Pennsylvania Trust

Checking Out Charities

Checking Out Charities

Charitable giving tends to follow three separate lines of behavior. The first is to annually donate to the same, favorite charities you have supported for many years. The connections to theses charities may be rooted in family history, personal history or personal stewardship. The second might be a more flexible budget for additional requests, fundraisers, and the numerous walk and run sponsorships that arise from time to time. The third is an appeal that arrives, unexpectedly, in the mail, online, or from a friend, one that does precisely what it’s supposed to: engage just enough to avoid instant rejection.

There are any number of reasons why such a charity might command attention. It may be the compelling text, connection to a current event, a cause that is new, or one that resonates with some part of your personal past. There is a desire to know more. But what is the best, fastest, and easiest method to deal with this heretofore unknown organization?

When it comes to America’s 1.5 million tax deductible charities, the bigger the potential dollar or time commitment, the more the decision making can benefit from in-depth information. Fortunately, there are “best practices,” well-honed by professional grant makers, to delve into the mission, operations, finances and governance of the organization in question.

First: Read everything you’ve received very closely, especially the “fine print.” The art of solicitation relies more on emotion than intellect, but when encountering a charity for the first time you want clarity about its longevity, mission, programs, goals, budget, financials, who’s in charge and staff size, coverage area, and how it measures and evaluates success.

Second: Questions in hand, decide whether to seek answers online, by phoning or writing the organization, communicating directly with a board member or staffer you know, or using an independent charity evaluator such as the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance (, GuideStar(, or Charity Navigator( Don’t overlook two other local, knowledgeable sources: private foundation trustees and staff you know, or corporate giving staff where you work or invest.

Third: If this secondary screening isn’t sufficient to reveal all the wanted details, you can delve deeper through a “site visit” to the charity. Kicking the tires in person is always better before making any major decision in life and investing in a charity with your money or time is no different. Charities are gratified to be looked over in person by prospective donors. You learn what the written word can’t convey. They get a chance to ask you for non-monetary counsel. Besides, it can be an enjoyable experience.

by Bruce M. Brown
Mr. Brown is Senior Philanthropy Consultant at Pennsylvania Trust.