...what is the best source for finding out which charitable organizations are reputable? How did you know, for example, that Heifer.org actually does what they say they do?
This is really important. If we're dedicating ourselves to improving the lot of the poor around the world, then accountability is essential. I want to give to a reputable organization whose purposes are in line with mine. And I want it run by someone innovative and intelligent who listens to the poor and works WITH them to give them what they need. I want to support an organization with a superb track-record and a history of success, as well as one whose finances are cross checked by certifying agencies.
In short, I want my contribution to really do something, not just ease my conscience by assuring me that "At least I tried."
The best way to help the poor, of course, is to give of ourselves by volunteering. Soup kitchens, Goodwill, Meals on Wheels, visiting the sick or elderly or imprisoned...there are countless ways to serve the poor in every neighborhood. DoSomething.org has a volunteer page where you can enter your zip and find a list of volunteer opportunities right in your area. No need for accountability here; we know because we perform the acts ourselves.
But the poor aren't just in our own communities. Take the Poor with You really entails thinking about the global community, and many of our decisions have an impact that goes far beyond our immediate area, or even beyond the borders of our nation. Reading the stickers and tags on the goods I bring into my house reveals a diversity of geographical locations. Coffee from Kenya. Cotton from Egypt. Tea from India. Copper from Chile. Plastics from China. If my lifestyle and choices are impacting people all over the world, then I should help people all over the world, too.
And those in other countries are often deprived not only of the material goods we enjoy, but the philosophical blessings we take for granted: freedom, rule of law, education, the possibility of employment, the right to life, the right to worship, etc. I can't help them by myself; it takes a network of trained professionals just to reach the poor, let alone help them.
The good news is that there are many groups serving the world's poorest populations. The US alone has 1.3 million charitable organizations! Going back to Jen's question now: how can we know which ones are reputable? We've all read about organizations that diverted funds earmarked for a disaster to other programs, or worse, charities that turned out to be frauds. Responsible stewardship necessitates being careful about spending, even when we're not spending it on ourselves.
One place to start is with one of the many watchdog groups that rate charities and provide that information to the public. It's important to keep in mind, as this article states, that every watchdog group has its own criteria, and it may or may not be in line with your own. Moreover, the rules governing what a charity must disclose and how it must categorize it aren't hard and fast (with good reason: there are so many different charities and various ways of operating that it's nearly impossible to come up with a black and white set of rules that can apply to everyone.) So ratings change from year to year and watchdog to watchdog. Some of this confusion can be ameliorated by knowing what's most important to you in your charity: is it the source of income? Efficiency in response? Low percentage of administrative costs? Program effectiveness? etc etc.
One of the best watchdog/ratings sites is the American Institute of Philanthropy, which has a "Top Rated" list of organizations broken down into easily searchable categories. Charities must achieve a B+ or better on AIP's criteria to qualify for the list. Their full compilation of charities and ratings is only in print form, but for those of us who are inclined to buy one, a sample copy is only $3.
My favorite site is the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction for short.) I worked there after college and learned to highly respect its efforts and ethics. InterAction aims to coordinate the efforts of US-based non-governmental organizations and advocate for an increase in global humanitarian aid. It ensures minimum standards for every one of their 160 members, many of whom are at the forefront of the humanitarian community. It's my quick-check: if an organization is a member of Interaction, it's legit, responsible and progressive.
InterAction is limited to organizations that focus on global humanitarian aid, but Charity Navigator lists and rates organizations of all kinds. You can search by category, name or rating, and save your favorites in My Charities. Their articles are worth perusing, and I found an interesting study that assessed giving trends by US city. Denver isn't doing so well!
If you prefer to do your own research, start at the Independent Sector, which has complied a list of standards so you can browse through and see exactly what sort of guidelines an organization (such as Catholic Charities) operates under. This site is especially helpful for those of us who care about the specifics of an organization's operations. As a Catholic, it's very important to me that the charity I assist does not act against the moral principles of my faith. In addition, IS's list of publications contains fascinating studies on giving and volunteering as well as recommendations for how charities can serve as more responsible stewards of the public's generosity.
Finally, Give.org has detailed financial, administrative and program information on every charitable organization that operates in the US. If you want to see the exact breakdown of a charity's income and expenses, this is the site. It's also enables you to rate charities on your own criteria, giving you access to much of the same information that the watchdog groups use.
Take heart! Despite the bad apples, many charities are responsible and do excellent work. With a little research and a discerning eye, we can feel confident that our money is being well spent.