Charity vetting tool leaves small scale do-gooders in the dark

The Mona Foundation, which raises funds to support international education projects, such as the Association for the Cohesive Development of the Amazon (ADCAM) in Brazil, is one of hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized charities in the U.S. not rated by Charity Navigator. (Photo courtesy The Mona Foundation)

Many Northwest-based global nonprofits are frustrated that they are too small to get reviewed and vetted by the influential Charity Navigator.

When you make a charitable donation, do you really know where your money is going? Whether in the wake of disaster like Typhoon Haiyan or the upcoming end-of-year giving season, people want to know they’re giving well.

But it isn’t easy. According to the Urban Institute, the sector grew 25 percent between 2001 and 2011 and suspicion has grown with it (one look at The Tampa Bay Times’ recent “America’s Worst Charities” report is enough to make even the softest hearted among us close our wallets).

Enter the watchdogs. Online resources like GuideStarGiveWell and the Better Business Bureau help review nonprofits and steer donors toward the ones that actually get results.

One of the most popular, and influential, among these services is the New Jersey- based Charity Navigator. Advertised as “Your Guide to Intelligent Giving,” President and CEO Ken Berger says his organization hopes to become “the go-to source” for online-charity vetting.

“We want to promote and drive money to the highest performing nonprofits and encourage more nonprofits to become high performing,” says Berger, who was in Seattle for a global-development conference this week.

The 12-year-old organization is used to controversy. Much of the debate so far has focused on how it reviews charities — specifically whether it includes the context necessary in such a diverse sector.

But some smaller nonprofits in our region say it isn’t “how” it reviews nonprofits as much as “who” it decides to review.

“Donors ask us: ‘Why aren’t you on Charity Navigator?’” says Rita Azizi Egrari, of the Mona Foundation , a Kirkland-based nonprofit that supports education projects in developing countries.

Egrari says that her organization applied to be reviewed by Charity Navigator because of its growing reputation among donors, but the answer is “No, we just don’t have the resources. ”

Charity Navigator President and CEO Ken Berger.

Charity Navigator President and CEO Ken Berger.

“We are a nonprofit too,” explains Berger. With 14 people on staff, he says it can’t review organizations with total revenue smaller than $1 million a year. Charity Navigator has reviewed just 7,000 of the more than 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the United States.

Marla Smith Nilson, of Water 1st International — a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps build water systems internationally and recently reached the $1 million dollar threshold — says it’s hard to measure the impact of not being on Charity Navigator.

“They’re a big name,” says Smith Nilson. She fields a lot of questions about Charity Navigator, but worries more about the donors she doesn’t hear from — those who looked for her organization on the site and “just didn’t give.”

Berger says most of the accountability and transparency problems in the nonprofit sector are among the wealthiest organizations, not down at the $1 million and less level (which he estimates to be roughly half of all nonprofits in the country).

But Egrari says the next generation of donors wants to be able to vet before they give, whatever the size.

“More and more donors are turning to online giving. They want to be educated and they want to really do their research before they give their hard-earned dollars.”

Charity Navigator does plan to expand. Berger says the organization’s goal is to add 1,000 charities a year to its database with a 10-year plan that “maybe” includes a “wiki-style system where we would have volunteers that are trained that would help do some of the work.”

In the meantime, Egrari hopes Charity Navigator will state on the front page of its site that it is unable to review smaller charities so donors don’t think the omission means a lack of credibility.

And what should donors who want to give to smaller charities do?

Smith Nilson suggests a do-it-yourself approach.

“It’s a lot easier to pick apart small nonprofits. Their 990s [nonprofit tax reports, which are publicly available,] are not that complex,” she says. “Plus, you’re more likely to be able to call and just ask them what they’re doing.”

If you’re looking to give, I’m sure they’d be happy to pick up the phone.

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

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