Finding a charity that is well run and focused on its mission is not an easy task. However, over the past decade technology has made it much easier to access information in order to make an informed decision.
Outlined below is a brief process that I hope helps you think through key giving questions for yourself, and how to vet charities who you are considering to give to. It isn’t foolproof, but should help you make wise giving decisions in the years ahead.
When I consider giving (for myself or if asked by others), 2 Corinthians 9:7 frequently challenges me. It says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” This verse challenges me in several areas, but the one I want to focus on in this post is deciding in one’s heart. This implies that there is thought given to our giving, it is not just done impulsively (though sometimes the Lord may work in the moment) or by default (my family has given to this charity for 30 years).
If you are like me, you receive all sorts of marketing information from charitable organizations. The temptation is to give to them because they have a great presentation and seem to be meeting a real need. But are we really thinking through the underlying questions that should accompany this decision?
Before You Start
Take some time to pray and ask God to provide you wisdom and discernment for the task ahead. We frequently want to get into doing things and neglect prayer, but this is extremely important.
Once you are ready to move forward, there are a few questions that each of us need to answer about giving. This should happen before we begin to look at any charitable organizations:
How Much To Give?
I have written a more extensive post about giving, but here is a very brief synopsis:
- In the Old Testament, the tithe (giving 10%) predated the Law (Genesis 14:20; 28:22).
- The people of Israel regularly gave at least 23 % of their income each year (this does not include freewill offerings etc). Some of this was to support the government, but the bulk of it was not.
- The tithe was never rescinded in the New Testament.
Deuteronomy 16:17 says “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.” The bottom line for Christians is that God has blessed us richly. The tithe is a great starting place for our giving, but not the end point.
Where To Give?
Malachi 3:10 talks about bringing the tithe into God’s storehouse, the Temple. As the church is the New Testament equivalent of the Temple, it seems wise to give the tithe to your local church to support their ministry.
When we are giving more than the 10%, the Bible does not say where it should be given. This is where more of the thought comes in. If God owns it all, and we are to use the funds for His glory (the role of a steward), what types of charities should we be supporting?
Some Christians only support Christian ministries that spread the Gospel, because they view it as consistent with their stewardship role. As God desires all people to be saved, how will they know if people don’t share the Gospel?
Other Christians will support Christian ministries, but also secular charities seeking a cure for cancer, providing homes for the homeless etc. The secular charities are noble and beneficial causes, but they are missing the eternal perspective. If cancer is cured, the patient will still die, just of something else. If they never hear or respond to the Gospel they will be eternally separated from God.
There is nothing in the Bible that says you have to give only to Gospel focused ministries. But we need to determine for ourselves how much to give to charities who don’t have an eternal focus.
How To Give?
Oftentimes people think of giving as solely financial, however, it encompasses much more. Stewardship isn’t just about money, but about our time and talents. Perhaps God has given you talents that could really help a ministry, or you have extra time and are looking to get involved. Those are just as important as giving money.
It is much easier to give money than our time and talents (at no charge). But being a good steward means we are to give of everything God has given to us, not just the easy things.
When To Give?
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 says “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” When we are giving our tithe, it should be done regularly. If you get paid monthly, then give monthly; if weekly, then give weekly as this is the pattern set in the Bible.
For amounts you give over the tithe, there is no set pattern in the Bible. You can give once a year, once a month etc. The key is to remember to give as the Lord enables you to.
The Evaluation Process
Now that you have answered those key questions, let’s start evaluating potential charities:
Step 1: Do Your Research
I know this doesn’t sound like fun, but it is an essential step of a thoughtful steward. The Christian community is based on trust, but we need to be watchful as that trust can be violated (and there have been quite a few instances of this over the years). Here are a few areas to evaluate:
Look at their website
Most charities offer much of the basic information that would be helpful to check out. Are they a 501(c)3? What is their Statement of Faith? Do they have an independent board or is it run by one person with no oversight by others?
There are quite a few organizations that either evaluate charities or serve as membership organizations that the charity joins for accountability purposes. Here are two helpful organizations:
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA)
The ECFA is an organization that evangelical ministries can join for a fee. There are requirements that the ECFA sets (regarding establishing an independent board, annual financial audit by an outside accountant, file financials annually with the ECFA etc) that the charity voluntarily submits to. If a ministry is part of the ECFA, the ECFA is periodically checking to make sure the charity is doing what it promises.
The ECFA has a list of their members on their website, and additional information about each ministry. This doesn’t mean that all ministries in the ECFA are spotless, just that someone is checking on them.
Charity Navigator – is a free resource that compiles information on various charities (secular and religious). Some charities will actively engage in their process and receive a rating from Charity Navigator, thereby helping potential donors compare charities. Other charities do not participate, so there may be limited information about them.
Step 2: Review Their Financials
This is a very important, and fairly easy step. You don’t need to be a finance major to do this. Here are a couple of real-life reasons why this is important:
- Several years ago, there was a mission organization that had $26 million in investments held in reserve. Having a reserve is important, but this dwarfed any reasonable need that could arise. Does a charity with such a large reserve really have a need for further donations?
- A major charity that works with the poor pays their president more than $700,000 a year. The president certainly has a large responsibility and should be compensated, but their salary seems to be out of touch with the charity’s mission. Giving to them supports his salary, is that appropriate?
If you don’t at least look briefly at the financials, you could end up supporting a charity that is not using their resources well.
There are a few important pieces of information to look for:
- How much of the money given to the charity actually goes to support their work? If 75% of the donations support their work, that is viewed as a good percentage. Higher is always better.
- How much does the charity have in reserves? This can be called net assets etc, but can be helpful to determine the solvency of the charity. If it is more than 50% of their expenses, you will want to ask the charity why it is so high (as there may be a reason).
- Is the majority of the board on the payroll of the charity? If so, this would be a warning sign as the board’s oversight may be compromised since they are paid by the charity.
- How much does the director and other staff get paid? Working for a charity shouldn’t result in a life of poverty, but the more money paid to employees mean less is going to the important work they are doing. When I see one or more people making well over $100,000 a year, I don’t feel comfortable with this. This is a personal preference, so you will need to make your own decision on this.
How Do You Review The Financials?
If the charity is a 501(c)3 (and not classified as a church, more on that soon), they are required to file Form 990 every year with the IRS. Form 990 contains a snapshot of the charity’s finances at the end of their fiscal year. This information is publicly available, but is normally 1- 2 years old when it is posted. However, it is very helpful when you are looking at the finances of a charity.
If the charity is classified as a church – this can be a mission organization etc not just a traditional church – they are not required to file a Form 990. Because of this, you may not be able to access all their financial information.
Here are a few websites that make it easier to find information on church and nonchurch-based charities:
- ECFA – if the charity is an evangelical ministry and a part of the ECFA, a high-level view of their finances will be publicly listed on their website. Some church-based charities are ECFA members, so this may be the only resource available to learn about their finances. Unfortunately, they do not list out all the information to answer the financial questions I listed above, but it can provide an idea of the financial situation of the charity.
- Charity Navigator – this is a very helpful website that compiles information for all charities (not just ministries). If the charity has filed a 990, they will have a link to it, and in some instances, will provide a grade on the charity’s finances (which is helpful to compare to other charities) They provide a lot of great information, but not every charity has details in their database.
- IRS – provides a free searchable database of 990 filings where you can view the Form 990 for the charity. Since it is a searchable database, you may find associated charities that don’t appear on the other websites (see below for an example). You will want to look at Part VI Section A of the 990 as it outlines the compensation of the board, staff and highly compensated employees. Part X is the Balance Sheet that lets you see how much the charity is holding in reserve via cash and investments (under assets) and how much they may owe (under liabilities).
Step 3: Talk To The Charity And/Or Volunteer
As you conduct your research, you may come across information that you find troubling or don’t understand. I would encourage you to reach out to the charity and ask them about it.
Sometimes there are things going on in a charity that can’t be communicated easily through their website or financials. You also may have uncovered an issue that they are working through. Either way, giving them a chance to explain it is important, and also gives you a chance to get a feel for the charity.
Another option would be to volunteer. Sometimes the best way to get a sense of a charity is to get involved. It enables you to see personally if their ministry efforts align with their marketing.
Is All This Necessary?
Earlier in this post I mentioned a mission organization who had $26 million in reserves several years ago. When I followed the process outlined above while writing this post, I found that their reserve shrank considerably. If someone looks them up on the ECFA or Charity Navigator website they would see a smaller reserve listed (around $4 million). However, when I looked them up in the IRS 990 database (searched by their name), I found they also have a foundation with a considerable amount (about $10 million) reserved for the mission. The $14 million represented over 2 years of expenses, which is much more than a healthy reserve.
The point is, when you follow the money, you have a clearer picture of the health and priorities of the charity.
Yes, it does take some effort, but it really doesn’t take that long. Where we give is important and we will be held accountable for it. Taking the time to work through these issues, can help direct the Lord’s money to charities who will honor and glorify Him.
Points To Consider
- How much thought have you put into your giving? How can you improve?
- Like people, no charitable organization is perfect. But avoiding those with warning signs is important
- Follow the money, not solely the marketing materials
- If you don’t have time to do the research right now, consider donating to a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). A DAF can distribute the money to charity later when you have time to do your research
- Don’t put your giving on autopilot. Charities can change their focus and priorities over time, so periodically check on them