Saints or Charlatans

How can you know which charities are the best? Many are trustworthy and provide a valuable service, but many others intentionally coerce you to give abundantly so that they can line their own pockets while providing indifferent services to the needy.

In America I use Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) to gauge the veracity of specific charities, it is an independent organization that evaluates 5,400 of America’s largest charities. A 4-star rating means that the charity is considered “exceptional,” whereas a 1-star rating reflects an overall evaluation of “poor.”

I supported an international charity for many years that provides support to needy children. I signed up and was assigned a specific child to sponsor, I received a picture of the child and some information (age, gender, family status, country, hobbies, etc), and then started sending monthly contributions. I received periodic updates about the services provided to my child (clothes, toys, medical care, etc.), and about once or twice a year I exchanged letters with the child.

Though it has been many years since I stopped supporting that charity, I still remember the name of my sponsored child: Maria Murmu, who lived in India.

I regularly wrote letters to Maria telling her a little about my life (within the guidelines specified by the charity), I acknowledged information she had shared with me in her letter, and I would ask her specific questions about her school, family, activities, etc. (again, all within the guidelines specified by the charity).

However, I always had this nagging feeling that she never received any of the letters I sent her. Her letters to me never referenced anything in my letters, and her letters were always written in a specific format, something like, “Hello Sponsor, I hope that this letter finds you well. School has been challenging this term, and here are some of the other things I have been doing: Playing with friends, obeying my mother, and helping out around the house. Thank you, Sponsor, for our generous support. Your loving child, Maria.”

Granted, that is an oversimplification, but not by much. The best thing about her letters was the crayon drawings she did in the margins, but even those did not vary much from year to year.

I sponsored Maria from the time she was 7 years old until she was well past 18. I received a new picture of her once each year, and I could at least see how her face matured over the years.

Then one day I received an unceremonious letter from the charity saying something like, “Sorry, but your sponsored child has now graduated from the program, and we have no further information about her. Would you like another child to sponsor?” It was not a warm and fuzzy feeling.

So I decided to investigate the charity to learn more about it, and I went online and found a few different charity evaluators. The result is that I discovered that the CEO`s annual salary was about $375,000, and if he had any perks his total compensation was undoubtedly north of $400K.

Now I’m not against making money, and I sincerely hope that God will entrust me with vast pools of resources, but I felt that the salary of that CEO was excessive …. And I stopped sponsoring children through that charity.

Maria Murmu is almost old enough to be a grandmother by now, and if you are out there Maria and see this blog article, please write and tell me about the last 18 years of your life. Meanwhile, I’d like to talk a little more about charities.

I met a volunteer here in Puerto Vallarta who is visiting a different orphanage than the one I am. He called my orphanage “For-profit” and his “Non-profit.” Based on his additional comments, I should consider transferring any additional time and money to his preferred orphanage.

I met a second volunteer who told me that she used to teach English to kids supported by an agency in town, but they kicked her out because they became jealous of her proficiency in English and resented the progress she made teaching the kids English. So she landed at my “For-profit” orphanage, and feels better about serving there.

At the end of my last visit, the business manager at my “For-profit” orphanage pulled out a laptop and showed me both a PowerPoint presentation and a flash demo which depicts their vision for the orphanage, but that they will need additional funding to achieve their vision.

A third volunteer told me that my “For-profit” orphanage is not really a true orphanage because few of the kids actually live there, it is more of a shelter for abused kids. But the term “orphanage” is used because it enhances fundraising. He also told me that he used to volunteer at a second charity I have been assisting this week, let’s just call it The School, but that he quit over ethical differences with The School.

I met the founder of The School, and he seemed like a real nice chap. I have no reason not to trust him, but he did make an interesting comment about the name of the charity. They intentionally gave the charity a name that includes a derogatory term because it “evokes” an emotional response.

So, how in the hell are you supposed to know who to support?

Here`s an idea, send your charitable dollars to me … I`ve given away more money than was given me to give away on this trip, and there have been absolutely no administrative expenses whatsoever. But then again, that`s a sorry way to operate a charity … when I get back to Utah, I am not going to have any staff, equipment, infrastructure, or endowment.

It’s all good.

This entry was posted in #nonprofit, #volunteer.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 11:22 AM #

    The charity ‘Raising Malawi’ (PR firm) founded by Madonna AND TWO OTHERS over three years ago held fund raisers for over two years before finally getting registered as a non-profit. In other words, Madonna and the others were free to squander the lion’s share of that funding any way they saw fit for those first two years. In fact, they still havn’t accounted for the 3.7 million raised from a single event in the fall of ’07’ (The opening of a Gucci flagship store in Manhattan.). She also pleaded with her fans worldwide for donations along the way. In the meantime, she toured the world to promote her latest CD and raked in another $280,000,000 gross in just over 12 months. To date, the basic financial info for ‘Rasing Malawi’ still hasn’t been posted on the website or anywhere else. The ‘progress’ page only tells of the collective works by over 20 seperate charities. Each of which have their own sources of funding and may have recieved some sort of promotion or support from ‘Raising Malawi’ in order to be considered ‘partners’. But no indication is made how much of their funding came from ‘Raising Malawi’ or how much of their progress if any could be directly attributed to ‘Raising Malawi’. The fans/donors have no clue how many millions of dollars were raised in that first two years, no clue how much Madonna herself chipped in, and no clue how the money was spent before they finally registered as a non-profit. No clue what fraction of funding or works listed on that ‘progress’ page could be directly attributed to ‘Raising Malawi’. Nothing to go on but the vague word of Madonna. The vague and very misleading word of Madonna. For example: She states in her latest promotional video that she will match any contributions made to her charity (PR firm) “dollar for dollar”. However, there is a disclaimer posted on the website for ‘Raising Malawi’ that Madonna’s total contribution will not exceed $100,000. Thats not per donation. Thats a maximum of $100,000 TOTAL. Less than a single days pay for Madonna. Also much less then she will surely rake in by promoting her own CDs, DVDs, and ‘for profit’ merchandise through this massive worldwide publicity stunt. So I called the office of ‘Raising Malawi’ in an attempt to verify some sort of efficient financial operation (310) 867-2881 or (888) 72-DONOR). These details are ALWAYS made available by legitimate charities to their potential donors. But not in this case. I got nothing but recorded messages and hangups. So I did some research on my own. ‘Rasing Malawi’ still hasn’t been given any kind of rating by ANY independent charity watchdog like Charitywatch.org. The vast overwhelming majority of ‘celebrity’ foundations never are. In general, they are inneficient and riddled with corruption. Like the promotion of CDs, world tours, commercial websites, entire lines of jewelry (not just the single piece from which proceeds are donated), and high end fashion retail flagship stores. Celebrity foundations are also notorious for squandering much of their funding on private jet rides and super high end accomodations for their managers, PR crews, and celebrity figure heads. Its legal even for a nonprofit but not noble or efficient by any stretch of the imagination. In general, ‘celebrity’ foundations are a twisted inefficient mutant of charity, self-promotion, exotic travel, and PR crap. Still, they compete for funding with more efficient legitimate charities who do more work with less money. The celebrity figure heads often disregard the primary donors, co-founders, and managers, take personal credit for any collective work done, and seek maximum publicity shortly before or after the release of their own commercial projects. Its a sham. So if its not rated, then don’t support it. Instead, support a top rated charity like any of those given high ratings at Charitywatch.org.

  2. Keith November 12, 2009 at 6:05 PM #

    Wow … thanks for sharing, Anonymous.

    I’ve always felt that celebrity charity fundraising is a lot of fluff … how hard is it to do something you love for a few hours (like play music)? And yet we focus on the amount of money raised, and we sing their praises for spending a litle of their precious time.

    I don’t fight it, though, because I would rather they do something than nothing.

    The unseen loving acts of the unseen will always be more powerful.