Philanthropy Impact

Inspiring philanthropy and social investment across borders, sectors and causes

Red flags when choosing an effective charity

Red flags when choosing an effective charity

Expert opinion

Making a donation to a charity is an act of trust. Perhaps you care about protecting wild gorillas. You understand that you’re not in a position to quit your job, move to the jungle and learn everything there is to know about species conservation. So you depend on an established charity to do the critical work while you help fund it.

But how do you choose among the many charities dedicated to the issue you care about? And importantly, how do you avoid the ones that—for whatever reason-- just aren’t as effective as they could be?

Evaluating charities can be overwhelming and the truth is that the jury is still out on how to do it perfectly. But there are some red flags you can watch for.

When it comes to evaluating a charity’s impact, here are some things to watch for:

  1. Do they have a theory of change? How are they going to put themselves out of business? This is perhaps the most important question to ask a charity when you’re evaluating its effectiveness. A charity working on an issue should know exactly how it is attacking the problem, the impact it expects to have and how the situation will change as a result of its actions. Ideally, it should also know how it as an organisation will change (or even cease to exist) if the issue is solved or evolves.

An article by the Bridgespan Group, an organisation that works with charities to create their theories of change, offers helpful guidelines on what a theory of change should and shouldn’t do. Good research, a real sense of what is possible and measurable milestones are all key to a theory of change that can move a charity forward on its chosen issue.

For an easy-to-follow visual example of a theory of change, check out C and A Foundation, which works on sustainability in the fashion industry.

  1. Are they trying to do it all? Change is hard, and most issues require a variety of approaches to really move the needle. But this doesn’t mean that every charity has the resources to do it all. The more effective organisations specialise in one area and coordinate with others to attack a problem from all sides. Be wary of organisations that are working on multiple issues or approaches–they may be spread too thin.
  2. Do a gut check on their advertised results–do they make sense? Some charities talk a lot about things like “people reached” or “lives changed.” These are really vague claims that deserve your scrutiny.

For example, if an international relief charity says that it “reached” 1 million people last year, you’d do well to ask them what that means. Does it mean the charity handed out bottles of water and blankets to 1 million people following natural disasters? Or does it mean they worked with each one of those individuals over a period of time to help them rebuild their lives? There is a big difference in these two activities and you deserve to know which one they’re talking about.

By doing a bit of research and asking thoughtful questions of a charity you’re trusting with your gift, you can not only become a more strategic giver. You also get the benefit of building a more trusting, lasting relationship with the charity. And that’s good for you, the charity and the gorillas.

This expert opinion is tagged under:

  • Philanthropy Advice
  • Philanthropy stats & trends
  • Promoting philanthropy
  • Strategy advice
  • Understanding philanthropy