Suggested Content

Beyond the Stars: How to Find Great Charities

  • April 12, 2018
  • Uncategorized
Michael J Nyenhuis

Michael J Nyenhuis

Michael J. Nyenhuis, Americares President and CEO, has worked for more than 20 years to provide pathways to health for people who face formidable obstacles – everything from massive earthquakes to crushing poverty. He offers an informed and personal perspective on where we have been, who we are now and what the future might look like for the critical health issues and emerging crises that we confront everyday around the world.

At Americares were grateful to once again receive the highest rating from Charity Navigator, a popular website that rates thousands of U.S. charities on a few simple metrics. I don’t mean to brag, but Americares deserves its four stars. We are effective, efficient, accountable and transparent in the way we go about our work.

Over the years, I have heard from donors who made gifts to Americares because they saw our ratings on Charity Navigator or other watchdog agencies. That’s great for us, but it also shows how much power these ratings have in the world of philanthropy today.

Too much power.

A visit with Americares Philippines./Photo by Americares
A visit with Americares Philippines./Photo by Americares

Americares benefits from stellar ratings so maybe I should not say this, but a quick look at these websites is not the best way to choose a charity. The ratings provide good, albeit simplistic, data points and can serve as a good starting point. Making wise philanthropic decisions — investments, really — takes more effort than that. In my view there are three important things you can do to go beyond the stars — beyond the simple watchdog ratings.

First, do diligent research. Using Google and other internet search engines, it is relatively easy to do your own research today. Read everything you can find published by the charity and others who have written about it. The charity should post its annual report and financials on its website; search for articles in newspapers and magazines.

Second, listen to people you know. As with anything else, referrals from family, friends and colleagues you trust is often a great way to make decisions.

“An untreated Buruli ulcer wound almost killed Hannah. But thanks to the support of people like you, she has received the cure and ongoing care that saved her life,” says American Leprosy Missions./Photo by Tom Bradley for American Leprosy Missions
“An untreated Buruli ulcer wound almost killed Hannah. But thanks to the support of people like you, she has received the cure and ongoing care that saved her life,” says American Leprosy Missions./Photo by Tom Bradley for American Leprosy Missions

Third, engage with charities you are considering. Meet the leadership or staff if you can. Follow the charity on social media — ask questions and seek information. Pick up the phone and call. Attend events or meetings.

That’s my prescription for wise giving: research, listen and engage. And, yes, check out Charity Navigator and other watchdogs, too.

One plea: Don’t dismiss quality charities that receive less than the highest watchdog ratings. Those ratings represent just one data point. For instance, there are many very worthwhile charities that receive three stars, or no rating at all, from Charity Navigator. I know this firsthand.

My wife, Sandy, and I have supported a three-star charity, American Leprosy Missions. I know the organization well — its leadership, work, results, accountability. Some quirk in Charity Navigator’s formula leaves American Leprosy Missions short of four stars. Their three stars do not disqualify them as a great charity.

One Hundred Miles works to preserve Georgia’s coast; hosts a UGA Marine Extension’s Master Naturalist program (left) and encourages those to enjoy the beauty — and protect — water in coastal Georgia (right)./Photo One Hundred Miles (left) and Southeast Adventure Outfitters (right)
One Hundred Miles works to preserve Georgia’s coast; hosts a UGA Marine Extension’s Master Naturalist program (left) and encourages those to enjoy the beauty — and protect — water in coastal Georgia (right)./Photo One Hundred Miles (left) and Southeast Adventure Outfitters (right)

There are other limitations: Sandy and I annually support an organization listed on Charity Navigator without a rating. One Hundred Miles is an environmentally focused charity working to preserve a very special place to us — the spectacular 100-mile Georgia coastline. Charity Navigator says the nonprofit is not rated because it hasn’t been operating long enough.

I am not being critical of Charity Navigator. I know their own team would tell you to see their ratings as one input into your decision. Smart philanthropy is worth more than one simple measure.