All my adult life I’ve been giving money to charitable organizations, the majority of them Quaker. I choose to donate in part because I did not have the time to do very much voluntary service, and in part because I feel very fortunate to have received a good education and to have entered a relatively well-paying profession. So I wanted to give something back.
Over the years, I’ve had doubts about some of the causes I’ve supported, on account of their activities and also their fundraising practices. One organization, for example, insisted on using professional solicitors to run a telemarketing campaign; the callers’ pushy tactics ultimately resulted in my decision to stop supporting the cause altogether. Another group refused to provide information about a grant it had received to carry out a campaign that was tangential to its purpose and inimical to causes I cherish. However, aside from these few bad experiences, I’ve found that most charitable organizations do work in accordance with their stated aims and (at least the ones I support) are reasonably effective and efficient.
My concerns about charities and rightly ordered charitable giving began to coalesce when I became part of my yearly meeting’s finance committee. Many yearly meetings devote a portion of their budget to the support of a number of Quaker organizations and occasionally other charities as well. Mine follows this practice, and I realized I had gave little thought to the process of discerning contribution amounts until I was faced with the task of assisting the committee in developing this part of the budget.
My yearly meeting has a portfolio of investments it makes in various kinds of good works. What kind of return, I asked myself, does a yearly meeting want on these investments? This question may sound like it’s coming from a very uncharitable point of view; after all, the point of charity is about giving and not expecting anything in return. But we do expect our contribution to do some good (i.e., effectiveness); if we are wise donors, we would give to the charities that do the most good with a particular amount of money (i.e., efficiency).
Questions that further complicate discernment consider relative contributions for different purposes and the total amount of money to donate—assuming we are not led to follow Jesus’s straightforward advice to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 KJV). I’ll focus the rest of this article on effectiveness and efficiency. There is very little information available to charitable donors on these two points alone.
My discernment discomfort became acute after our Quaker book club studied Robert D. Lupton’s 2011 book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). In it, Lupton criticizes “do gooder” service projects that intervene by doing either what a community does not need or what it ought to be assisted in doing for itself. As direct service is only a small part of the charitable universe, Lupton’s critique, while accurately portraying many service projects, is of limited value for assessing advocacy, educational, and cultural groups. Lupton also provides little practical advice about how to discern a good charity. But he indicted most direct service projects, including many that are well known.
It was not long before a more suitable book came to my attention. Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give critiques the entire charitable sector. His analysis suggests that most of the 1.1 million charities registered in the United States are no such thing, but are instead found to be a combination of tax-evasion efforts and get-rich-quick schemes that benefit the charity’s management. While Stern acknowledges that there are charitable organizations that actually serve needy or vulnerable people, he, like Lupton, criticizes their methods. Whereas Lupton is concerned with how charitable service organizations interact with the people served, Stern is concerned with how effectively charitable organizations do what they say they want to do, and whether they are even trying to learn if they are effective.
Sadly, Stern’s answer in most cases is “no.” Many organizations persist in doing the same thing year after year in spite of persuasive evidence that their activities have no—or even negative—impact. Stern singles out a number of children’s after-school programs, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, and abstinence-only family planning as egregious examples. He notes a disconnect between what motivates people to donate to programs (touching stories) and what might make programs worth supporting, efforts such as targeting the right problem, implementing interventions that work, and assessing results. As a consequence, the public face of many charitable organizations highlights anecdotes and testimonials about issues they address, rather than evidence of the amount of need, the level of program effort, and measured or estimated results related to number of dollars invested.
If a yearly meeting wants to be a good steward of the limited funds budgeted for supporting charitable work, it should determine that each organization it supports is a prudent investment. I figured that the Quaker organizations our yearly meeting donates to would be qualitatively different from the groups Stern describes. If this was the case, I hoped it would not be hard to find thoughtful evaluative information. So I decided to look for empirical evidence.
I focused on 12 organizations that received donations from the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting (SAYMA) during fiscal year 2013. From what I had read and also from my own experiences as a volunteer, I understood that assessing how well an organization does its work differs according to the kinds of activities it carries out. Based on what I knew of each organization’s activities, I categorized as follows:
- Cultural and artistic (e.g., symphonies and museums)
- Educational (e.g., colleges and universities; scholarship funds; publications)
- Social and health services
- Membership services (e.g., association of associations)
I used the classifications to identify resources for the main research. I looked at various Internet sites identified in Stern’s book to find indicators that can be used to rate a charity’s effectiveness and efficiency. In doing that research, I came across multiple references to transparency as an important criterion for judging charities, so I included that concept in my list of potential indicators. Several sources noted that evaluating direct service and advocacy organizations requires different questions and approaches, so I looked only for indicators that could be applied to all of the activity types listed above.
I reduced the list of indicators to four questions that I felt should be answerable for all charitable organizations doing one or more of the listed activities. Then, applying the notion of transparency, I attempted to see whether I could deduce the answers from each organization’s website.
- Are the organization’s purpose and goals set forth on the website?
- Is there a financial report available that shows program costs and non-program costs, allowing for an assessment of program costs and efficiency of operation?
- Why does the organization need donations? Is there information about the specific purposes for which the organization intends to use donated money?
- Are there reports on programs that include results and lessons learned? (Although this indicator might be most applicable to service and advocacy organizations, I feel that even educational and membership service groups should evaluate what they’ve done and give evidence of learning from their experience.)
In November 2013, I reviewed the content of each organization’s website to determine if these questions were answered, so I could assess their activities. I conducted my review unassisted. Others might have reached different conclusions. As one of the main purposes of the exercise was to determine whether a reasonable person could gather this information about Friends organizations from their websites rather than to definitely evaluate each, I hope readers will forgive this lack of methodologic rigor.
At least four organizations did advocacy work, and at least seven did direct service. Three were primarily educational, and three provided services to members. None did cultural activities. Several fell into multiple categories. The table at the bottom of this page presents the findings of the investigation into transparency of purpose, finances, and evaluation.
Nearly all of the organizations had some statement that could have been considered goal-related, but none had specific goals. Commonly, the organization’s mission or purpose was given. Two offered lists of activities. I found no information shared from which donors or the organization might know the extent of the issues it deals with, or whether it is making progress in addressing those issues.
Two organizations offered no explanation of how donations are used (although all provided a way of making a donation). In most cases, it could be implicitly understood that donations support one or more of the organization’s programs. One organization’s information for donors was little more than a fundraising tool. But one organization was highly specific in linking its programs to donated funds, giving potential donors a clear picture of what kinds of activities their donations would support.
Eight organizations provided some internal financial information on their websites. Some were more informative than others. Only one provided information on the costs of individual programs. Most provided high-level summaries, from which it might be possible to learn how much the organization receives from different sources, and how much it spends on major administrative categories such as program staff, administration, and fundraising. One offered an IRS Form 990 (a tax form used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and some political organizations), which is not very informative, and another had detailed budget information that was four years out of date.
There was little information on program results or lessons learned, which is not surprising given the paucity of specific goals. Many offered collections of anecdotes or claimed successes in one area or another without defining success. A lot of the material was old. Few presented evidence of systematic examination of their work; when they did, it was incidental and contained in other materials on the site.
Conclusion and comment
This research yielded evidence that Quaker charitable organizations are not qualitatively different from their peers as described in Stern’s book. If they are evaluating their work, they aren’t making the results readily known to donors through their websites.
Of course, there may be other ways they communicate with donors. Three possible methods are targeted mailings, personal contact (face-to-face or over the phone), and published reports about individuals who serve as volunteers in the organization or who represent meetings in them. In thinking about the communications I’ve received from Quaker groups, I have to doubt that mailings provide evaluative information very often, with the possible exception of Friends Journal’s communication during its recent near-death experience. Personal contact from Friends organizations often provides an opportunity for high-level dialogue about issues of concern (e.g., the priority-setting process conducted by Friends Committee on National Legislation [FCNL]), but does not ordinarily include the sharing of evaluative results or financial performance.
Some Friends who serve on boards or committees may receive specific information on goals, objectives, and achievements for individual programs within Quaker organizations. When I represented SAYMA at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Corporation meeting, corporation members did not hear much, if anything, about effectiveness and efficiency. Recently, SAYMA’s representatives reported extensively on AFSC’s reorganization and commented on the food at the gathering, but only described program work briefly with no information about results or efficiency. The Quaker Earthcare Witness representative had much to say about administration and activities in this year’s report, but nothing about budget or impact. From reading reports of representatives to other organizations, I suspect this situation is pervasive.
This apparent lack of full disclosure seems to be a symptom of what the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation identified as “the information gap in philanthropy” in a 2008 report (available for download at givingmarketplaces.org). The authors found that there was little meaningful data publicly available on the performances of charitable organizations. If donors like individual Friends and Quaker meetings don’t have access to this kind of basic information, how can they make sound decisions about their contributions?
Make no mistake: Friends charities do extremely valuable work, as personal experience and the devotion of thousands of Friendly volunteers testifies. Nevertheless, most donors to Quaker organizations lack the information necessary to make prudent decisions about giving.
What should Quaker charities do?
The words of George Fox in an altogether different context ring true here. Quaker charitable organizations should be “patterns and examples” to the nonprofit world. In particular, they should aim for the following:
- Set measurable goals and make the goals public
- Evaluate their programs and provide relevant results of evaluation in periodic reports made available on their websites
- Provide relevant program metrics tied to program level cost information
- Make concrete funding requests based on anticipated activities and projected results, not on anecdotes and vague appeals to emotion
- Report on successful and less-than-successful activities, describing lessons learned from each outcome and the changes anticipated as a result
- Ask donors to support the administrative work necessary to accomplish regular evaluation and reporting
AFSC won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their work during and after the two world wars to feed starving children and help Europe rebuild itself. The prestigious recognition would have been unlikely if AFSC hadn’t been able to marshal resources, master logistics, and deliver food and clothing to the people in need. I’d bet the organization also kept track of how much was delivered and how many people were served. Quaker organizations need to do this for today’s work.
What’s a Quaker donor to do?
Quaker donors are capable of influencing how Quaker charitable organizations do their work. They should insist that these organizations provide enough meaningful information so that they can decide how best to allocate their budget for charitable giving. This task should not be burdensome to organizations that are seriously committed to making the most impact with limited resources. If Quaker charitable organizations lack specific objectives, measures, and data systems for collecting and synthesizing performance information, they should build them, not just to placate inquisitive donors, but also to benefit from the attitude it engenders throughout the organization—one of learning built on continuous quality improvement. With sufficient and compelling data available to them, Quaker donors will likely want to increase their gifts.
To avoid driving the organizations crazy with dozens of requests for slightly different kinds of information, Quaker donors could consider creating a Friends charitable organization review service that would function as an “intermediary” as described in the Hewlett Foundation report. A small group of volunteers would review the reports each organization publishes and then provide an easy-reading comparative summary for individual Friends and meetings to use in making choices. Possibly, this group could be a service provided by a larger yearly meeting or by several working together. For examples of the kind of reports that might be helpful, go to givewell.org.
Yearly meeting representatives to wider Quaker organizations could make providing actual information about their organization’s effectiveness to their yearly meeting their principal responsibility. For the most part, yearly meeting representatives’ involvement in governance or operations is limited, and often pro forma. They generally attend at least one annual meeting, and sometimes participate in committee work. Representatives may well get the deep satisfaction of participating in meeting for worship with committed Friends from across the country (or around the world). But they generally do not bring back much of substance in their reports, as I know from having written and read them. Yearly meeting representatives should be able to explain to yearly meetings exactly what their contributions are supporting, and Quaker organizations should provide representatives with that information.
Individual Quaker donors should insist on more accountability, both directly through individual contributions and corporately through their monthly and yearly meetings. Although earmarking is anathema to professional fundraisers, it might require restricting contributions or bequests specifically for program evaluation and transparency to make change possible.
Friends, do we really know what our contributions are accomplishing in the world? How do we know we have made the best investment of charity dollars? How can we be sure we are doing good well?
Characteristics of Selected Quaker Charities (Deduced from Website Content)
|Organization||Goals||How donations are used||Financial reports||Reports on results/lessons learned|
|American Friends Service Committee afsc.org||Mission statement has very broad goals; only one program goal was listed (economic justice), found on the “Our work” tab without measurable objectives.||Implicitly (“Our work” lists issues, but does not describe programs.)||Yes, full financial statement, but impossible to track to program level||No, annual report (FY2012) is a collection of anecdotes including some claimed results.|
|Friends Committee on National Legislation fcnl.org||Beautifully stated, but broad and nonspecific||Implicitly (It’s hard to know how much money goes to support each program area.)||Yes, summary financial statement in annual report||“Recent Successes” section claims results and offers some quantitative information on level of effort with little substantiation and no systemic evaluation.|
|Friends General Conference fgcquaker.org||Major goals are in “Minute of Purpose” (some might be hard to evaluate). Stewardship page: “Committees set clear strategic goals. . . . We measure our outcomes and constantly seek to improve our performance.”||Annual report shows expenditures for major program areas||Yes, summary financial statement||Annual report does not mention evaluation, but does present selected process data (varies from year to year).|
|Friends for LGBTQ Concerns flgbtqc.quaker.org||Nonspecific goals found in a 1999 minute (“What is FLGBTQC?”).||Only stated use is the newsletter||No||No|
|Friends Publishing Corporation (Friends Journal) friendsjournal.org||A static goal is in the mission statement; no objectives or evaluation are noted.||Implicitly to support publication (see “true cost” subscription).||IRS 990 form, detailed enough to deduce costs||To some extent in Journal editorials, but not on website|
|Friends Peace Teams friendspeaceteams.org||Very general||Program supported||No||No|
|Friends World Committee for Consultation (Section of the Americas) fwccamericas.org||Mission only||Support meetings, technology, bilingual services, awareness||Financial statements and high-level program||No|
|Quaker Earthcare Witness quakerearthcare.org||Yes, but general (e.g., raise awareness via literature; witness through political action; and witness through service projects)||References “supporting programs”||No||No|
|Quaker House quakerhouse.org||No||Implicitly (supports military counseling and other programs)||No longer on website||Some writings by former executive director Chuck Fager (statements are old and not systematically related to program).|
|Right Sharing of World Resources rswr.org||General statement and activity areas only||“A little does a lot” page (seems to be a fundraising tool rather than actual information)||Recent IRS 990 form claims “silver GuideStar participation.”||Storyboard and list of programs; no evaluation noted; no “Impact” in Guidestar|
|Rural Southern Voice for Peace listeningproject.info||Activities, not goals||No||No||Testimonials; most undated (not current?)|
|William Penn House williampennhouse.org||Purpose stated, but seems to have broader work||No||Yes, in annual reports||Testimonials with little quantification|