The Giving Dilemma; Part 5

As so often happens, the request came from someone we knew.  I am on the board of a local cultural foundation and our landscaper sent us a passionate note on his letterhead asking us to make an organizational donation to a nonprofit that he not only supports, but admires to the extent that he incorporated its name into the name of his business.  In his letter to us he went on at great length about the terrific work this organization does, and asked us to help him in supporting its efforts.

Being as we have known this person for many years, our president assumed all was on the up-and-up and asked the board how much we should contribute.  I interrupted the proceedings by asking that I be allowed to check out the recipient nonprofit before the Board acted.  That was agreed upon, and I took the letter home with me.

The next day I visited the group’s website.  Very pretty…and lots of verbiage about all the ideals it supports.  More impressive were all the logos of other organizations with which this particular group is affiliated.  But when I tried to find out a bit more about this entity, I found nothing.  There was nothing specific on its website, so I went to Charity Navigator; but could find nothing there either.  I used a 990 Finder; and still came up empty.  Finally, I called my colleagues at Charity Navigator and asked if they could look into it.  Not only did they find nothing at all save the website, but they could also find no information on all the other organizations with which the first one claims to be affiliated in an impressive-looking network of groups supposedly all working toward the same ends. They did learn, however, that all the organizations are headed by the same person.  Their recommendation was that my Board should steer clear of any contributions to this group.

I passed this on to the Board, but remain perplexed.  Not only do I believe that our landscaper was honest and sincere in his request, but this is not the first time this has happened. After my sister-in-law passed away from a certain disease three years ago, my wife became involved in an effort to raise money for a group claiming to be looking for a cure for the condition that took my sister-in-law’s life.  She decided to participate in a walk-a-thon, and solicited several of our friends and relatives for contributions.  One of these friends did some due diligence on the nonprofit my wife was seeking to support, and came up with nothing…nothing except a website that listed affiliated organizations and featuring a picture of a nationally known celebrity endorser.

Now, at this point, things could have gone one of three ways: my wife could have gotten angry at our friend for declining to make a contribution (he gave her his reason); she could have done some digging herself and rethought her decision to support this particular effort; or she could have blithely forged on, collecting contributions and participating in the walk-a-thon irrespective of our friend’s warnings…which, of course, is exactly what she did.

All this presented both me and our friend with a few dicey choices.  He was put in the uncomfortable position of having to tell my wife that he could not support her, and that the organization she was supporting might just not be the best use to which she was putting her time, her money, and that of others.  I was faced with the choice of A) trying to talk her out of doing what she was doing, B) joining an effort about which I now had suspicions; or C) standing by and doing nothing…which is, of course, what I did.

It is never easy saying “No” to someone we know when they ask for our help.  It is even harder telling that person that the effort in which they are engaged may be a waste of time and resources, or that the charity for which they are trying to collect funds is questionable in some way.  But what is the other option?

It is easy to hand over $10 –after all, it’s “only” $10- and forget about the whole thing.  It is easy to stifle one’s qualms in the interests of maintaining good relations with this person (especially a spouse!).  It is even easier to never ask a single question about the cause on behalf of which the money is being sought.

But none of these things is the right thing to do. As has been recounted in these pages many times, simply giving money is not a viable answer; for far too much money every year is simply wasted on ineffective, inefficient, and sometimes fraudulent nonprofits.  Simply because an organization uses a buzz word that resonates with one or more of our values in its title, in its literature, or on its website is also not a good reason to just hand over some cash. As has been noted before, every dollar squandered in this way is simply a dollar that can’t go to an effective effort that is showing positive results.  We should all do some research before we give. It is really that simple.

Moreover, for the person asking for the contribution -be it a friend, a relative, neighbor, or even just an acquaintance- if he has not done the research himself, if she has not looked into what she is actually trying to raise money for, then we owe it to that person to tell them the facts as we may have learned them.  What I am suggesting here is not a cause-specific objection, as when we might not believe in the cause for which funds are being solicited.  I am not suggesting that we try to convince someone else to stop their fund-raising for ideological reasons.  But if we have cause for suspecting that the organization on behalf of which they are working is in any way shady, questionable, ineffective, or inefficient, I think we have an obligation to share that information and invite that person to investigate for him- or herself.  That, in my opinion, is what friends do.

Unfortunately, I know this is all easier said than done.  It is hard to look a friend or a relative (or a spouse, Lord help me!) in the eye and say “No.”  That said, while think I may have stopped my board from making a contribution to what looks like a questionable organization at best, I still need someone to talk to my wife…….

4 Responses to “The Giving Dilemma; Part 5”

  1. Tom Cook November 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    If you think I could help Bob I would be willing to talk to Elise.

  2. Nan Hanna-Paquin November 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    Uh oh. Now I’ve got to call my neighbor and ask her to have her daughter bring back my money for those cookies I bought!

  3. Debra November 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    This is powerful Bob and all too true; my concern is that these groups detract from the truly useful and effective nonprofits out there. Since Charity Navigator only carries insights and ratings for the top-tier nonprofits, in terms of revenues, where do you suggest individuals look for solid information, especially in light of the “giving season”? GuideStar? Although they might be listed there with 990 information, we still can’t assess effectiveness there. Thanks for the blog.

    • Dr. Bob November 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

      You raise an important point, Debra. Particularly for smaller charities, it is often difficult to find useful information. The one caveat I have about Guidestar is that it tends to offer primarily information that the charities themselves provide: there is no real independent assessment.

      That said, however, whether people go to Guidestar or simply go to a charity’s website themselves, they should look for information regarding something relating to the organization’s accomplishments and impact. A list of activities is far too little information to go on…particularly if all it says it “we support….” The donor has NO idea what that “support” means, or if it is resulting in any discernible improvement in the situation the charity claims to be addressing. I’d also counsel people not to give to any organization that does not make its annual report and/or 990 available on its website.

      The ironic thing about this is that few people would do business with an operation that seemed fly-by-night, would not offer any guarantee, or seemed cloaked in secrecy. Yet these same people often think nothing of donating to a charity that has these very characteristics. We’d all got to be smart donors…and checking out an organization asking for your money is the first step in that direction.

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