Saving threatened habitats worldwide

John Burton’s guide to evaluating a charity.

13 August, 2010 - 12:59 -- John Burton

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


Submitted by Charlotte Beckham on

Comment posted on Facebook by Abi Hiscock, Advisory and Consulting Manager at Charities Aid Foundation:

A step in the right direction but don’t be too prescriptive in this approach. 1.Core costs are reasonable and can legitimately be expensive to support the capacity of the organisation. 2.Organisations often spend too little on themselves and get driven into the ground.The impact of a project is only as deep as the organisation is able to be effective. 3.Check reserves policies and check notes in accounts if something looks expensive. There could be a good explanation, for example reserves may be building up deliberately just to be healthy, (around 12 weeks running costs is recommended), or to purchase a site for conservation, or to upgrade computer systems.

Submitted by Charlotte Beckham on

Comment posted on Facebook by Millie Bonnevay

Obviously I support you otherwise I wouldn’t be writing here. I support you because you have similar principles to the charity I work for (who I obviously also support). I won’t support any charity who have a policy I disagree with or that I believe won’t value my support (I note your writer mentions RSPB, but I wouldn’t support them because of the auto-emails they send if you contact them. Only small charities should reserve the right not to respond to emails). I won’t support a charity that actively promotes a religion or is founded on X religion’s principles, and I won’t support a charity if they can’t defend a corporate partner (don’t accept money from a company that destroys the work you do!).

Re: celebrity endorsements, I have mixed feelings about those. Mostly, I completely ignore them. From working “on the inside”, I know that sometimes the powers that be think it’s good PR and it’s just one of those things you have to put up with!

Submitted by John Burton on

I missed reading this comment earlier — apologies to Millie Bonnevay for that. She makes some very good points — or at least ones that I agree with. I have never been bombarded with emails from the RSPB, despite lots of correspondence with them over the years, so perhaps you need to opt out. I think the point about defending a corporate partner is a very good one indeed. We work with what some donors might consider ‘interesting’ corporates. Our policy is to work with those that are the best in sector and those that are genuinely striving to do better (green credentials that is).

Submitted by John Burton on

A comment on Abi Hiscock’s comment:
With the benefit of hindsight (looking back over the recession) I would like to ask what are reserves for? And when shopuld they be used. It is an issue I have grappled with and asked my own Board. But I would be very interested to know what others think. What do donors expect charities to have reserves for? And when have charity mnanagers ever used those reserves?

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