Thursday, December 20, 2007

Taking the Long Road

How do you say goodbye to a family you’ve never really met?

I guess you, like the old commercial goes, “just do it.”

And so I do.

Goodbye.

For the last three years, it has been my privilege to write this blog about the non-profit world. Today, however, I compose my last post.

Shortly after the New Year, I am leaving Charity Navigator, my happy home for the last 7 years, to become the Executive Director of the Eisner Foundation in Los Angeles. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me and my family and a chance for me to spread my wings and try something new, to see if I know as much about giving money away as I have claimed over the last few years. But I do not depart without great sadness at what I leave behind.

We launched this blog nearly three years ago, in an attempt to make the Charity Navigator website more “sticky”, with reliably-updated content to keep our users coming back more regularly. But somewhere along the line, this blog became so much more than that. It’s syndicated by Newstex and Blog Catalog. It’s been celebrated in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, on ESPN.com, and on CNN. It’s allowed me to report from Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, from the Las Vegas strip, the charities of Santa Barbara, and the halls of the IRS. It’s outraged the leadership of the Red Cross, PETA, and Locks of Love, among many others.

My first post was about Don Imus’s less-than-charitable activities, and that was long before the Rutgers debacle. I threw enough politicans, of all parties, under the bus that I’ve been accused of being both a “liberal idealist” and a “right-wing reactionary.” But all I sought was the truth on behalf of my readers, the donors who allow America’s charities to do the work our government once did. I shared many stories of good charities, good celebrities, and good families, and said goodbye forever to some extraordinary people. And of course, I condemned more than one person to a special place in hell.

Along the way, some of you have laughed with me, and others at me. I’ve been called everything from a “genius” and a “prophet” to a “moron” and a “sell-out.” (One thing I won't miss is the cowardice of anonymous blog posters and commenters.) But for all of you, I wrote as truthfully and as passionately as I could. And most of you, I will miss. I've had fun. And next time some non-profit leader does something stupid to dishonor the public trust, I'll miss having a place to call him out. But that's not my job anymore. Someone else will have to pick up the slack.

I’ll be at Charity Navigator a little while longer and I promise you that the organization won’t miss a beat when I depart. We have strong senior leadership, the best analysts in any sector, a committed and engaged board, the best users and supporters around, and a mission that is unimpeachable. We've launched a nationwide search for a new leader. While I may be moving on, Charity Navigator isn’t going anywhere. My proudest achievement here is that the organization I helped build no longer needs me. It’s humbling, but I couldn’t be prouder.

This blog, however, is calling it a day. My successor may or may not blog, but he or she certainly won’t do it at this address. This is where I offered up my “take” and in my last act, I’m taking it with me. I wish I could take all of you too, but here we part ways. For now.

Goodbye, family.

Thank you.

Charity Navigator Announces Trent Stamp's Resignation
Charity Navigator Job Opening: President

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Real Honorees

Day two of my three part plan to do things in this blog I've never done (tomorrow's the good day, come back then):

This is a picture of me receiving an award recently. It was a "lifetime achievement award" bestowed upon me by an important organization in New Jersey called the Five Sectors Alliance for my "contribution and impact as a public servant of New Jersey." It was a great honor.



It was also a mistake.

I'm the guy with the name on the door around here and I'm the guy who goes on TV and gets to receive the acclaim. But I'm not the guy who makes Charity Navigator go.

These are the people who make this organization what it is: Tim Gamory, Sandra Miniutti, Mike Smith, Leonie Giles, Matt Viola, Andrew Heck, Emily Navarro, Kateri Snyder, Farhana Arastu, and Vince Bogucki. In recent years, they've been aided by Rebecca Lucia, Cindy Yi, Jeff Stevens, and Aziza Musa. They are the underpaid, overworked employees of Charity Navigator.

They're the ones who have served this organization, and the people who rely on us, with passion and purpose, and they never get the chance to wear a tux and have their pictures taken. They do, however, have my respect and admiration. I hope they have yours too.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

All I Want Is...Water?

I'm going to do a few things I don't normally do in this blog over the next few days (for a reason that will soon become evident), and today I'm going to recommend a charity.

The charity is called "charity:" and the only thing wrong with it is its name. It's run by a man named Scott Harrison, who decided a few years ago to abandon his career as a high-profile event planner and see if he could put his considerable skills and connections to a better use. And right now, what he's doing is building wells in Africa. And he's doing it faster, better, and cheaper than anyone else. And he's doing it with great passion, intelligence, and dignity. It's one of the best groups I've ever seen. And quite frankly, in this job, I've seen a lot of groups.

So if you're looking for a way this holiday season to teach your kids about those who are less fortunate than they are (and by "less fortunate" I mean that they don't have clean drinking water, not a new Wii), visit Scott's site and buy a few bottles of water for your family and friends. All of the proceeds will go directly to giving the gift of life to those who weren't lucky enough to be born on a continent with clean drinking water. What could be better than that?

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Bucket of Fun

You know those movies that claim to be about 37 different people, but in the end, bring them all together around one common theme or motif? Today's blog takes that tact, but we're not going to make you guess what the common denominator is. The thing they all share is that universal symbol of the season, the Salvation Army collection bucket.

One red bucket, a million (or 5) stories to tell:
  • We start in good spirits with the anonymous Pennsylvania man who dropped $3000 in the bucket and just kept on walking.
  • We follow that up with another anonymous donor, this one in Vermont, who, for the second straight year, dropped a rare gold coin worth a couple thousand bucks in a bucket.
  • Feeling good still? I can put an end to that. Here's a story of a woman in Illinois who took her daughters down to a Wal-Mart so the girls could put the $8.26 they had scrounged up in a bucket. While the two girls were putting their money in the kettle, the mom left her sleeping 2-year-old in the car (no more than 30 feet away, according to the mom, and no one went in the store). Still, she was arrested for child endangerment and then handcuffed in front of her other kids. Ahh, the lessons we teach our children...
  • Still hopeful? Check out this story of a bell-ringer who got tired of standing out in the cold, so he abandoned his post. Shortly thereafter, a kind stranger stumbled by and stole the entire bucket.
  • And finally, I give you the woman who not only used her position as a bell ringer to shoplift from the store she was standing outside, but seems to have also been stealing cash right from the bucket. She denies the latter charge, arguing that the dollars she had on hand were actually "tips" given to her by those who also dropped a few coins off. What, you're not tipping your bell-ringers this holiday season? And I'm the Scrooge?

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Be the Ball, Danny

We told you earlier this year in our "Special Events Study" that for many charities, the golf tournaments, galas, and fun runs not only don't make any money, but in many cases, lose money. Sure, they have other benefits (PR, rewarding staff, introducing new donors to your group, etc.) but more often than not, these events are losers.

For those of you still skeptical, check out this story from the Chicago Tribune about one of the worst special events I've ever encountered. This particular charity golf tournament crashed and burned in a way even I was shocked by, but as a cautionary tale, let's look at what the event had going for it:
And in the end, all this got them was an event that lost a couple of hundred thousand bucks, some destroyed reputations, some ruined friendships, and a league of lawsuits. So before you decide to host a golf tournament, ask yourself if you have more to offer your donors than Lacey Underall and a good cause, not to mention the B-list celebs and the lieutenant governor. If the answer is no, why don't you just have a bake sale instead?

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This Message Brought to You by Ryan Mulvaney

A student at Cal State-Long Beach, Ryan Mulvaney, made this video for one of his classes. It's theoretically a commercial for Charity Navigator, but in reality it's a PSA advocating for providing hope for those who are less fortunate than you. Thanks Ryan for the free advertising campaign, but more importantly, for showing early in your career that you have big plans to make the world a better place.

Check it out. As Ryan says in his poignant piece, "it only takes 60 seconds."

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Take Takes Off

I'm taking a few days off holiday-style, and will be back Thursday. There are other ways you can read my thoughts of course, if you can get over your fear of the mainstream media. I'm in today's L.A. Times calling the Governator's use of a non-profit to fund his travel "perverse" and in the new Money Magazine advocating that financially healthy charities are more likely to effective. If you like Charity Navigator but don't want to hear me blather on, here are nice mentions of our service in the Wall Street Journal, Amy Dickinson's advice column, and the Motley Fool.

You're good to go. See you Thursday.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

The Rest of the Story

Closing a few loops, quick-hits style:

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New at the Nav

What's the latest at the organization that makes this blog possible, here in our busiest time of the year?
  • Over 350 new charity ratings;
  • A one-of-its-kind interactive world map, allowing you to identify high-performing charities working in every country on the planet;
  • Charity Navigator-offered "Good Cards" which operate exactly like the omnipresent gift cards sold by every store in the country, only these allow your recipient to give to any charity in the nation. (And you get to take the tax deduction).
  • Our Holiday Giving Guide, identifying the most (and least) efficient charities in every category, as well as holiday giving tips, a pretty interesting roundtable discussion with some industry leaders, and a list of the charities that every free-thinking citizen should run screaming from this holiday season.
Check it all out. It's free, it's fun, and it sure beats fighting the traffic at the mall.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Federal Undersight of Charities

According to this piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the IRS has taken the rare step of actually revoking a charity's tax-exempt status because the IRS "investigated" the group, the San Francisco Neighbors Resource Center (SFNRC), and found that the directors of the charity were engaged in illegal activities. The IRS investigation revealed that the group received a $500,000 grant from the state of California to build a community center, but never built the center, and instead used intermediaries to funnel the money into the election campaign funds of then-California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.

Sounds great, right? The IRS identifies a state charity doing bad things and swoops in from DC to close them down, protecting the good folks of California from corrupt local politicians abusing the system for their own personal and political gain.

Wrong.

The IRS revoked the SFNRC's non-profit status in early 2007 and made this decision public just last month. However, according to public court records, the state of California dissolved this charity in 2004 and Mr. Shelley was forced to resign in 2005! It took the IRS nearly three years from the date that California AG Bill Lockyer filed formal papers to dissolve the entire bogus charity and seize any assets not already illegally diverted to decide that maybe the group shouldn't be allowed to have a tax-exemption any more.

As always, my good friends, you're on your own.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Washing My Hands of Dirt at Red Cross

No more writing about the Red Cross this week. The whole thing just depresses me. My quotes in the New York Times are here and here. The Red Cross "subordinate" is identified here and here (it's worse, a lot worse, than just being his secretary). The impact this may have on donors is here. The important questions about transparency (mainly did Everson spend a dime of donor money on this?) are here. And potential replacements for Everson are here.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

How I Found Some Hidden Automobile Savings

There is no doubt; automobile insurance can take a bite out of your income. However, there are ways you can reduce your automobile insurance premiums.

If your automobiles are paid for, find out what the value of each automobile is. If it is an older model, its value may not be worth the cost of insurance. If that is the case, you can choose to carry only what the law requires. It varies from state to state so find out what your states requirements are.

Start comparison shopping. It is easy to shop for automobile insurance today by using the web. Learn what your options are with various companies and the amount each insurance company charges for individual features. Depending on the amount of each feature you may choose to omit some optional items from your insurance policy or raise your deductibles.

The more types of insurance you carry such as homeowners, medical, life, and other policies the better price you may be able to get. Request auto insurance quotes for automobile insurance only and one with multiple kinds of insurance you carry. You may be surprised at how much money you can save by having all your insurance with one company. Insurance is a highly competitive business littered with insurance companies that have to compete with each other to stay in business.

It is imperative to keep your driving record clean. You will find that the time you save doing an extra ten miles per hour is not worth what you will pay out in cash. The more you have against you on your driving record the more expensive your auto insurance rates and quotes will be. You can only get the lowest insurance rates if you show responsibility by keeping your record clear of infractions.

Pay your insurance premiums on time. Not only does it reflect well on your financial records, but can indicate to an insurance company that you are a conscientious person. Insurance companies like that in a consumer. If you are responsible enough to have good financial records, it can also indicate that you are a responsible driver.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Red Cross Debacle--Day Two

I'll be on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on CNN tonight to follow-up my comments in today's New York Times about Mark Everson's unfortunate doings and its impact on the Red Cross.

One interesting aspect of Everson's sudden ouster from the organization (and one thankfully that doesn't force us to talk about what he did or with whom) is how this will impact the upper ranks of the Red Cross. You may remember that when Everson came in, he brought a ton of his own people with him, including the man who succeeded him at the IRS. This was not unexpected, as most political types like to surround themselves with confidantes and trusted allies, but the influx of former IRS bureaucrats into the fragile halls of the Red Cross was something I worried about at the time, and wondered how it would play inside the organization and especially among those who had been there for a long time.

Now, with Everson forced out, and members of the organization repulsed by what he did to the organization they love (and believe me, they're repulsed by Everson right now), you have to wonder if any of Everson's cronies will survive his departure. It's possible that, to preserve morale and wash their hands of this ugly situation, the Red Cross may have to buy the former IRS folks out if they don't leave of their own accord, and it seems likely that the Red Cross will need not just one new Chief Executive, but to replace 4 or 5 people at the top of the org. chart.

I have in the past put my professional reputation, whatever that's worth, on-the-line to argue that the Red Cross is a pretty good organization doing damn important work. And it appears, in the wake of the California wildfires, that they're learning from past mistakes and getting better at what they do.

But with Everson's behavior, and subsequent departure, morale among staff and volunteers will suffer. Contributions will lag. Public confidence will plummet. And as a result, the Red Cross will be less equipped moving forward to do what they are chartered by Congress to do--to serve as America's first responder. And all because one married man with children couldn't, well, you know what he couldn't do.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Another Red Cross Debacle

In July of this year, the newly-hired CEO of the Red Cross, Mark Everson, sat down with me and told me that he was "well-suited for the job." Sadly, today we find out that was untrue.

According to the Associated Press, Everson has been forced out after less than 1/2 a year on the job because of "an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate." Ironically, one of the reasons Everson agreed to meet with me in July was because I was highly critical of his selection of a former IRS employee (where Everson had been Commissioner) as the new ombudsperson of the Red Cross and he wanted to set the record straight about his integrity and the way he would run the Red Cross.

This is another black-eye for an organization America needs to be great. And yes, this makes at least 4 ARC presidents who have been forced out in the last 6 years.

This is a sad day for Mark Everson, but he has no one to blame but himself. This is a sad day for the Red Cross, but it is clear they made yet another mistake in their CEO selection. What's worst of all is that this is a sad day for those of us who care about charities, and want public trust in them to be high. We didn't do anything to deserve this.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

No Left-Overs If You Start with Nothing

I must have missed this story last week while I was stuffing my face full of turkey, but the Associated Press is reporting that food banks nationwide are being forced to cut back on the portions they're allocating to the hungry, due to overwhelming demand. The situation is created by rising costs of food, housing, utilities, health care and gasoline, coupled with corporate and government cutbacks in providing food and assistance. In this season of excess, it's easy for us lucky ones to forget how hard many people have it. The USDA is estimating that somewhere around 40 million Americans will go hungry this year.

Click here to read Charity Navigator's Holiday Giving Guide, to find out how you can best make a charitable gift this holiday season. If you use your heart and your head this year, maybe we can all take a few positive steps to see if we can find a way to ensure that supply of food meets the demand.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Give, I'll Take

The Take is on an extended turkey break, resting up to return with great vigor and passion next week. I will, however, kick off the official giving season (50% of all charitable giving by individuals and families is done between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve) by appearing on Jean Chatzky's radio show on XM's Oprah and Friends station on Thursday.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

First Ballot Inductees

At Charity Navigator, we do what we do because we believe, from our board chair to our newest employee, that we can make the world a better place through our work. Not everyone agrees with our philosophy, our metrics, our approach, or our methodology. And some of you have let us know that. But we get up every day, and we do the best we can to give donors unbiased information they can use to make informed giving decisions, and then we come back the next day.

And when someone undoubtedly smarter than us stands up and tells us that they appreciate our efforts, I'll be damned if I'm not going to take a minute to thank them, and to salute the people who work with me for a job well done.

If you click here, and then click on the slide show labeled "Philanthropy Hall of Fame," you'll find the following message from America's #1 weekly business magazine: "To mark the fifth year BusinessWeek has compiled an annual ranking of top philanthropists, we have put together a Philanthropy Hall of Fame comprising standout individuals and campaigns that revolutionized the process of giving through their unique contributions and personal commitments to important causes. This following list is completely subjective. It is not based on who donated the most money, though many candidates have contributed substantial amounts to their respective charities. Rather, these are individuals, organizations, and campaigns that have changed the way we engage in philanthropy."

Charity Navigator is #23 on the list. It's heady company, as we come right after Ted Turner, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, and it's heady praise, as they argue that we have changed the way people engage in philanthropy. Thanks for noticing, BusinessWeek. And more importantly, to the people who do the work at Charity Navigator and those of you out there who utilize it to be better philanthropists, thank you. We proudly accept induction to this Hall of Fame.

(For more BusinessWeek coverage of our work, click here.)

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

I had a great opportunity this week to meet with John Wood, the charismatic leader of the wonderful charity Room to Read, which provides libraries, schools, and scholarships to children in the developing world, primarily in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. John is a rock star in the non-profit world, known for leaving his management position at Microsoft to start the group after backpacking through Nepal and seeing the shocking lack of resources that the children had available to them. His charity is world-recognized for its great works, and John's book about his journeys was a huge success.

John told me a fabulous story that illuminates what can happen when good donors have access to information and are able to identify excellent charities. It also shows how good parents can teach their children to be philanthropic.

John said that he was at an event a while ago when a woman came up to him. She said she had two kids and the kids had come home from school and asked for $10 each to support a charity they'd heard about at school that was working internationally to provide books for children in poverty. She said that was fine, but she wanted the kids to learn more about the charity and the work it did before blindly committing her money, so they went to the computer and used Charity Navigator to look up the group. It turned out to have a 2-star rating. The mom told the kids that she would give them $10 each to give to that charity, or if they could find a 4-star that did similar work, she'd give them $100 each to donate. The kids took her up on it, and they found Room to Read. She happily gave the children the money and they made a donation to John Wood's charity.

As she was telling this story to John, he became very excited, knowing that, yes, his groups' efficiencies and fine fiscal stewardship had paid off, but more importantly that those kids would now be lifetime givers committed to supporting quality charities like Room to Read. And then the lady told John something to the effect of, "if it was good enough for my children, it is good enough for me," and she gave John another check, this one from her and her husband.

That check was for $100,000.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

To Protect and Serve

Today's tip of the hat goes to the Middletown (New York) Police Benevolent Association, which has decided to abandon its telemarketing campaign and switch to a mail solicitation to generate funds for its scholarship program. These are the cops in my community, and I'm proud of them. They recognized that their previous practice of hiring a professional telemarketing firm, while it generated a decent amount of contributions from a good and appreciative community, was costly, unnecessary, and stupid, and was contributing to ill will between the generous citizens they serve and the local cops. Officer Mike Canonico explained the switch away from the professional telemarketing firm thusly: "We want the public to know our appeal is legit."

Money quote from the story: "The PBA decided to change its way of getting funds largely because people dislike phone solicitations, especially when they learn the persistent callers are not local and the company they represent is getting 80 percent of the money raised. Canonico said the telemarketers raised $90,000 last year, but the PBA got only $17,000."

So far, the cops have only raised $18,000, but subtracting expenses for the mail campaign, they've netted$16,000, or basically what they made last year in total, even though donors who received the phone calls last year coughed up five times what they've donated this time. I have no doubt that as the campaign continues and the end of year approaches, more people will see the value of the mailers and support the work of the cops. In the long run, the cops will clear a lot more than they did last year using the professional telemarketers.

The cops win. The kids they aim to help win. Donors win.

The only loser is the telemarketing firm. I can live with that. Nice work, officers.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All Hat, No Cattle

For those of you who think Senator Chuck Grassley has overstepped his bounds by investigating mega-churches for excessive compensation, rather than relying on the IRS to do the work, I offer up this piece of exculpatory evidence for the Senator's defense.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the IRS is warning charities that they may soon take new steps to identify inefficient and ineffective charities. Steven T. Miller, the commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government-entities division, told a group of foundation officials and donors that the IRS is also considering pursuing legislation to require charities to make minimum annual pay-outs, reducing the non-profits' ability to hoard their funding.

Regular readers of this blog of course know that I would support such measures. But I question how Mr. Miller could make such comments with a straight face. Does he actually expect anyone to take him seriously? This is the same IRS that recently ran crying and screaming from their original plans to ask charities to compute their program and overhead expense ratios on the new 990, and explain what percentage of their total budget went to CEO salaries, because according to Ronald J. Schultz, a senior technical adviser for the IRS’s tax-exempt division, “we were implicitly making statements about what was important. That’s not the kind of message we want to be sending.

They weren't comfortable requiring charities to write down on an informational tax document what percentage of their budget went to programs, because that was being too judgmental, but a month later, they expect us now to believe that the IRS is about ready to start "taking steps to ensure groups are effective and efficient?"

Talk is cheap. And all the IRS is doing here is talking.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Separation of Truth and State

If you read this piece by the Associated Press and some of the comments therein, you might think that jack-booted anti-religious thugs from our federal government were unfairly terrorizing churches nationwide, investigating their daily activities and making unreasonable and burdensome requests for personal, private donor data. But if you thought that, you thought wrong.

What happened was that the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, launched an "investigation" last week of six evangelical mega-churches by requesting information about "compensation, board oversight and perks -- from luxury oceanside homes to flights on private jets to opulent spending on office furniture." If what Grassley suspects is true (no way for us at Charity Navigator, or you at home, to know--these groups are of course exempt from filing ANY financial documents with any authorities--state or federal), it would seem that these salaries and benefits would not be, as the IRS requires, "reasonable." IRS rules theoretically (again, no way for anyone to know what's going on inside these groups--despite the fact that we as taxpayers subsidize their activities) prevent pastors and other insiders from excessive personal gain through their tax-exempt work. The six ministries in the inquiry are Pentecostal groups that have television presences and preach a ''prosperity gospel'' message, in which the faithful are supposed to receive great material rewards.

Three thoughts:
  • Non-profit religious groups are supposedly "policed" by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. I have no problems at all with ECFA, but membership in their group is completely voluntary. None of the groups questioned by Grassley belong (and based on the amount of donations they must be receiving, this refusal to participate has not affected them adversely with donors). The ECFA's principles for governance are the religious equivalent of the new ones recommended by the Independent Sector. While those that adopt them are demonstrating to their donors that they have an interest in playing by the rules, they're worthless for most of us if there are no financial or regulatory repercussions to those that ignore them. Self-regulation is cute, but this case shows that the only way to definitively rein in the outlaws, in a situation void of true market forces, is through external regulation.
  • How non-accountable are churches, big and small, not just to their individual donors, but to the taxpayer populace as a whole? Senator Grassley's "investigation" consists of him faxing a letter to the mega-churches in question, asking them some questions about how much they pay their leadership, and what kinds of benefits they receive. And what happens if they don't answer his questions truthfully and transparently? Nothing. In fact, they are under NO legal obligation to answer his questions at all. You heard that right. The ranking Republican on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over non-profits in this country can ask these non-profits questions until he is blue in the face and they are under NO legal obligation to answer these questions, ever.
  • Anyone else troubled not just by the double standard here, but by the hypocrisy of those who say that Grassley is unfairly singling the religious groups out, demanding that they play by different rules, when in reality they're the only ones not playing by the rules? Why should these particular non-profits, which pay no income or property taxes because they are serving the public as a whole, be allowed to pay their leaders salaries which are not "reasonable" and furnish them with "opulent seaside homes," while maintaining total secrecy over their finances, just because they're religious in mission and nature, while at the same time, we demand that every other non-religious group in this nation open their books to anyone who asks? I like my separation between church and state as much as the next guy, but how is this even rational, let alone defensible? The seven-figure compensation package of Benny Hinn is private, even though he's running a non-profit approved by the IRS, to whom every donation to is fully tax-deductible, while the lady who runs my local rape crisis center has her $70,000 salary published on the internet by someone like Charity Navigator?
Please don't read this as some sort of anti-religious rant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It's just an issue of common rules and common sense. If these groups are going to take the benefits from our federal government of being non-profits (and the benefits are immense), shouldn't they have to bear a few of the costs?

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Blogging Our Lives Away

I have been attending the Blog World Expo, the largest blogging conference ever (yes, I'm in Las Vegas--I know, I know, my life is not awful), and while I'm not exactly the "live-blogging" type, that was my intention. However a computer glitch at my end made that impossible and I was unable to share any of the sessions with you in real-time as I wished. However, for those you in the non-profit sector interested in learning a bit more about this vital medium, I thought I'd share just a bit of the wisdom I gathered from much more successful bloggers than I. The rest, I'm keeping proprietary, as I attempt to use it to turn the Take into the next big thing.

From a variety of speakers, here are some of the ways to get your blog noticed.

1. Name your blog "Ask a ____." Supposedly people come to the web for two main reasons: To be entertained, and to have a problem solved. If you can solve their problems, they'll keep coming back. So go with "Ask a Lawyer," "Ask the Crafts Expert," or even "Ask the Charity Guy." (Hmm...)

2. Use video. This was the most common tip offered up by the experts. With Google buying YouTube, video is now king. Do whatever you can to get original videos--no longer than 3 minutes--up on your site.

3. Be political. Apparently, from here until the 2008 elections, political blogs will be king. If you can offer a fresh take on the candidates and the process, there's traffic out there for you.

From Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, his two keys to making your blog successful: Be unique, and love what you're doing.

His keys for attracting visitors? Have fantastic, passionate content, and spend some time commenting on other similarly-themed blogs.

From Newstex President Larry Schwartz, his keys to getting your blog syndicated:

1. Frequency matters--You must post often.
2. Longer posts are better--600 to 700 words a post are best.
3. Stay on topic--If you write a charity blog for instance, don't write about your kids or your favorite recipes.
4. Stay non-exclusive in your syndication agreements--More is better.
5. Use a summary RSS feed--It makes readers come to your site to get the full content.
6. Use video!

Also from Larry, here are the 10 most likely subject areas from which to get your blog syndicated (Special note here, EVERYONE noted that if you want to get your blog read--or at least looked at--the best way to do that is to show pictures of cheerleaders wearing little or nothing, but if you want to be legit, or have your stuff read in libraries, schools, and corporations, these are the topics of most interest):

1. Political
2. Financial
3. Tech
4. City Life
5. Media
6. Law
7. Health
8. Video Games
9. Automotive
10. Entertainment

And yes, I of course noticed that "charities and non-profits" wasn't on the list. That just means that those of us in the sector have less competition!

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Gateway to a Fraud

In our 2007 Holiday Giving Guide, we highlight 10 of the worst non-profits in the country. If anyone on your giving list asks that you make a donation in their name to one of these groups, cross that person off your list. Life is too short to hang out with people who are clueless.

For space constraints, we of course only cite a few of the low-lights for each group. But if you want to read more about how criminal one of these groups is (and in this particular case, I actually use the word "criminal" literally), please check out this story in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Gateway to a Cure and its founder Lou Sengheiser. Sengheiser is a bad dude, and it looks like he's headed for prison.

On a personal note, I think it's important to point out that Gateway's unraveling is a direct by-product of the investigative reporting of Bill Smith, a great reporter for the Post-Dispatch. Bill knew something stunk with Sengheiser's group, and he kept pulling and pulling, like only a good reporter can and will. The result is this story, a bad group going under, and donors in St. Louis being a lot safer from predatory charitable scams. Sadly, for those donors and those who care about identifying charities that don't deserve the public trust, Bill retired a few weeks ago. I know I'll miss him. Safe to say that Lou Sengheiser won't.

(UPDATE--11/9/07--Gateway to a Cure founder Lou Sengheiser apparently took his own life yesterday, while the jury was deliberating on his federal criminal charges. )

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Shameless Self-Promotion

I'm on the road today but not too far away to notice a couple of honors for the organization I'm proud to work for. For those of you who hate it when I point out some of the positive acclaim we receive, leave now and come back later today for another post; right now I'm going to brag a little bit.

First, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine has named Charity Navigator as one of the "25 Best Websites in America." We're obviously very proud of this honor, as one of our main goals as an organization is to get people to take their philanthropy as seriously as they take their investing.

And secondly, the Five Sector Alliance has named me as one of their 2007 lifetime achievement winners for my "impact on society."(Click on 2007 Five Sector Gala to learn more) Now, my impact on society is minimal without Charity Navigator, so this award is obviously for us, and I'm proud to accept it on behalf of the good folks at Charity Navigator.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

A Veterans Group That Must Hate Veterans

The Pittsburgh Channel has the story of an investigative report by Channel 4 in that city about a charity (in name only) that is calling Pennsylvania donors, collecting tons of money, and spending mere pennies on the dollar on their charitable cause. The charity is Paralyzed Veterans of America, their fundraiser is Civic Development Group (unfortunately, of my state, New Jersey), and the story is sickening but all too common. The group has raised well in excess of $5 million, and spent at least 85% of that on telemarketing fees.

The reporter from Channel 4 in Pittsburgh asked Joseph Dornbock, the director of the "charity" if donors should be concerned, saying "they probably think that donation, most of that money is going to be used by the paralyzed veterans, and it's really not, isn't it?"

Replied Dornbock: "It's a common misperception that there should be an overwhelming amount of every $1. There are expenses along the way."

A "common misperception" that if you donate money to paralyzed veterans, that most of the money should get to, well, paralyzed veterans?

No. The only misperceptions here are that many donors still think that everyone in the charity world is out to help others, and that I thought I'd seen the depths that human beings could sink to in their quests to line their own pockets at the expense of good donors and needy recipients.

Please don't give to these telemarketing groups, especially those that purport to represent our veterans. 99 times out of 100, they're bogus telemarketers, representing only themselves, and they know that the nation is filled with sympathetic but unsuspecting donors who would never dream that the person on the other end of the telephone line isn't really as honorable or patriotic as the people they claim to be fundraising for (or from).

To find a reputable group helping our veterans, click here to learn more.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Kim is Kool

In the parlance of the advertising world, Kim Komando and her recommended sites "move the needle." And therefore, we at Charity Navigator are honored to be today's "Cool Site of the Day" for Sunday, November 4, 2007.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Holiday Giving Time

Now that Halloween is over, we can start focusing our attention on holiday giving. I'm of course not referring to the presents you buy your friends and family, but the charitable gifts most of you will make to benefit others. In fact, if you care enough about charities and philanthropy to read my blog, you probably know that 50% of all charitable giving by individuals and families is done between Thanksgiving day and New Year's. It's the time of the year when you feel the most altruistic, it's the end of the year so you have some idea of what will be left in the family budget and therefore can be donated with good conscience, and of course, it's when you need to make your charitable gifts to ensure you get the full tax deduction in this calendar year.

Here at Charity Navigator, we'll do all we can to make sure your charitable giving goes as well as all of your other holiday plans (if not better), and the first thing we want to do is unveil our 2007 Holiday Giving Guide. Here you'll find our giving tips for this year (in both written and video form), a roundtable discussion at which we asked some tough questions of some of the industry's most successful fundraisers, a list of the 10 charities no one in their right mind should ever give to, some holiday giving facts, and our highest and lowest-rated charities in each cause we cover. I hope you'll find the guide useful in identifying good charities to support this holiday season. When it comes to finding just the right present for your mom, however, I'm afraid you're on your own.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Maybe Women Are Just Better Fundraisers

According to the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, 27,000 American men will lose their lives to prostate cancer in 2007. Meanwhile, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation claims that around 40,000 American women will die from breast cancer this year. So the diseases are relatively similar in the devastation they create.

And yet, when I checked the IRS database for charities that have missions related to breast cancer, I found 1523 such groups and only 230 that were related to prostate cancer. I know this is not surprising to most of you, and the reasons for it are many. In the world of fundraising, breast cancer research and advocacy is a compelling and even sexy sell, while few men, even those with prostate cancer, like talking much about that subject.

As anyone with a pulse can tell you, we just finished up Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you turned on your TV, read your paper, or even dared to step outside, I'm sure that you are "aware" of breast cancer by now. The "Pinking of America" is now complete. We've been inundated with pink cars, pink food, and pink clothes, and if you were somehow able to spend the entire month without sponsoring a participant or competing yourself in a fun run or walk for a breast cancer group, well, you're definitely in the minority.

Now contrast that with those fighting prostate cancer. September was apparently National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month (must have missed that one in the back-to-school excitement) and now November brings the "largest one-time event designed to bring awareness and funding to this important cause." What is this event, those of you not in the know might be asking? Why, it's "Movember" of course.

"Movember?" Yes, this is apparently a worldwide fundraising effort, in which men grow mustaches during the entire month of November, in return for donors making pledges to the Prostate Cancer Foundation. (The name comes from combining the Australian slang word for mustache--"mo"--with the month in which it is held--November). Given the lack of mustaches you see in corporate board rooms, the national media, elected office, Hollywood, and even the upper echelons of non-profit management ranks in this country, I am not optimistic about the success of Movember. In 2007, we're just not a country of mustache-wearers, and I'm sure very few men will be willing to buck that trend and grow a mustache for fighting prostate cancer, no matter how compelling and universal that cause may be. Given no other option for showing their support, men will keep their upper lips clean, and their money in their pockets.

Prostate cancer fundraising will continue to take a back seat to breast cancer, and while some of it can be attributed to men's insecurities about talking about their bodies, some of it will simply be because of the lameness of the campaigns. Maybe the breast cancer advocates could give a few ideas to the prostate cancer folks. Even if they used up all of their good ones during October, the ones that are left over can't be any worse than Movember.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

We're All to Blame for this Travesty

Want to know how best to NOT solve a problem? Simple. Wait for someone else to take care of it. Here's Exhibit A in why people in poverty in this country shouldn't expect those with the power and funding to help them anytime soon.

From the September 25, 2007 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, we find out that U.S. lawmakers recently held hearings to announce that foundations need to do a better job of giving funding to people living below the poverty line, especially minorities and those living in rural communities. Some members of Congress even advocated changing the tax code so that only donations to groups that serve the poor were fully tax-deductible. According to our elected leaders, our poor are not being served by foundations and high-end donors who have abandoned them for other causes.

Conversely, large foundations are aligning together to create a special initiative designed to get political leaders, especially those running for president in 2008, "to give priority to issues related to poverty and hunger." The large foundations apparently believe that our poor are not being served by our elected officials, and therefore our taxpayers.

Who's right? They both are, of course. In the last few decades, our elected officials, our foundations, our high-end donors, and the taxpayer populace have all expressed that they'd rather have their funding go somewhere else than aiding those who toil in poverty. And of course, the only way that ever changes is when someone decides to take the lead and fix the problem, rather than pointing an accusatory finger at others. After all, someone once said problems of this size and scope "take a village" to solve.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mister, Can You Spare a Taco?

I rarely promote anyone in this blog, and I never get to use the word "taco", so today is special for me. If you watched the World Series, you are painfully aware of the fact that, because a Boston Red Sox player stole a base in one of the games, everyone in the country is entitled to a free taco today from Taco Bell. It was a brilliant marketing gimmick, of course, but I'm even more impressed by these guys. They are trying to convince Taco Bell to donate the cash they could conceivably have spent on free tacos, for all the people who have a legal claim to said taco but will of course not go down to a fast food restaurant to wait in line for a 69 cent food product, to victims of the California wildfires.

This is a very clever idea, destined I suspect to fail, but clever nonetheless. (To be fair, it's also short on specifics, and doesn't identify a particular charity on the back-end to be the recipient of the donated taco goodness, but I'm willing to let that go this time. If Taco Bell really does take them up on their offer, Charity Navigator would be happy to identify a quality group to receive the foregone taco largesse, for free). Go here to "donate" your free taco to those who don't need a taco either, but could use some help. Or if you just want to skip the whole taco thing, and make a donation to a legitimate group aiding the fire victims, click here.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

As Dan Rather Said,

"Courage."

I spend too much time in this blog blasting non-profits and their leaders for being unwilling to take a stand for the things they believe in. Today, I want to single out three exceptions. These are people and charities that I may not necessarily agree with, but I respect for being willing to stand up and be courageous in their actions and words.

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