ll find that major brands and companies who’s politics you love back these non-profits. Or you’ll find that celebrities you like are big donors. If you’re very familiar with the politics and values of these big names, that can provide some comfort. Of course, if you find that someone whose values don’t align with yours backs the non-profit, that’s something to look into.
Find an expenses break down
Many non-profits will have a document published right on their website, explaining how their expenses break down. They’ll tell you what percent of the dollars that come in are spent on marketing, administration fees, and so on, and what percentage actually goes directly into their work.
Find them on social media
Look the organization up on social media. Any non-profit that knows what it’s doing will have an active social media presence, posting photos and videos from their initiatives. It’s a nice way to see that they are keeping busy, and actually watch footage of their work.
Look up their 990
The 990 is what non-profits file with the IRS each year, and exists so that the public can assess the organization’s efforts and legitimacy. So look it up. It’s public information. If a non-profit is new and small, you can likely get someone there on the phone, and ask them to email you this form.
Talk to volunteers
If you know anyone who has volunteered for the organization, ask them about their experience. Did they feel it was a real boots-on-the-ground operation? Or did they feel they were just cogs in a wheel of some corporation that wasn’t really in touch with what it was doing? Did they feel they made a difference by volunteering there?
Be a volunteer
One of the best ways to assess a non-profit is to volunteer for them. You’ll get an inside look at what goes on, how money is spent, how things are organized, and so on. It’s hard for a non-profit to hide much from you if you volunteer for them. There is certain inside info you need just to get your tasks done.
Ask for an independent audit
The best non-profits have outside parties audit them. This shows that they want to be transparent, and are willing to have their practices put under the microscope of an unbiased party. When in doubt, give to a company that undergoes and publishes these audits.
Research their outcomes
You may find plenty of articles about initiatives, but what about the outcome? If a non-profit had this event or hosted this challenge or had this fundraiser for a certain cause, what happened then? How much did they raise? And were they able to do some good? Follow the thread of that story to the end. Sometimes, a non-profit puts out a lot of press about an initiative, and then things fall apart. But they don’t publish that part.
Speak to beneficiaries
This is a great way to get the truth: speak to the beneficiaries if you can. If the non-profit works with physical locations like soup kitchens or pet shelters, visit those places. Look at the conditions. Ask the people who work there, or those who benefit from the location, how they feel about the services provided by the non-profit.
How much is spent on fundraising
One thing you’ll want to pay close attention to is how much is spent on fundraising. Remember that, even though you’re looking them up on your own, many non-profits need to do outreach, calling and soliciting people for donations. And, sometimes they pay their solicitors a lot of the dollars that come in, just to get those dollars.
Vet their response to your vetting
Just see how the non-profit responds when you start to dig. Are they happy to answer questions? Are they ready with documents and links to send you? If so, great. But if they become defensive, are vague in their answers, or even refuse to provide information, move on. Being vetted is a part of being a non-profit, and any one worth your time knows that.