Got a call this week from a man who had money to give to Charlotte charities - perhaps $2,000 - but no confidence in whom to give it to. The places he knew best were now places that made the wrong kind of headlines. How, he asked, do you know whom to trust with your money?
Part of the shame of United Way's and DSS's management and spending issues is that they've removed the comfort many have had with giving. Before, people believed they could count on United Way, especially, to navigate Charlotte's needs and vet the agencies that served those needs.
Some find that same comfort still when they give to their churches, although nonprofit ministries also have been tainted by questions about spending. Some givers are left to investigate on their own, like our caller.
There are places to go for help. Web sites such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator provide profiles and data on the country's larger charities. The Better Business Bureau offers details on national and local agencies, including a report on the percentages of money used for overhead, program costs and fundraising.
Nonprofit observers say a good guideline for evaluating agencies is that they should spend at least three-quarters of their money on programs, with about 15 percent on salaries and other costs, plus about 10 percent on fundraising.
But, others argue, there are two problems with that rule of thumb: 1) sometimes, it takes good money to hire fine executives and personnel; and 2) agencies move money around to lessen the appearance of administrative costs.
One common accounting maneuver is to apply part of the director's salary to administrative costs and part to program management. Some might call that fudging the numbers. Some might say it's a precise representation of how work is done at an agency. The result, however, is that givers don't get a clear picture of where their dollars are going.
That puts a burden on you, the giver. Want to find out more about an agency? Go to the BBB for research and complaints. Talk to friends, colleagues, church members who might have had experience with the charity. Best yet, go to the agency, ask officials about their mission and how they get achieve it. Ask to see the nonprofit paperwork they turn in to the IRS. Their willingness to be transparent might be a clue.
With some legwork, you should get a good sense of what use will be made of your dollars, but yes, you ultimately will have to trust at least a little. Sadly these days, it's a lot more difficult to do.