From time to time I have been asked what I think of other charities, particularly wildlife charities. I make no bones about the ones I think are good, such as the RSPB or my local Wildlife Trust, but diplomacy (plus the laws of libel and slander) sometimes silences me on others, so I have listed a few suggestions as to how I would go about an evaluation.
The WLT supports a wide range of other NGOs all over the world, so evaluating them is an important part of my job. I would also be very interested to have any other suggestions as to the things our supporters look for in a charity.
Before evaluating, it is important to re-examine your own motives for wanting to support. It is not always philanthropic. For instance I am a member of the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts – but for purely selfish reasons -- so that I get into exhibitions much more cheaply. So I am not particularly bothered by the fact that they employ over 200 people and not much more that 50% of their expenditure was on charitable activities. But that's a special case. Conversely, I refuse to donate to a charity that does certain types of fundraising -- giving away unsolicited 'gifts', or chugging for instance. Again personal bias, but I am sure we all have our idiosyncrasies. So here are my personal guidelines
- Go to the Charity Commission website, and look at the overview of the Charity. This will summarise data on the income and expenditure, as well as the number of employees, and how much was spent on running the charity. There is a general assumption that charities should spend as little as possible on management and employ as few people as possible. But there is a limit to this. So you need to see how active the charity is. If on their website they appear to be running lots of projects, but have exceptionally low overheads, it is questionable as to how well those projects are being supervised.
- Still on the Charity Commission website, compare the fundraising expenses with income, and then compare that with other charities in similar fields. Fundraising has a cost, but it shouldn’t be excessive. While looking at the accounts check the reserves: are they sitting on too much money? If the reserves are big, do they really need your support?
- Go to the section on Financial History, and this will tell you whether or not the charities finances are on the way up, erratic or going downhill. In the same section it will show the ‘compliance history’ of the charity. Are they getting their annual reports in on time? If they are not alarm bells should start to ring, since there is ample time allowed for this, and it might indicate an under-resourced organisation. Particularly if it occurs more than once. See how many staff are employed, what is the average salary, how many are paid more than £60,000 p.a. (this has to be declared).
- On the Charity Commission website, check out the Board of Trustees, and see if they have the expertise to run the particular Charity (use the Internet to research Trustees and other Board Members). It is generally a good thing if one or more of the Trustees sit on other Boards as well.
- Then check the organisation’s website. Does it tell you much about the people running it? Do the CEO and senior staff inspire confidence? Are the celeb’s associated with the Charity appropriate? Do they do anything for the Charity? All relatively easy these to check on the Internet.
- If you are still in doubt, phone the Charity and ask questions. And ask for a copy of their printed Annual report and Accounts, and other literature. Read the literature, and check the small print. If you decide to make a donation for a particular project, will it actually go there? Or does the small print allow the charity to do what they like with the money?
No charity should be so big or self-important as to not respond to enquiries about its finances or management. An enquirer may only be thinking of donating a relatively small amount. But they may also be considering several hundred thousand. There is no way the person at the end of a telephone can know that. Therefore, they should treat everyone the same, and be helpful. If they can’t answer your questions, there are probably two main reasons: they are either under-staffed, and lack the expertise, or they consider it unimportant to respond to you. So look around until you have found a charity you feel confident in; that it can use your donation the way you want it used, and is cost effective.
Finally, for more information about how to research charities, here is the WLT list of external links to charity resources: visit as many as possible.
The World Land Trust is not perfect, but we do try to be as transparent as possible, without overwhelming the enquirer with detail. We try and ensure we have the right number of staff to do the job efficiently and thoroughly. We could cut staff numbers, but the monitoring and evaluation of our work would certainly suffer. We could spend a lot more on fundraising, and probably raise quite a lot more, but we don’t think many of our current supporters would want to see us develop that way. We regularly check our standards against other similar charities, and if we spot some way of improving our ways of improving our communications and financial reporting we will try and implement them. We also always welcome comment and constructive criticism from our supporters.
The latest World Land Trust Annual Reports are available as PDF downloads.