There Really Are No Quick Fixes

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 18th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Americans always seem to be looking for a quick fix:  meals all in one box;  the all-in-one dusting and polishing; matching services that find you the love of your life.  Maybe these work; I honestly don’t know.  But what I do know is that they take individual responsibility out of the equation. 

Let’s look at what could be used as a quick fix in the nonprofit sector.  With somewhere between 1.4 million to 1.8 million nonprofits in the United States, how do you pick which ones are deserving of your dollars?  So, okay, you narrow the choice down by the mission of the organization, but you still have thousands of organizations that help children or animals, that provide cultural enrichment or food for the hungry.  How do you choose? 

Increasingly, people are being told to look to see how independent organizations rate them.  What do Charity Navigator, Charitywatch or BBB Wise Giving Alliance say?  Did some organization put a gold seal of approval on them because they met a set of cookie-cutter standards?  But if you think this is the quick fix for helping you to pick whether to give your hard-earned dollars to organization A or organization B, please think again.  Might you want to take into consideration what these organizations have to say? Sure.  But then do your own homework. 

Recently, I looked up Lowry Park Zoo, an organization about which I recently (indirectly) wrote and which I know had an executive director who had been misusing organization property.  I was shocked to see that Charity Navigator had given it three stars, out of four, in 2007, and four stars in 2005.  Three stars from Charity Navigator means “good”, as defined by the following:  “[e]xceeds or meets industry standards and performs as well as or better than most charities in its Cause.”  BBB Wise Giving Alliance gives the Zoo a B-, saying it had too little information to rate it, and acknowledges that the Zoo is not a BBB accredited organization.  But a B-, going back to the frame of reference in which the letter grade system was developed, is slightly better than average.  The Zoo is not in Charitywatch’s database.  But the Zoo is accredited by its professional organization.  But like most professional accrediting bodies, it is concerned with how the organization executes its mission (i.e., the conditions, care and feeding, etc. of the animals, presentation, education, etc.) and not so much with the management and governance of the organization.  But, at least it met those hoops—I mean standards of excellence. 

So, if I were solely to go on this work done by others—my quick fix for assessing nonprofits—I might think the Lowry Park Zoo was a good recipient of my dollars.   (After all, Parents Magazine did rank it the #1 zoo in the country.)  But what if I dug up some information on my own to add to that mix?  Would my opinion change or not? 

There are many reasons why growing numbers of philanthropists like the concept of giving circles, not the least of which is because it allows them to pool their money, make a bigger gift as a group than could be done as an individual and, thus, hope to make a bigger impact.  But there is another reason.  They get to know the nonprofits to which they give, beyond how the outside purveyors of gold seals, stars and letter grades do.  It does take work, but so does cooking a meal from scratch or caring for your fine furniture.  But the product at the end is both better and far more satisfying. 

There should be no quick fixes in determining who should receive your philanthropic dollars.  Don’t try to find them.  Your money will be better spent if you invest a little of your own effort before you write that check.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.