Viewpoint: Did I Donate to a Bad Charity?

Greenwich, CT.  Have you ever felt that nagging question: Did I donate to a bad charity????

The short answer is probably not. This question came up because a good friend stopped by a Cambodian NGO fundraiser recently and left a check for $500. They were surprised not to see me at this fundraiser; they know I support many efforts in Cambodia. I do, but not this particular group because I doubt their legitimacy.


The question is not if they actually exist and do good work, the host has volunteered with them on site, rather the question is about the founders’ commitment to charity. Like many developing countries, Cambodia has a problem with charity as a ‘business.’ I don’t suggest the founders of that charity are driving around in a Rolls Royce; I mean that charities sometimes exist to be a business first and a charity second.

You may ask how would the average person know if an NGO is real if you have not been to country? Or, even more difficult, if you know someone who was there and insists it is real? The answer is to always ask for the background.

Just because it is real does not make it good. Questions to ask include ‘how do they spend their money’? Where do they get it? Asking whom partners with them can help determine if reputable groups are willing to work with them. If not, why?

Be prepared to learn that not everyone is Mother Theresa. Not everyone will give up all the comforts of a normal life when they enter non-profit work. They need a salary. They need job security. They need donors to understand that a portion of their donation will be used to pay talented people to run the foundation or project.

For a legitimate charity that portion should be 20% or less, ideally less than 15%.

Good questions are not always about money. Many other factors contribute to the legitimacy of an organization.

If it is a faith-based organization ask if they serve people who are not of their faith? If it is true charity the answer will be yes. Otherwise they might be more of a proselytizing mission than a charity. Must people participate in a religious ceremony, such as a mass, before they are given help?

If it is a school, do they include entire families in the education process? In non-literate societies it is very important to help parents understand the value of a full school career for their children. Does their education include vocational subjects? There will very likely not be an office job waiting for high school graduates from a developing country, even less likely they will get to one of the expensive colleges.

For any group good questions to ask relate to their sustainability. What do they do for gender equity? How are they ecologically conscious? Do they allow the larger community to participate? The answer should never be that they are too focused on their current mission to bother about unrelated issues. These things are inherently relevant in developing countries where nature is fragile; women are half of the population and community support determines the long-term success of any effort. Outsiders top-down efforts are not always the most appropriate and generally do not last.

The answers to these questions help you become an informed donor as well as determine the legitimacy of the effort. Is it a business or a faith-based mission rather than a charity? If so, do you want to support it? These organization have a role too and are contributing in the development effort, however your money may be better used if given to an organization with a stronger focus on pure charity.   Keep giving, just be smart about it.

By Susie de Rafelo.

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Susan De Rafelo
Susie De Rafelo is a humanitarian worker who divides her time between the US and overseas. She is the founder of S3 Works sustainability consulting and Hands In fair trade marketplace. Upon joining the non-profit world she earned a B.A. In development and an M.A. Humanitarian Services and has worked with groups in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

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