Sunday 29 November 2009

Charitable giving - is it cost-effective?

As money gets tighter, charities have to compete more for what we are able to give them. How do we know that our contribution is being used effectively?

In the United States, you can log onto Charity Navigator and get financial information and ratings on U.S. charities, but unfortunately there is no sister site for the UK, so we have to check our charities with other sources.

For example, let's take a worthy-sounding UK-based cause called the World Children's Fund. This is attractively presented on its own website, and I have had several slick mailshot approaches from them which made me feel emotionally coerced. But are they value for money? I could look them up on Charity Choice, which says "WCF ... has minimal overhead costs". However, this may merely be a wording supplied by WCF itself, so we turn to the accounts submitted to the Charity Commission, where it transpires that 29.1% of the funds raised have been spent on "Generating voluntary income". Compare that with the British Red Cross Society, which only spent 13.7% on the same category.

But that's only one way to do the figures. Calculating the proportion that goes on "charitable spending", I see that WCF manages 70% as against the Red Cross' 76%; and the Red Cross is a massively bigger outfit, so it might benefit from economies of scale. Yet according to Charity Navigator, Action Aid International achieves 84.9% for "program expenses", despite having a turnover less than half that of WCF's.

Well, we get down to complexities of accounting again. How many hands touch the money as it goes past, how much sticks to their fingers, how much ends up where it's needed? How detailed, transparent, honest are the accounts?

And it also gets philosophical: what are the needs you're trying to address? How well are you succeeding? And don't the people involved in running the charity have needs, too? Should they work for nothing?

UK-based Intelligent Giving tries to give a subtler approach to weighing up the performance of charities, and how well they report on what they're doing - see here for their judgment on the Red Cross, for example. Intelligent Giving also features a page listing other evaluation sites and foundations that screen beneficiaries and projects.

New Philanthropy Capital is another UK-based organisation researching charities; and their blog argues that we can be too easily diverted by expenditure issues and should re-focus on what we are trying to achieve.

In short, think about and research your giving carefully, as you would do with other important spending.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog.

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